How many books with lesbian subjects are reviewed—let alone glowingly reviewed—in mainstream publications as diverse as The New York Times Book Review, Wall Street Journal, WWD, The New Yorker, and Business Week? (And for a gem from across the pond, see the London Review of Books.) Very, very, very few as far as I can recollect. In fact, I can’t recollect any off the top of my head. A Jeannette Winterson perhaps? Certainly helps to be published by FSG. Be that as it may, now we can point to Lisa Cohen’s recently published biography of three bold women Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta and Madge Garland (at left), All We Know.
That so many publications have taken notice of Cohen’s work is cause enough for celebration but how satisfying and encouraging to read so many unmitigated raves? Very.
So, if you have any interest in the lives, loves, failures, frustrations, and style of little-known lesbians of the early twentieth century or are an avid reader of biographies, you will find a lot to like here. I sure did. Cohen has done an incredible amount of research and it shows on every page. The original interviews, primary research and period details bring these women and their milieu vividly to life.
But by giving each woman her own section, Cohen created a disconnect between these figures that no amount of cross-referencing could ever bridge for me. And then there is the biggest question—what story is the biographer trying to tell with her subjects? If it’s to simply resurrect them from the tomb of history then mission accomplished. But Cohen seems to be after something much bigger here, reflecting on big themes like the nature of failure, modernism, art, and camp as well as the nature of biography itself.
“By bringing these three footnotes into the spotlight, Ms. Cohen allows us to look deeper into our definitions of failure, identity and modernity, while also reappraising the stature of artfulness as opposed to art.”—Wall Street Journal
I felt she was less successful here, raising issues only to have them drift away without any real conclusion (I hoped, in vain it seems, for a closing chapter to bring these many threads to some cohesive whole). And sometimes, it felt as if the ideas were driving the book, with elements of these women’s lives slotted in to prove a particular point. Cohen is hanging a lot on these women and often, as with Murphy and de Acosta particularly, they shuddered under the weight.
“Cohen’s book itself is one of these odd, wayward, portentous things; you don’t quite know where it’s come from; you are stunned by its depths; and you hope its excellence and pertinence and originality will not lead, doomfully, to its sinking without a trace, as fine things connected with the subject of lesbianism have had a way of doing for so long.”—Terry Castle in the London Review of Books
Despite my reservations, this book passed my “Am I better for having read this?” test with yards to spare (though if you are struggling with writer’s block, do yourself a favor and skip the Murphy section for now. horrifying.) and hopefully, with the kind of review coverage any author would bleed for All We Know will attract enough readers to keep it afloat for a good long while.
And the unforgettable Beth Ditto’s memoir, From Coal to Diamonds, comes out Tuesday. Looks like a little jacket presto-chango since the book was originally announced. Common enough but which do you prefer? I like the original one, on the left, better. More personal and intimate.
Either way, happy reading.