All We Know: Three Lives
By Lisa Cohen
Fame, somewhat broadly defined as being known for your accomplishments outside your circle, bypassed Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland. (If any ring a bell with you, count yourself among a select group.) It’s easy to understand why, after reading Cohen’s brief biographies. Of the three, Garland, who worked in and helped define modern concepts of fashion, seems to deserve more recognition than she has received.
These women lived during the early part of the twentieth century. Though in different fields, their paths crossed as they moved in a still sub rosa substrate world of homosexuality, each a lesbian, each with a husband or two to their credit, usually as subterfuge. They also shared the desire for an education denied them, though each was an autodidact.
Esther Murphy, a Mark Cross heir and sister of Gerald Murphy, was an intellectual who had the tendency of framing her observations and arguments in historical terms. She could expound endlessly at parties and get-togethers, pour forth buckets of thoughtful ink, but could not discipline her intellect to produce the tomes that might have won her wider or lasting notice. This from Cohen’s book pretty much sums her up in a sentence: Esther Murphy “talked more than anyone, drank more than anyone, was bigger, more brilliant, kinder– and yet her life seemed to her friends to hang in midair, unfulfilled.”
Mercedes de Acosta receives the least attention from Cohen. She, however, is the only one of the three you’ll find in the chronicle of the times, Wikipedia. While a writer, though middling, she’s best known for her collection of memorabilia, for she hobnobbed, worshipped, and loved some of the most famous of her day, among them Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and others. In cross-referencing her subjects, Cohen quotes Esther Murphy on Acosta, who wrote “that even when she was in her most absurd incarnations … she was fundamentally an intelligent and subtle woman. But her mind seemed to go in layers like Neapolitan ice, and some of the layers were pretty trashy.” Acosta’s collections reside in the Rosenbach Museum & Library. She sold them to the Rosenbachs, dedicated collectors themselves, to support herself in her later years. At the conclusion, Cohen observes what Virginia Woolf devoted an entire novelistic spoof to in Orlando: a Biography: “Confronting a collection and life like Mercedes de Acosta’s … means being forced to reflect on what we understand to be a biographical fact.”
Madge Garland proves to be the most fascinating of the three women and by most people’s standards the most accomplished. Yet, like the others, Garland fails to resonate with hardly anybody these days. Madge Garland, through her writing, her editing of fashion publications, among them British Vogue, her appearances on radio and early television, by establishing and running London’s Royal College of Art fashion program, and by living a life of style, transformed herself into human proselytizer and exemplar of fashion. Perhaps Cohen’s most interesting chapter on Garland and in the book is “Notes on Discretion,” itself a highly necessary art form given the sexual tenor of the times. As Cohen writes, after delineating Garland’s commanding characteristics, “… along with a flamboyant wit she had a profound commitment to discretion, which made her life a complicated dance of concealment and display, honesty and dissimulation. Her professional and personal being was made of her intimacy with and enjoyment of women, and she spoke fearlessly about her appreciation of female beauty … Yet Madge said little directly about what it meant to work in fashion and to love her own sex.” And for many good reasons, as Cohen explains.
All in all, an entertaining and informative trifecta of biography. If these lives intrigue you, explore the life of their British contemporary, author, gardener, wife, mother, and lesbian, Vita Sackville-West. You might begin with Portrait of a Marriage. w/c