"All We Know: Three Lives," by Lisa Cohen (FSG, July...

"All We Know: Three Lives," by Lisa Cohen (FSG, July 2012) Credit: Handout

ALL WE KNOW: Three Lives, by Lisa Cohen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 429 pp., $30.

Three women who blazed with the passions of their generation but who are now forgotten. Three women who carved out what it means to be contemporary, independent, free. Three women who reached for success -- but didn't always know, as the daughters of Victorians, what their ambitions even were or could be. In her triptych biography of Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta and Madge Garland -- all born in the 1890s -- Lisa Cohen brings us a gossipy yet deeply intellectual account of the first generation of women who considered themselves "modern."

The first portrait is titled "A Perfect Failure." Esther Murphy was a brilliant mind, fired with the desire to write and make history. She should have gone to Bryn Mawr with the other intellectual women of her generation, but her mother kept her by her side, and Murphy remained, for the rest of her life, a stunted genius. Able to talk for hours about the powerful women of history, able to get contracts to write books about them, she never completed a single one. Two marriages failed to paper over the fact that Murphy desired women. Cohen's depiction of Murphy's obsessive crush on Natalie Barney, the American lesbian at the throbbing heart of Paris' social scene, is a tragicomic example of an intellectual's failure to be "cool," and a vivid resuscitation of a place and time when gay culture was far more powerful than we tend to remember.

"Fantasia on a Theme by Mercedes de Acosta" is the succinct and fascinating heart of this book. De Acosta spent her life as a fan, pursuing relationships with the stars of stage and screen, collecting the detritus of those stars' lives and love for her. Her many lovers included Isadora Duncan, Alla Nazimova, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. Cohen is interested in de Acosta's role as a chronicler of desire -- hers for the stars and theirs for her -- but also in the particular passion of the fan for the object of adulation. Sandwiched between a picture of professional failure and a picture of professional success, this snapshot centers the book.

"Velvet is Very Important" follows the career and the love life of Madge Garland, fashion editor of British Vogue and a now largely forgotten arbiter of style for the first half of the 20th century. A childhood of physical disability and emotional privation gave way to an adulthood at the center of the fashion world, where her feminism, modernity and sexuality all lent their influence to new conceptions of style and female power. And yet, by the end of her life, Garland felt that her story was best forgotten.

"All We Know" is a revolutionary take on the genre of biography, aiming not so much at each of its three subjects but at their generation and how it struggled to invent female personhood for the 20th century. Murphy used words, de Acosta used sex and Garland used clothing, each claiming her medium as a means to forge a self-styled and stylish self. And it is when she is musing on style that Cohen's prose scintillates: "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."

These three lives, like style itself, epitomize the ephemeral place of women in the making of culture; each shone in her own way, each was renowned, and each faded almost immediately into obscurity. What, Cohen asks, can we learn from them, and what is the meaning of their disappearance?

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