Lisa Cohen

Photo credit: Vanessa Haney

As I prepared this interview, some lines by Hart Crane snuck up on me:

There is even room enough

For the letters of my mother’s mother,

Elizabeth,

That have been pressed so long

Into a corner of the roof

That they are brown and soft,

And liable to melt as snow.

They come from “My Grandmother’s Love Letters,” a poem that contemplates a person’s memory. “It is all hung by an invisible white hair,” Crane writes. “It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air.” How, he wonders, do you remember a life? How do you tell it?

All We Know: Three Lives takes up these questions. Lisa Cohen’s triptych biography tells of three twentieth-century incendiaries: women whose accomplishments shaped culture between and after the wars, yet whose shortfalls and contradictions — as well as those of the world they inhabited — left them largely forgotten.

Esther Murphy, a brilliant conversationalist and promising literary voice, loved to talk about the past. But her drawn-out failure to finish a biography exhausted and disappointed her milieu. Mercedes de Acosta spent life seeking proximity to fame and collecting its material remains. History has cast her as a creep, due to her astounding repository of celebrity ephemera and her intimacy with Greta Garbo — a relationship many fans today prefer to view as G-rated. As fashion editor of British Vogue, Madge Garland used her understanding of form and surface to forever alter women’s clothing, and to keep her own stories hidden from view.

Each loved other women, each moved in the influential circles of modernist haute-bohème, and each presented to Cohen a biographical riddle. Deftly, brilliantly, she unravels all three.

All We Know was a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and is also a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. Cohen and I spoke over the phone in early March.

Laura Bliss: I just finished reading your elegy in Vogue for the writer Sybille Bedford. Your friendship with her was profoundly important to you. Sybille very much loved Esther Murphy, and spent years with her, yet she expressed disappointment over Esther’s life. You write that you were shocked to hear that kind of ambivalence toward your chosen subject so early on. 

Lisa Cohen: Not shocked – that’s too strong a word. I was a little dismayed. It was really a question of learning how to hear the good and the bad.

Right. I’m curious about how you learned. In your section on Esther Murphy, you write that one possible reason her biography of Madame de Maintenon was foiled was that she might not have been quite sure what to make of her subject. 

Yes, although that’s speculation based on the incredibly ambivalent feelings she expressed towards Madame de Maintenon. There’s a kind of cycle that biographers sometimes go through, of falling in love with their subjects, falling out of love, and then finding some point of balance. I don’t know that I went through that, exactly. I remained fairly obsessed about mine, especially Madge Garland and Esther Murphy. I really wanted to know everything I could find out about them.

But I suppose I learned ways to understand that what I felt towards my subjects was part of my material, although I was not writing autobiographically. Which is partly to say that I was interested in the effects these women had on the people around them. Thinking about my responses to them opened me up the idea that those feelings were a legitimate area for analysis. In the case of Esther, she hadn’t done what she was expected to do. Her life still made Sybille Bedford very sad, and other people frustrated, disappointed, annoyed. In Mercedes de Acosta’s case, there were people who were deeply disdainful. And in the case of Madge Garland, too, I met plenty of people willing to badmouth her. I realized that that was important material. That was maybe an early lesson; I didn’t want to write some kind of cloud of praise, to simply rescue them and say they had been wonderful. I wanted to try to get at what was complicated about each of these three people. Really paying attention to the fact that Esther was seen as a failure allowed me also to see how much the idea of failure was something very much on her mind, personally and intellectually.

The uncomfortable part of it was that it took me a very long time to write my book. I did not want to be Esther. But I also did not want to gloss over the fact that most writers feel that way, actually. That seemed really important — to not turn away from those feelings about failure and the ideas and fears that many people have about it. I didn’t want to try to solve the problem, but to see how it reverberated through her life and others’.

That meditation on failure is a wonderful way of opening the book. Esther’s challenges with biography go on to serve as a kind of meta-narrative for a ton of the other ideas you later tackle.

Exactly.

And your empathy for these women is very clear. The book is by no means a cloud of praise, yet you portray each woman in this deeply felt way. I found that touching. 

