For five decades, Esther Murphy built a wall of words around herself. A profusely erudite New York intellectual of the first half of the twentieth century, she talked and talked, dazzling her listeners with her vast memory, her extravagant verbal style, and her inventive renderings of the past — and driving them to despair with her inability to finish the books she was contracted to write, biographies of remarkable women in history. A privileged insider and awkward outsider, she was a brilliant witness to her own time and both an analyst and an example of "failure" as an animating American conceit.
To the end of her life, Mercedes de Acosta saved a florist's card that had come with flowers she received from Greta Garbo — a card on which Garbo had written nothing. Seductress and seduced, de Acosta was consumed by her intimacies with some of the most celebrated actresses and dancers of the twentieth century: Isadora Duncan, Marlene Dietrich, and Garbo, to name just a few. She amassed a collection — letters, playbills, clothing, photographs, clippings, more — that testifies to these intimacies, as well as to the ephemeral yet enduring relationships between fans and stars, and to the intersections of popular celebrity and high modernism. In the process, she also preserved and prolonged for herself and for us a particular set of emotions: the self-abnegation and self-aggrandizement of the devotee; the irrational, limitless passion of the collector; the socially inopportune ardor of one woman for another.
Madge Garland played a defining role in almost every aspect of the fashion industry in England in the interwar and postwar years and she embodied the fleeting world of haute couture with sophistication, steely fragility, and visceral pleasure. Yet she also approached her profession with a wry distance and longed to work in a more respected field of design. At once critical of and enraptured by fashion, she made sense of it by seeing it as allied with her feminism, and by living the connections among fashion, feminism, and modernist art, design, and literature. In old age, she was encouraged by friends to tell her story, but she found it almost impossible to think of her life as worth recording. Well into her eighties and almost blind, she scrawled several barely legible, emotionally veiled, but heated pages about clothing, career, and love — thick pencil on pale blue airmail paper.
Each of these women is now largely forgotten. Yet each was a dazzling figure of her time: independent, accomplished, and conflicted; scintillating and rebarbative; characteristic and exceptional. Esther Murphy played an integral part in literary New York in the 1920s and '30s; Edmund Wilson, Dorothy Parker, and Scott Fitzgerald were among her close friends. Mercedes de Acosta made her way in the New York theater world in the teens and twenties, worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1930s, and cherished her rare friendships. As an editor, writer, collaborator, and comrade, Madge Garland was associated with many of the writers and visual artists who have come to stand for the creative work of the interwar years in London and Paris.
All three women knew each other well and were commentators on one another's lives. Their stories reveal vital, rarely explored networks of friends, colleagues, and lovers. All three married, but were committed primarily to other women; all participated in the close-knit, fractious lesbian networks of New York, London, and Paris. Sexual identity is an anachronistic term for that context and is in any case too static to convey how the feelings and acts it refers to changed for these women throughout their lives. But for all three, sexual freedom, difference, and censure were crucial to their experiences of modernity and to their work as thinkers about modernity. Each in her own way was also shaped by a struggle between fact and fiction, or fantasy — a potent combination for a biographer.
All of which made it logical for me to write about them collectively. But that was not what drove me. It was something more elusive, to do with the challenge each woman posed. Esther Murphy,Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland inhabited centers of cultural production in England, Europe, and the United States, and they worked precariously at the edges. While each one published, each also produced a body of thought that was not and could not be worked out fully on paper. As a result, each has been seen as not quite part of history, when seen at all. Juxtaposing their lives was a way to illuminate work that has not been recognized as such: in Murphy's case, prolific conversation; in de Acosta's, the fervent, even shameful acts and feelings associated with being a fan and collector; in Garland's, a career in the ephemeral, often trivialized world of fashion.
Esther Murphy's immersion in history, literature, and politics, her uncanny memory, and her obsessive talking; the flotsam and jetsam of Mercedes de Acosta's fandom; Madge Garland's brilliantly clothed surfaces and her apparently impersonal writings on fashion — all are forms of evidence, of production, and of autobiography.All are ways of thinking about history. All are archives, formal and intimate.
In one of her essays on biography, "Lives of the Obscure," Virginia Woolf writes that "one likes romantically to feel oneself a deliverer advancing with lights across the waste of years to the rescue of some stranded ghost . . . waiting, appealing, forgotten, in the growing gloom." This romance has its appeal. I have wanted to make these three women visible again, albeit in new ways, and I have spent years tracking them. But none of them thought herself in need of rescue. Each memorialized herself and colluded in her own invisibility; each lived imagining what should, or might, or could never be, saved or jettisoned. Their lives also continually raised such questions about value for their friends and other observers. And so documenting Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland's lives has meant paying attention to the ways that each was, for the people around her, a storehouse of modern anxieties about what we call failure, irrationality, and triviality.
These are three stories, then, about how history is lived, written, and imagined — three lives in which what it meant to be modern was an urgent question. They are also stories about the meaning and uses of style: rhetorical, sexual, sartorial. "What is style?" the American modernist Marguerite Young has asked. Her own reply:"Style is thinking." A riddle of unconscious excitements and conscious choices, style is a way to fascinate oneself and others — and to transform oneself and the world. It is an attempt to make the ordinary and the tragic more bearable. Style is a didactic impulse that aspires to banish doubt, a form of certainty about everything elusive and uncertain. Style is at once fleeting and lasting, and it has everything to do with excess — even when its excesses are those of austerity or self-denial. It is too much and it is nothing at all, and it tells all kinds of stories about the seams between public and private life. As a form of pleasure, for oneself and for an audience, and as an expression of the wish to exceed and confound expectations, to be exceptional, style is a response to the terror of invisibility and isolation — a wish for inclusion. Above all, it is a productive act that, although it concerns itself with the creation and experience of brilliant surfaces, is powerful because it unsettles what we think we know about the superficial and the profound.
Excerpted from ALL WE KNOW: THREE LIVES by Lisa Cohen, published in 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright 2012 by Lisa Cohen. All rights reserved.