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All We Know: Three Lives

All We Know: Three Lives

by Lisa Cohen


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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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374534486
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 09/10/2013
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt

All We Know

Three Lives

By Lisa Cohen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2012 Lisa Cohen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-2010-4



When you met Esther Murphy she told you about the history of people and things you knew and the history of things you had never considered. Six feet tall, regal in bearing, yet irremediably awkward, she was all energy, compulsion, and excitement about ideas, and she was excited above all about the past. She would command the floor with long monologues about the intricacies of the American presidency and of the Hanseatic League, the courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV, the building you were living in, the ancestors you thought you had forgotten. She would quote François Fénelon, Saint-Simon, Jane Austen, and Henry Adams while smoking two cigarettes at once, drinking nonstop, letting food congeal on her plate, gesticulating grandly, then stubbing her cigarettes out on her lapels. She would pull great swathes of human history out of her memory, exhilarated by its ironies, its neglected crevices, and its meaning in the present, stopping time and prolonging it while she explored its recesses, fascinating her listeners and overwhelming them, drawing them in and keeping them at bay, unaware of what she was doing, aware only of what she was thinking.

At age nine she was already "a nonstop conversationalist." When she was eleven years old, her father pronounced her "a wonder." Patrick Murphy, a famous public speaker in the first decades of the twentieth century and the owner of the luxury leather goods company Mark Cross, thought so highly of Esther that he would seat her at his dinner table so she could listen to the conversation of New York politicians, judges, writers, and businessmen. "Never have I seen such a mind," he crowed to his son Gerald, her elder brother; "everybody who meets her stamps her as a 'genius.'" Preternaturally well-read, Esther seemed able to glance at a book and absorb it all, verbatim. By her teens, her conversation and correspondence were crammed with references to the history, literature, and philosophy she incorporated with such ease. She "utterly demolished" the actor Monty Woolley, a friend of Gerald's, when she turned to him "with a dissertation on the difference between Dostoevski and Turgenev." When Gerald submitted a poem of hers "to several magazines (for criticism only)," the editors "pronounced it 'mature genius', etc." As Gerald boasted, "Moreover, she wants to write!"

In her twenties, which spanned the 1920s, she found her place and contemporary affinities in hard-drinking, haute bohemian New York and Paris, where her excesses, social and intellectual, were noteworthy even during that period of furious excess. Arriving at a party thrown in her honor in May 1928, Carl Van Vechten "ask[ed] why in heaven's name a party should be given for Miss Esther Murphy, who attended more parties than any living woman, never going to less than three a night." In Djuna Barnes's 1928 Ladies Almanack, a satire of the Paris salonnière and Sapphist Natalie Barney and her circle, Esther appears as "Bounding Bess, noted for her Enthusiasm in things forgotten," absorbed by "great Women in History," and "last seen in a Cloud of Dust, hot foot after an historic Fact." When Scott Fitzgerald published Tender Is the Night, for which he initially used Gerald Murphy and his wife, Sara, as models for the protagonists, a mutual friend wrote to Fitzgerald, "I don't remember talking to anyone in New York about the novel except Esther and she did all the talking." She talked all through lunch one day with the novelist Dawn Powell, then finally paused and said to Powell, "But you were going to say something." Powell replied: "I was going to say, 'Hello, Esther.'" Even when Esther Murphy couldn't speak, she was compelled to perform — and others were equally compelled to assist at the performance. Guests arriving late to a party one evening found everyone else sitting in silence with Esther standing before them "going through all the motions of holding forth, but with no audible sound. She had completely lost her voice, yet commanded the attention of her audience."

The charisma was real, and it was allied to a gentleness and generosity that often survived even when she was at her most dissipated. It was also allied to a profound insecurity. Dawn Powell described Esther as "personally and professionally frightened, shy, and arrogant without confidence, which is no way to profit by arrogance." Still, it seemed obvious to everyone around her that she would turn her perorations into important books. Attracted to and confounded by women of previous centuries who had been socially mobile and had played contested roles in political history, Esther planned to write several biographies and had contracts from publishers to do so. Instead, she kept talking. If she is remembered at all today it is as Gerald Murphy's eccentric, pathetic sister, a marvel who became a spectacular disappointment.

She could not live without books, but it seemed that she also needed a live audience. If you asked her a question — "it could be a question about a seventeenth-century Florentine economist, a question about almost anything" — 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.

