Social Work: On Three Half-forgotten Women

August 28, 2012

    “ALL WE KNOW” is the phrase Esther Murphy habitually used before launching into one of her impromptu lectures on American and European history. In response to a question, however obscure, Lisa Cohen writes in her meticulously researched and compulsively readable experiment in joint biography, All We Know: Three Lives,

    she would lean back, take several staccato puffs on her cigarette, say: “All we know is” — and then launch into a long disquisition on the subject.

    All we know. The phrase announces the partial, human quality of that knowledge — collective and individual — and the encyclopedic discourse that would follow. It is at once “everything we know” and “the very little we know,” a declaration of comprehensiveness and incompletion.

    Murphy is the subject of one of three portraits in Cohen’s seductive, brilliant new book, which also treats the fan and collector Mercedes de Acosta and the fashion editor Madge Garland. Murphy, De Acosta, and Garland are canny choices as the subject of a group biography: all three were ambitious, idiosyncratic, larger-than-life women who were celebrated in their time but are now mostly forgotten. Cohen makes the case that these figures are more significant for us today because of their odd, marginal status and that their work is all the more important for being ephemeral and just out-of-reach. Narrating this story from the perspective of a prolix talker, a fan, and a tastemaker offers a novel and productively askew perspective on a moment and a milieu — the circles of well-to-do Anglo-American bohemians in the interwar and postwar period — that can feel overly familiar.

    In addition to their professional accomplishments, these women were what would be known today as connectors — they got around. While each married, they all had primary involvements with other women, and took part in early twentieth-century lesbian transatlantic circles (think La Ronde with an all-female cast). Murphy, with her endless thirst for conversation, seems to have been friends with everyone, from Janet Flanner to Edmund Wilson to Natalie Barney to F. Scott Fitzgerald; De Acosta’s career as a seductress is well known; and, according to Murphy’s former lover, the British novelist Sybille Bedford, “everyone was one of Madge’s old flames.” The three knew each other, gossiped with each other, and shared friends and lovers. In this sense, “all we know” might also be understood to refer to a social world, to the utopia of ever-expanding social networks: Esther Murphy, Mercedes De Acosta, Madge Garland, and Everyone We Know.

    Indeed, it’s connections that define their contemporary reputations, such as they are. Murphy, a writer with several reviews and no books to her name, is better known as the sister of the painter Gerald Murphy and the wife of Labour Party mainstay John Strachey. De Acosta’s fame is largely the result of her intimate friendships with Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Isadora Duncan, and others. Of Cohen’s three subjects, only Madge Garland achieved traditional professional success — she was fashion editor of British Vogue and later Principal of the School of Fashion in the Royal College of Art — although the fact that she worked in an ephemeral medium has led her to fall into disregard. Through painstaking reconstruction of their writing, their romantic and social networks, their family connections, their self-presentation, and the mundane details of their lives, Cohen restores vibrancy and interest to these half-forgotten women.

    A meditation on the changing life possibilities for women across the twentieth century as well as the conditions and significance of intellectual labor, All We Know addresses the outsized dreams of those to whom traditional paths to success were blocked. Murphy’s manic conversation is the purest example in the book of this kind of thwarted ambition; Cohen’s chapter on her is entitled “A Perfect Failure,” and she suggests throughout that failure can be a passion, an aesthetic practice, and a way of life. A prodigy in her youth, Murphy was known as a “nonstop conversationalist” whose projected biographies of obscure historical figures never materialized, and whose heavy drinking and idleness turned her into a spectacular disappointment and a cautionary figure for her friends. That Murphy was known for her “clouds of talk” rather than for producing printed text raises questions about what constitutes success, the fleeting quality of speech, and how writing can secure one’s legacy. Cohen explains the disregard for these women by noting that each “produced a body of thought that was not and could not be worked out fully on paper.”

    In a neat parallel, Cohen’s own labor in recovering their world and work is doubled by Murphy’s biographical research on the lives of obscure historical subjects. Cohen carefully reconstructs these unfinished projects, collating manuscript fragments from Murphy’s writing on Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV’s secret second wife, and other projects. Murphy’s relation to her subject was more obsessive than scholarly, and she tended to overlay contemporary politics with interpretations from the French court, as in the following meditation on Eleanor Roosevelt from a letter to Bedford:

    As Madame de Maintenon once wrote, “I know that God has his saints in every condition,” but then went on to say that she was unable to recognize any of them among the denizens of the court of France — it is strange that one should turn up in this age in the U.S., in the most unlikely position of all, — the wife of a president. Mrs. R and her life have the grandeur and simplicity of an integrity and a virtue that have proved insusceptible to corruption.

    Murphy’s relation to Madame de Maintenon is typical of her passionate and excessive identifications; in an early letter describing her discovery of this figure, she mentions how “satisfactory” the past is to her, and goes on to write, “Celibacy really stares me in the face as I have missed all my affinities by several centuries.” Celibacy characterized her troubled marriage to Chester A. Arthur III, grandson of the President, who, steeped in astrology and drink, made pilgrimages to meet Edward Carpenter, Havelock Ellis, Magnus Hirschfeld, and Alfred Kinsey, and in later life, as a “gray eminence of gay bohemia,” even befriended Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg. While De Acosta and Garland are more legible as early-twentieth century lesbians, Murphy’s desires were focused on the anachronistic and the outré more than they were on individual people; she is probably best understood as queer. Sorting through the ruins of her passionate identifications, Cohen concludes that Murphy’s life “seems to both call for biography and suggest its futility.”

