After spending time on a campus as queer-friendly as Wesleyan, we may find it hard to conceive of a time when being “out” was not readily accepted. But not long ago, and still in many places across the globe, being publicly gay can be downright dangerous. Despite persistent social and political obstacles facing queer individuals today, there exists a legacy of strong gay figures to whom those struggling may turn for inspiration.
In her new book, “All We Know: Three Lives,” Assistant Professor of English Lisa Cohen recalls a time when nearly any openness regarding sexuality was inconceivable. The book focuses on Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland, women who were prominent in the intellectual world during the first half of the twentieth century. Their lives and achievements have been seldom explored and largely forgotten. All three were married to men but privately led lesbian lifestyles.
The book opens with Murphy, a wealthy expatriate known for her keen erudition. A gawky and eccentric child, Murphy showed intense interest in academia at a young age, much to the delight of her father and the dismay of her mother. Murphy moved to France in the mid-1920s, where she socialized with the likes of Gertrude Stein and became well-known for both her brilliance and her tendency to talk incessantly.
Murphy spent much of her time in cafés rambling to friends about history, philosophy, and literature. She often began these discussions with, “All we know…,” the phrase that Cohen adopted for the book’s title. Murphy wrote essays and reviews, but never composed a major work. Luckily, despite the scarcity of writings by Murphy, Cohen found a huge cache of her work at the Library of Congress, a moment she considers a highlight of her extensive research process.
Cohen next discusses the life of Mercedes de Acosta, a writer and collector who had intimate friendships and romantic relationships with many famous actresses and dancers, including Marlene Dietrich, Eva le Gallienne, and Greta Garbo. De Acosta was known for quickly becoming dramatic and jealous, so these relationships rarely lasted long. “All We Know” was not Cohen’s first time examining the captivating life of de Acosta.
“When I wrote a magazine profile of the iconic cultivator of celebrity and collector Mercedes de Acosta, I spent a lot of time reading through her complex archive at the Rosenbach Museum and Library and was fascinated,” Cohen wrote in an email to The Argus.
The final section of “All We Know,” which is significantly longer than the first two, discusses the life of Madge Garland, a fashion editor of British Vogue. Garland had a strong work ethic and helped remodel Vogue to report on the arts more extensively. Under Garland’s authority, the magazine widened the scope of its content to include poetry, art criticism, and avant-garde art.
Initially, Cohen planned for the book to be entirely about Garland, whom she learned about in the early 1990s while reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries. Later, while working on the Garland-focused book, she contemplated the idea of including other subjects, fearing she wouldn’t have enough material to work with. Garland, after all, did not keep diaries or leave behind much correspondence.
“Yet even as it became clear to me that I did have enough material to write a whole book about her, I realized that such a book would—ironically—not quite do her justice,” Cohen wrote.
Cohen reshaped her approach to biography by beginning what she describes as a very long research process to study Murphy and de Acosta, who travelled in Garland’s social circle.
Researching and writing about Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland raised questions for Cohen about the distinction between accomplishment and failure, and what makes a biographical subject important.
“These were questions that all three of their lives raised so significantly,” she wrote. “And yet they themselves have not been seen as significant. Putting them in the same book made it possible to tackle that paradox.”
And indeed, “All We Know” does just that, in beautiful language, by capturing the complicated world of three women who unapologetically pushed its boundaries.