Esther Murphy's history is itself a portrait of comprehensiveness and incompletion: stunning accomplishment and prodigious limitation, promise and defeat, writing and not writing, originality and obsessive citation, fact and fantasy, performance and painful reticence, uncanny memory and oblivion. She 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. She became a figure whose inability to complete her planned long works both pained her writer friends and reassured them about their own productivity and success.

* * *

"There has never been an American tragedy," said Scott Fitzgerald in 1927. "There have only been great failures." "I am certain that what makes American success is American failure," wrote Gertrude Stein, who also described herself as "fond of saying that America, which was supposed to be a land of success, was a land of failure." To be seen as a failure in America and in American letters, as Stein and Fitzgerald knew, is to occupy a special place in the imagination of a culture that celebrates success and abhors its opposite to an uncommon degree. "I am an American," Esther would declare, drawing herself up to her full, considerable height. She said it in England, in Mexico, in Italy, and in France. It was not a declaration of patriotism, she averred, but "something much deeper." The America with which she identified consisted of an idea, an ideal, about the fruitful conjunction of democracy and intellect, a story — her father's and the nation's — of meritocratic rise. This America was a place where her experience of financial privilege and cynicism about the power of capital could coexist. It was a place of limitless violence and mendacity that produced and accommodated her pride, her agnosticism, her oddness, her pragmatism, and her belief in rational debate. It was a place where she could see Scott Fitzgerald demonstrate spectacularly the costs of literary success and defeat, acclaim and "crack-up," and where her acute sense of difference, her feeling of being at once exceptional and aberrant, was peculiarly at home. It was a place asking its own questions about the correct use of extraordinary talent — and telling, with every move, a story about the squandering of great resources. And it was a place whose historical amnesia Esther fought with her capacious memory, her profound engagement with the past, and her sense of obligation to politics in the present.

The issue of how the United States should come to maturity was a live issue as Esther came of age. The ruptures of the Civil War were a living memory; identity was often conceived in more local than national terms, yet still shaped in reaction to Europe; new waves of immigration were changing the country in profound ways; and "the speeded-up pace of American life, the constant changing-hands of money," in Edmund Wilson's words, and the resulting pressure to produce — which is to say, to succeed — was overwhelming some middle-class, white, Protestant men and sending them into retreat from work and the work ethic. It was at this fraught moment that an American woman could first be said to have failed at something other than femininity and motherhood.

In fact, failure was part of Esther Murphy's intellectual purview: She loved to think about wasted effort and lost causes, on the American scene and in Europe. She called Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government of 1929–31, with which she was briefly associated as the wife of the English politician John Strachey, "the most important failure since the Wall Street crash." She renounced Catholic doctrine at a young age, but was forever rehearsing the machinations of the Church, including the French suppression of Protestantism and the struggles between Jesuits and Jansenists. She delighted in the fact that Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve had "rescued the forgotten tragedy of the Jansenists" in his six-volume history of seventeenth-century France, Port-Royal. And then there was her long obsession with Madame de Maintenon, the biographical subject who was most important to her and about whom she left an unfinished manuscript. All of these interests had to do with her fascination with the ruins that are always part of the workings of power — with the ways that one strain of thought, faith, or behavior becomes dominant and another subsidiary. Madame de Maintenon was born in poverty, the granddaughter of a famous Huguenot writer and soldier, but became the second, secret wife of Louis XIV. Writing about Maintenon's dramatic renunciation of her Protestant faith and acceptance of Catholicism, Esther speculated, "Did she realize that the French reformation was one of the greatest failures in history and did she dislike failure?"

But while Esther believed that wasted effort was not a waste, or that such waste forever had meaning, she was not interested in simple acts of reclamation. Seeing her again after a long absence, Edmund Wilson relished her talking "with her usual historical gusto." History for her was what could not be contained: herself, her volubility, her pleasure in thinking about those who had preceded her, her desire to make herself the vehicle for the chasms and correspondences between now and then, the way the achievements and disasters of the past continually made themselves felt in the present — all of the sparkling facts. History was a dead woman — and a living one to whom she wanted to say something. She "was all about ideas and marvelous sentences, not about research," said the writer Sybille Bedford, one of those living women.

