A Dash for It: On Lisa Cohen

A Dash for It: On Lisa Cohen

The unconventional story of three women and their unconventional lives in the early twentieth century.


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. 

Murphy was involved in a great many friendships, and one of the most important was with the critic Edmund Wilson. “Their shared absorption in ideas, mutual admiration, and compatible lack of social skills made it a lasting and ‘unclouded’ friendship,” Cohen explains. Murphy sent Wilson a first edition of Edith Wharton’s 1901 short story “The Angel at the Grave,” hoping to let it “speak for me.” Building on Virginia Woolf’s dismissal of the “angel in the house,” Wharton’s story concerns a woman who has grown up in the shadow of her philosopher grandfather’s fame and become the custodian of the “historic dwelling” in which he lived, as well as his biographer and the guardian of his reputation: “All her youth, all her dreams, all her renunciations lay in that neat bundle [the pages of a manuscript] on her knee. It was not so much her grandfather’s life as her own that she had written.”

Cohen’s book is dedicated to the memory of Sybille Bedford, whom she credits with having provided an accurate portrait of Murphy in The Sudden View: A Mexican Journey, an account of the time the two women spent together in Mexico after World War II. “Of all the writers who made use of Esther, Sybille Bedford best captured her shyness and gregariousness, skepticism and naïveté, gallantry and didacticism; the barrage of fact and fancy that made up her train of thought; the hauteur and slanginess of her diction; the fog of distraction about her; the physical authority and unease.” As this lengthy sentence shows, Cohen has matched Bedford in providing her own subtle account of an extraordinary person.

* * *

Cohen’s second subject, Mercedes de Acosta, offers her an opportunity to explore biographical presumptions about irrationality. In Cohen’s hands, de Acosta’s life stretches a mere forty-four pages. She was the archetypal fan as well as (allegedly) Greta Garbo’s lover. Esther Murphy was fond of her and thought that “even when she was in her most absurd incarnations…she was fundamentally an intelligent and subtle woman. But her mind seemed to go in layers like Neapolitan ice, and some of the layers were pretty trashy.” 

The youngest child of upper-class Spanish parents, de Acosta grew up in New York City and wrote a memoir, Here Lies the Heart (1960), that achieved cult status for what it told (and what it withheld) about her love affairs with famous friends. “Here Lies the Heart—and Lies and Lies and Lies,” quipped the actress Eva Le Gallienne, who once sighed in a letter from the early 1920s that she would die if Mercedes didn’t marry her. Cohen characterizes Here Lies the Heart as “a mildly coded history of a corner of twentieth-century gay and lesbian life.” Apparently, Mercedes did not keep notes, but wrote from memory. She did, however, keep a collection of letters, clothes, clippings and more that she donated to the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia as a physical record of her life and experience. On April 15, 2000—forty years after Mercedes bequeathed the collection, thirty years after her death and ten years after Garbo’s—the Rosenbach allowed public access to the two women’s correspondence. It contained no evidence of lesbianism, but even so, as Cohen puts it, “Everyone had something to say about what they persistently identified as nothing.”

Cohen continues to make a compelling case for the contents of Mercedes’s collection—a score by Stravinsky, a stocking of Dietrich’s, letters by Alice B. Toklas. “The de Acosta Papers as a whole testify to the history of feminist activism and to the primacy of the individual ego, to spiritual search and to sexual adventure, to the feeling of being a fan and to the history of celebrity in the twentieth century, and to the material and emotional texture of all of these ventures,” she writes. Following in Esther Murphy’s footsteps, Cohen makes no attempt to rescue Mercedes from herself. “There was nothing reasonable about Mercedes de Acosta. Generous, alluring and witty, she was also self-consumed and suicidally depressive, her ‘undeniable gifts,’ as Esther put it, veiled in an ‘exasperating cloak of romantic egotism.’”

