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Cohen examines the lives of three forgotten women of the last century

“All We Know” by Lisa Cohen is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $30 hardcover.

Many books have been written about famous women who left their mark on the world. Have you ever wondered how many unsung women made valuable contributions but remain anonymous? Surely there are many.

“All We Know” by Lisa Cohen, tells the stories of three women who blazed with the passions of their generation but who are forgotten now. They were the daughters of Victorian-age parents, so they didn’t always know how they should act or what they could achieve. Their names are Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta and Madge Garland — all born in the 1890s. Not exactly household names, are they?

Murphy was the only daughter of businessman Patrick Murphy, who owned Mark Cross, the elegant luggage shop that no longer exists. Indulged and considered a genius by her father, Esther Murphy became a writer — albeit a writer who never finished a book. She married twice, but loved women.

Acosta spent her life as a fan, pursuing relationships with the stars of stage and screen. Her many loves included Isadora Duncan, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. Cohen is interested in Acosta’s role as a chronicler of desire.

Garland was for many years a fashion editor at British Vogue magazine and is now a largely forgotten arbiter of style for the first half of the 20th century. Her 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 lent their influence to new conceptions of style and female power.

In these three separate stories within this book, Cohen produces a revolutionary take on the genre of biography.

She shows how these women struggled to invent female personhood for the 20th Century. The author asks what we can learn from them and what is the meaning of their disappearance.

 

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