Gertrude Stein’s controversial and experimental Three Lives (1909) took Gustave Flaubert’s Three Tales (1877) as a point of departure. After beginning a translation of “A Simple Heart”—which, famously, has a servant as its protagonist—Stein wrote “The Good Anna,” drawing on the life of her own servant in Baltimore, Lena Lebender. To this she added “The Gentle Lena” and “Melanctha.” Increasingly innovative in style, these stories raise questions of class, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality and religion. In “Melanctha,” the most troubling of the three stories, Stein transposes the contours of an unhappy lesbian affair that she had in Baltimore, before moving to Paris, onto working-class and middle-class black heterosexual characters. In her book about Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas, wittily entitled Two Lives (2007), Janet Malcolm examines questions of biographical and autobiographical truth raised by Stein’s work:
Stein often spoke of the members of her real and fictional families as if they were one. And even the most hermetic of her writings are works of submerged autobiography. The key of “I” will not unlock the door to their meaning—you need a crowbar for that—but will sometimes admit you to a kind of anteroom of suggestion.
A new and first book by Lisa Cohen, who teaches at Wesleyan University, is similarly focused on probing the conventions, revelations and obfuscations of “life writing.” Cohen makes Three Lives her subtitle; her title is All We Know, an oxymoronic declaration of comprehensiveness and incompletion.
The three lives Cohen writes about—those of Esther Murphy (1897–1962), Mercedes de Acosta (1893–1968) and Madge Garland (1898–1990)—are ones that have become obscure. These three women were known to each other, connected through networks of friends and lovers, and were “commentators on one another’s lives.” All three married “but were committed primarily to other women.” Cohen explains that while superficial similarities and coincidences might have made it “logical” to write about these three lives together, in fact she was driven to do so by a deeper sense of the biographical challenges they pose. Collectively, they strike her as “a storehouse of modern anxieties about what we call failure, irrationality, and triviality.” Quoting Virginia Woolf’s essay “Lives of the Obscure,” Cohen acknowledges the attraction of the biographical heroism Woolf wryly mocked: “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.” Cohen flirts with the idea of herself as a life-writing lady with a lamp, before clearly acknowledging that none of her subjects thought themselves in need of rescue.
Esther Murphy, born in Manhattan to a wealthy Irish-American business family, was the younger sister of Gerald Murphy, one of the inspirations for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night. “There has never been an American tragedy,” Fitzgerald claimed in 1927. “There have only been great failures.” Juxtaposing this remark with Stein’s assertion that “I am certain that what makes American success is American failure,” Cohen describes Esther Murphy’s life as “A Perfect Failure.”
Murphy was a gifted and original historian who never finished a book. For her, “History was a dead woman—and a living one to whom she wanted to say something.” She said a great deal, but published nothing substantial. She was especially interested in French history, and Cohen calls her unfinished study of Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV’s second wife, “the principle exhibit in the case for Esther Murphy’s failure.” There are several undated drafts of this study on which, Cohen estimates, Murphy worked for about fifteen years. As an epigraph, she took three lines from T.S. Eliot’s “Gerontion”: “History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors/ And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,/ Guides us by vanities.” She was fascinated by Madame de Maintenon’s “improbable fate”: “The second wife of Le Roi Soleil was born in a prison—the fortress of Niort—where her father was incarcerated and where her mother had been allowed to join him.” Madame de Pompadour was another possible biographical subject, but after collecting many books and notes, Murphy abdicated the project to Nancy Mitford, a friend of hers. Cohen comments, “It seems clear that she was not troubled by feelings of ownership of her subject, or by the paranoia about priority that often afflicts biographers.” Or perhaps she was, but chose not to let them disrupt her friendships.