- - Friday, October 5, 2012

ALL WE KNOW: THREE LIVES
By Lisa Cohen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30,400 pages, illustrated

This biographical triptych shines a spotlight on the lesser-known lives of three exceptional women in the 20th century. All of them swam in the wake of people far more famous than they were. Esther Murphy’s brother Gerald and his wife, Sara, not only inspired some of their friend F. Scott Fitzgerald’s more memorable characters, but came to typify the phrase “Living well is the best revenge.” Mercedes de Acosta’s place in history is owing to her love affairs with Greta Garbo and a host of other famous women. Madge Garland was editor of British Vogue and an influential force in mid century fashion on both sides of the Atlantic, but has been eclipsed by other, more famous names.

First-time author Lisa Cohen is under no illusions as to where the three subjects she has so interestingly lighted upon stand. Their very obscurity seems to be part of what attracted her to them. Indeed, she invokes Virginia Woolf’s essay on biography, “Lives of the Obscure,” with its plaintive aim of “advancing with lights across the waste of years to the rescue of some stranded ghost waiting, appealing, forgotten, in the growing gloom.”

For her own part, Ms. Cohen admits, “This romance about salvage has its appeal, as do the potent cliches of biographical pursuit. 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.”

This lack of sentimental condescension in her attitude is key to the success of this trio of portraits. They could so easily have become a litany of woe, the leitmotivs of failure and frustration making for a very depressing read. Instead, she has succeeded in illuminating not just the rather interesting lives these women led and the fascinating people they came into contact with, but the essential qualities that distinguished them.

In the case of Esther Murphy, it is the brilliance of her mind, which found its expression in torrents of conversation rather than in the works she never quite managed to produce:

“For five decades, Esther Murphy built a wall of words around herself. A profusely erudite New York intellectual she talked and talked, dazzling her listeners with her vast memory, her extravagant verbal style, and her imaginative renderings of the past a privileged insider and awkward outsider, she was a brilliant witness to her own time and both an analyst and example of ‘failure’ as an animating American conceit.”

It is Ms. Cohen’s willingness to examine that loaded word failure — she titles the section on Murphy “A Perfect Failure” — and yet her putting quote marks around the word in her text is an indication of just how plastic is her definition of that usually poisonous word. Not the least virtue of her portrait of Murphy — by far the most interesting of the three that make up the book — is that it reminds us of just how far from failure someone can be and yet be accounted such if this is viewed solely in terms of worldly accomplishment. This book is a salutary reminder that a person’s essence can glow to those encountering it through personal content just as much as its reflection by pen put to paper or brush to canvas.

De Acosta possessed a truly remarkable power of emotion and emotional expression that unlocked even such reserved and guarded women as Greta Garbo and made them susceptible to her. Her libido and its ability to elicit response was, we see in Ms. Cohen’s portrait, a true force of nature. In Garland’s case, her intelligence and absolute conviction in the importance of fashion as a cultural phenomenon is her salient characteristic.

The only unifying factor linking these three women is their unorthodox sex lives: all married men (Murphy twice) but they were fundamentally lesbian in their orientation and practice. To her credit, Ms. Cohen does not harp heavy-handedly on this aspect of the women’s lives, taking it in stride for what it is. Rather, her emphasis is on the qualities — artistic, emotional, intellectual — that make them stand out as extraordinary. By reminding us of what made these people truly exceptional, she has honored them and enlightened us.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.