The third life Cohen covers is that of Madge Garland (born Madge Alma McHarg in Melbourne, Australia). As a child, Garland moved with her family to London; she did not go to university, despite her manifest intelligence, and ran away from home in her 20s to become an apprentice journalist at British Vogue. She renamed herself at Gertrude Stein’s suggestion. Her mentor at Vogue, Dorothy Todd, was also her lover; together, they helped make the magazine hospitable to writers and visual artists like Woolf, Edith Sitwell, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. When Woolf was criticized for writing for Vogue, she wrote to Vita Sackville-West asking: “And whats [sic] the objection to whoring after Todd? Better whore, I think, than honestly and timidly and coolly and respectably copulate with the Times Lit. Sup.” Woolf, Cohen argues, sometimes found censorship at The Times Literary Supplement more objectionable than the shameless and open vulgarity of Vogue under Todd and Garland’s editorial regime.

* * *

In this context, Cohen offers a fine interpretation of Woolf’s 1924 story, “The New Dress.” “My love of clothes interests me profoundly,” Woolf wrote in her diary, “only it is not love; & what it is I must discover.” Cohen introduces “The New Dress” as “a story about clothing, class, social aberration, and the visual paradox of discretion: the way in which all concerned pretend not to see what is perfectly apparent.” The protagonist, Mabel Waring, commissions a new dress based on an old design and feels humiliated when she wears it to a party: “like a dressmaker’s dummy standing there, for young people to stick pins into.” A profound love of (or at least interest in) clothes was central to the friendship among Woolf, Todd and Garland. A suspicion of this friendship, and the perception that British Vogue had become bookish, highbrow, and inappropriately wedded to avant-garde literary and artistic ideas, led Condé Nast to fire Todd in September 1926. Both she and Garland were devastated. Todd turned to drink, and soon the pair was bankrupt. Their relationship failed, and Garland found herself homeless and penniless; “only a few lovely and rather inappropriate clothes remained.”

Garland survived the break-up of her relationship with Todd, endured World War II and began teaching in London at the Fashion School of the Royal College of Art. In 1949, when she received an honorary degree from the college, she wrote to her brother regretting that their mother had not lived to see the day and describing her lack of a university education as “the most bitter renunciation of my life.” “Of course I am a feminist!” Garland exclaimed to a young reporter in the mid-1980s, when she could still be seen out in Kensington High Street wearing a Marimekko dress and yards of huge pearls, en route to Harvey Nichols, where she would look intently through the racks of clothes—studying them, Cohen writes, “as if she were a scholar in an archive.” 

By resisting the biographical temptation to redefine or definitively account for the lives of her subjects, Cohen has succeeded in restoring them to view without condescension. The categories of failure, irrationality and triviality are subverted rather than dismissed. Two-thirds of the way through her book, Cohen quotes the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica entry for “Women”:

Though married life and its duties necessarily form a predominant element in the woman’s sphere, they are not necessarily the whole of it… The whole idea of women’s position in social life, and their ability to take their place, independently of any question of sex, in the work of the world, was radically changed…during the 19th century. This is due primarily to the movement for women’s higher education… [I]n the English-speaking countries at all events the change is so complete that the only curious thing now is, not what spheres women may now enter, more or less equally with men, but the few from which they are still excluded… As the first half of the 19th century drew to a close…the conviction that it was neither good, nor politic, for women to remain intellectually in their former state of ignorance, was gradually accepted by every one.

Cohen notes the wishful thinking behind this article. Virginia Woolf was more succinctly direct in a letter to the New Statesman in 1920, in which she argued that resistance to women’s professional lives was still so general and extreme that those who wanted a profession “must make a dash for it.” Cohen’s innovative book assembles a wealth of detail, both cultural and literary, and a visceral sense of what it meant for three particular women to make that dash—headlong and chaotic—toward defining their own working, emotional and erotic lives in the early twentieth century.

In “I'm Nobody, Who Are You?” (Dec. 10), Alexandra Schwartz reviewed Zadie Smith’s novel, a novel centered on two contemporary women in the North West of London.

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