Author(s): Lisa Cohen
All We Know is one of Publishers Weekly's Top 10 Best Books of 2012
A revelatory biography of three glamorous, complex modern women
Esther Murphy was a brilliant New York intellectual who dazzled friends and strangers with an unstoppable flow of conversation. But she never finished the books she was contracted to write—a painful failure, and yet a kind of achievement.
The quintessential fan, Mercedes de Acosta had intimate friendships with the legendary actresses and dancers of the twentieth century. Her ephemeral legacy is the thousands of objects she collected to preserve the memory of those performers and to document her own feelings.
An icon of haute couture and an editor of British Vogue, Madge Garland held influential views on fashion that drew on her feminism, her ideas about modernity, and her love of women. Existing both vividly and invisibly at the center of culture, she—like Murphy and de Acosta—is now almost completely forgotten.
In All We Know, Lisa Cohen describes these women's glamorous choices, complicated failures, and controversial personal lives with lyricism and empathy. At once a series of intimate portraits and a startling investigation into style, celebrity, sexuality, and the genre of biography itself, All We Know explores a hidden history of modernism and pays tribute to three compelling lives.
Esther Murphy (1897–1962) was a talker, but a brilliant one; Mercedes de Acosta (1893–1968), was a “seductress” who saved every scrap of memorabilia; witty aesthete, style icon, and feminist Madge Garland (1898–1990) was an editor at British Vogue. They knew each other well from social circles, and none of them had simple lives. Cohen, GQ’s fashion editor for nearly three decades, fully delineates the conventional biographical matters of ancestry, parents, schooling, marriages, affairs, friendships, breakups, work, and death. Lovers of both sexes, the three mingled at varying depths with the Bloomsbury coterie, the Paris cohort, and the Hollywood crowd, but this well-researched, gossipy, informative, and entertaining biographical triptych is also a thoughtful, three-part inquiry into the meaning of failure, style, and sexual identity. Murphy, whose major claim to our attention is ephemeral—reading voraciously and never completing her biography of Madame de Maintenon—gets nearly half of the book. De Acosta gets the brief middle, a “fantasia on a theme” that focuses on her collection of personal mementos, while Garland shapes the way British fashion lovers think about couture. All are engaged in making and remaking themselves as the “emergence of women of generation into public life one of the major shifts of the twentieth century.” Cohen secures a definitive place for them in the socio-cultural history of the period. Agency: Sterling Lord, Sterling Lord Literistic. (July)
Lisa Cohen's All We Know: Three Lives was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award and the PEN/Bograd Weld prize, and a New York Times Notable Book and Editor’s Choice for 2012. Her writing has appeared in BOMB, The New York Times, Vogue, The Paris Review,The New Yorker, Women in Clothes, and many other journals and anthologies. She teaches at Wesleyan University.