"Statistics," wrote Dawn Powell, after an evening with Esther, "occupy her as if they were rare jewels." But if the facts were radiant, glamorous, and meaningful to her, so was their absence and fabrication — the missing, forgotten, and invented. And it was equally her habit to see the world in literary terms. Some of her most elaborate discourses on the past turned out to be carefully wrought fictions masquerading as fact. Analyzing public figures and friends, she thought of them as characters from novels and plays as well as actors in history. She loved odd juxtapositions of the actual and invented. "I will now proceed to deliver a few comments on the general world situation," she wrote to a friend in 1933, then went on to consider the French reaction to FDR's economic policies by quoting Samuel Richardson's Clarissa. "'Fits upon fits upon fits, and the loss of her intellects for days at a time,' is the only adequate description of what the French press and official classes have been going through," she wrote, citing the histrionics of Richardson's heroine. Projecting herself and others back in time, compounding the gesture with reference to literature: This was Esther Murphy's constant practice.

The genre of biography has itself, for approximately the past eighty years, been said to lie at the intersection of history and literature, of fact and imagination. Esther Murphy did not write a biography. She did leave a record of her attempts to do so: of the archival lacunae that hampered her writing; of the psychological inscrutability of her subjects; of the ebb and flow of her own admiration for, identification with, and disgust at these figures — a pattern that often characterizes biographers' work. Her brother Gerald has become known for his devotion to "living well," for the way he harnessed his aesthetics as a painter, a businessman, and a creator of perfect moments in the present for his family and friends, for many of whom his taste represented the spirit of the 1920s. Esther responded to and shaped the first part of the twentieth century with ideas rather than objects. She moved through her time fueled by insecurity, alcohol, and relentless intellectual energy, promulgating a vision that made that era new and old at once. Her expert, idiosyncratic engagement with history was as informed by her sense of not quite belonging to her own time as it was by her perceptive understanding of the contemporary scene. She held that anachronism was at least as important as novelty in thinking about modernity, and that modernity was something far more complex than either rupture with the past or reversion to a remote past (the latter being the gestures that Ezra Pound and H.D. made, for example, in their turns to antiquity).

It is a cliché of American life that we like our brilliance to flare up and die young, we like it to crash and burn. This is not that tale — nor is it the nineteenth-century counternarrative of abdicating ambition: preferring "not to." This is a story about a life in which past and present, fact and fiction, history and failure, collide. It is a story about someone who made history and politics a literary occasion, whose sense of the politics of literature was acute, and who understood and embodied American success and American failure.


"Esther is without a doubt the most widely read and best informed woman in New York," wrote a friend of hers in 1927, "and her father's admiration for her and devotion to her is one of the rarest things to behold ... Mrs. Murphy, very patrician with beautiful white hair and many jewels, sits back and smokes her cigarettes without interesting herself very much in her husband's and her daughter's very brilliant dialogue."

Patrick Murphy bullied his sons, Frederic and Gerald, but he was Esther's champion — "so proud," in his wife's words, "that he [could] hardly see straight." Part of the first group of Irish Catholics to find acceptance in New York society, Murphy raised his children in a muddled combination of privileges deriving from his success and scorn for the fact that they could not repeat his trajectory. Esther, whom he called Tess, was exempt from some of the expectations that haunted her brothers, such as success in business, and she exceeded others, with her scholarly acumen. Still, like her brothers, she grew up steeped in an atmosphere of opportunity and exclusion and in the myth and fact of Patrick Murphy's professional and social climb.

She also absorbed or inherited some of her mother's nervousness and depression. Anna Murphy's letters to her children often report her bad dreams and anxieties. She took "life and the living of it so tragically," Gerald wrote in 1915. In the late 1950s, more than a quarter of a century after their parents' deaths, he wrote to Esther: "Mother was devoted, possessive, ambitious, Calvinistic, superstitious, with a faulty sense of the truth. She was hypercritical and as I recall it, ultimately resigned from most of her friendships." He remembered their father as a man who "avoid[ed] ... close relationships including family ones ... a solitary [who] managed, though he had a wife and children, to lead a detached life." Esther adored her father, but as the girl in the family and the youngest child, she found her place was with her mother and spent long stretches of time alone with Anna Murphy, at home and at the watering holes of the wealthy in Europe and the United States. Every once in a while, Patrick Murphy would appear from Paris or London, where he spent half of every year supervising the Mark Cross factories, procuring the fittings of upper-class European life for American consumption, and maintaining a mistress. "Our father who art in Europe," Gerald would say.


Excerpted from All We Know by Lisa Cohen. Copyright © 2012 Lisa Cohen. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents

Three Lives 3

A Perfect Failure 7

Fantasia on a Theme by Mercedes De Acosta 149

Velvet is Very Important 195

Notes 359

Acknowledgments 407

Index 411

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