    As a biographer, Cohen is clearly attracted not only to obscure or disregarded figures, but also to excess, risk, romantic self-invention, and waste. Her treatment of these larger-than-life and, often, destructive figures is coolly appreciative; though unflinching in her analysis of their failings, she is never judgmental. Her brief chapter on Mercedes de Acosta involves a significant reassessment of this “immoderate personality,” who has been called a fraud, a hysteric, and, despite her own charisma, “the first celebrity stalker.” The actress Eve Le Gallienne is said to have referred to De Acosta’s gossipy memoir Here Lies the Heart as “Here Lies the Heart — and Lies and Lies and Lies.” For Cohen, De Acosta is a seductress, an archivist, and a consummate fan, someone who “wanted to worship and be intimate.” Having examined the De Acosta collection in the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia, Cohen discovers an item De Acosta kept for her entire life, a blank card included with flowers Garbo had sent her. Cohen suggests that the problems posed by this intimate archive, with its suggestion of the closet, are an intensification of the questions that haunt all archives. She writes, “Questions of evidence will always also be questions of access,” she writes, “yet there will always be something we cannot read, or see, or hear, even when it is right in front of us or spoken directly to us.”

    Powerful acts of self-making, and self-undoing, run through the lives of these three women. Madge Garland underwent the most the dramatic transformation of the three. A shy and awkward girl born into a middle-class Australian family, she rose to become a fashion icon and tastemaker, a friend to many other artists and intellectuals as well as the major fashion designers of the era. (Both Murphy and Acosta, by contrast, were born into wealthy families, and while they experienced some difficulties with money later in life, they were not compelled to work in order to gain independence.) Garland’s impeccable and daring taste made her highly sought after. Cohen narrates Garland’s fascinating career against the background of women’s widespread emergence into public and professional life; as she observes, the mid-twentieth century was the moment when “women could first be said to have failed at something other than femininity and motherhood.”

    The taste of these three women for bad romance — and their seemingly endless capacity for suffering — makes All We Know a riveting read. Garland was no exception, and Cohen is typically balanced in her account of Garland’s early passion for the British Vogue editor Dorothy Todd, a handsome, talented, charismatic woman whom De Acosta quipped was “the bucket in the well of loneliness” (alluding to Radclyffe Hall’s famous lesbian novel of 1928). Cohen writes: “Dody Todd was the key to the intellectual, aesthetic, and sentimental education [Garland] craved. Dody’s seductiveness, her taste, her generosity, her sheer force — and her catastrophic problems — changed Madge’s life.” Cohen’s appreciation for the transformative effects of personal and romantic disaster is refreshing, and in the world of serial, overlapping romance she has described there is no shortage of such stories.

    Garland made her career by democratizating and commodifying upper-class ways of life, a process which Cohen traces with wonderful attention to the details of clothing and professional intrigue. She was involved in the shift from couture to ready-to-wear (Cohen savors the irony that “[b]eing a woman who personified fashion at its highest levels and who also labored in the industry was a kind of oxymoron, since couture is all about the look of leisure”), and, after World War II, participated in a large-scale project to improve the quality of everyday British women’s fashion. As Cohen suggests, Garland’s own class background prepared her well for this transition:

    Even before the top-down model of fashion began to shift in the 1960s — when street fashion began to influence high fashion — imitation and exchange had been fundamental to the industry, in part because many of its practitioners were middle-class adepts who aspired to, and made careers promulgating, the image and actuality of haute couture, and the elite world on which it depended.

    All We Know takes style seriously, as it ought to, considering the profound material consequences that clothing, art, rhetoric and other merely stylistic choices can have. Early on, Cohen cites an aphorism by the modernist novelist Marguerite Young: “Style is thinking.” Cohen elaborates: “Style is a way to fascinate oneself and others — and to transform oneself and the world. It is an attempt to the make the ordinary and the tragic more bearable.” She is supremely attuned to the stylistic choices made by her subjects; elsewhere, she compares Garland’s fashion journalism to Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons: “In both forms, the language is almost furiously static: full of emphatic, precise pronouncements.”

    And Cohen’s own wry, lucid style is one of the great pleasures of the book. Here is Cohen in the chapter “Velvet is Very Important,” reflecting on the strange monumentality of fashion in Garland’s reviews:

    In their materiality and their ephemerality, their capacity to make history present and to index the passage of time, a dress and her story offer something that a monument cannot: some mixture of the texture of daily life and of the vertigo of history, with all their immediacy and loss, and all of their distortions.

    Cohen’s account of the paradoxes of history and temporality is as notable for its light touch as it is for its subtlety and depth. A monument to great achievement as well as to incompleteness, All We Know does justice to both the distortions and the truths of these three lives.

    In addition to the impressive archival research that she has undertaken, Cohen has also interviewed a great many people, several of them intimates, friends, and lovers of the key figures. All We Know is enriched by Cohen’s own friendship with Sybille Bedford, who was an astute observer of the artistic and intellectual scenes in which the three principal players moved, and many of the sharpest, most telling lines in the book are hers. Cohen herself is apparently a master not only of the art of writing but also of the art of talk; she weaves observations from her sources seamlessly into the text, and a distinctive and conversational voice characterizes the whole.

    To say that All We Know is a biography does not really capture its complexity, surprise, or sheer interest. Certainly Cohen takes up the traditional themes that make biography compelling: ambition and failure, friendship and isolation, fact and fantasy, desire and disgust, as well as grand romance, self-destruction, and family secrets. But in her attention to the multiple connections between her major figures and to the shaping influence of informal social worlds, Cohen has written something larger and more ambitious: All We Know is the story of a milieu as much as it is an account of individual lives, and a remarkably subtle and thoughtful treatment of sexual desire, identity, and the cruelty of history.

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