I think that that’s part of trying to capture these qualities that aren’t easy to capture, which was a big part of my motivation for writing the book. Once I understood what I was doing, and wasn’t groping in the dark quite as much, it became clearer to me that what I was trying to do was to capture forms of work and also feelings that are quite ephemeral, that don’t necessarily have specific textual correspondents, or particularly obvious forms of evidence. I was trying to treat all the different kinds of material in their lives as evidence, to think about biographical evidence as broadly as I could. It really was part of the challenge, and pleasure, and point of this book — figuring out how to write about forms of production and lives that don’t leave the usual kinds of traces.

The story of Mercedes de Acosta — the consummate fan, known for her connection to Greta Garbo — seems to condense a lot of the issues you’re talking about: questions of evidence, forms of evidence that aren’t concrete. You’ve said you thought of her as a kind of hinge between the other two parts of the book. 

Yes.

And that’s particularly true in the Garbo Unsealed exhibit opening at the Rosenbach Library, in which letters and documents between Garbo and de Acosta are revealed after decades spent sealed away. The big question is, were they lovers? Were they having an affair? Garbo’s estate says no, there’s nothing conclusive here, so therefore no. It’s a moment that encapsulates these ideas of what evidence is put on display, what is important, what’s kept sealed in an archive. Can you tell me more about that opening? 

I think your sense of what I was trying to do in that section is correct. A certain kind of legalistic understanding of what evidence is was in play there, and much more prominent than a literary or textual understanding of evidence, and of the possibility of multiple meanings existing simultaneously.

Of course, working in the Rosenbach was just amazing. The place was incredibly welcoming to me, and they have extraordinary collections. I’m extremely grateful I was able to sit there for days on end, at different points, just reading through that collection. But that collection also presented a different kind of challenge than the various collections associated with Madge Garland and Esther Murphy. It was a problem of apparently too much, rather than apparently not enough. There it all was, all in one place, under one name, whereas with the other two I went all over the world finding material. Mercedes de Acosta had produced an extraordinarily inclusive collection of material that she felt represented her life, and the lives of people she had been close to and admired. That kind of exhaustiveness just presents other issues.

Right. And as to the question of whether she and Garbo were lovers, there was a kind of public answer or decision about what her life meant, and what it was, perhaps in part due to that comprehensiveness of her collection. Which was perhaps a kind of challenge or even limitation for you.

Yeah, a paradoxical limitation — one of abundance. There was a very set narrative about who she was, which wasn’t, for the most part, based on research on a couple of pieces from the collection. Like her Bible.

Yes, Mercedes’ Bible with the pasted photographs of Greta Garbo, which reminds Garbo’s great-niece of her “11-year-old daughter’s scrapbook devoted to Leonardo DiCaprio.” That is such an interesting example of what in an exhibit gets curated, gets selected, and what doesn’t.

And that’s what was interesting to me about her: She wasn’t an answer, but a set of questions. She was a kind of meta-text, as you said. She riled people up so much. That vexation that she produced seemed worth investigating. The combination of this incredibly seductive personality, plus this afterlife in the archives, plus the very negative responses people had to her. I was interested in her very conscious assembly of what our memory of her should be, and how that has played out.

By contrast, Madge Garland seemed to actively resist biography as she lived her life. In your section on camp, there’s this idea of momentary, incandescent presence, flashing from moment to moment, and in so doing resisting biographical narrative. 

There’s that, and the idea of discretion — the fact that she also deliberately obscured certain basic biographical facts, which also provided a kind of resistance to certain kinds of biographical narrative or understanding of her life. It was very important to me that each of these women were shaping their own story, as well as resisting having it told, as well as wanting it to be told. There’s a kind of knowingness of certain types of biographies that I wanted to work against. You can sort of end up thinking that you know more than your subject. But I remain ignorant in all kinds of ways about each of them, which is partly why the idea of failure was interesting to me in relation to the genre. Every biography is a failure in some way. It’s laced with all kinds of opacities, instabilities. There are things I just won’t ever know. I don’t want to come across as seeming like I know these people better than they know themselves.

How might that be possible?

Well, there are things we can know in retrospect that they can’t. We know the whole sweep of somebody’s life, more or less. When someone is eighteen, she doesn’t know what’s going to happen to her when she’s twenty-nine. You can’t write a life that’s happening like it’s a fait accompli. I think it’s important not to get ahead of things. I wanted to work at what it felt like to be Madge in each moment.

You’re talking about two approaches to extracting meaning from a life. On the one hand, once a person is dead, we know the complete arc of that person’s life, and we can begin to understand and write her story with a kind of single meaning, or lesson, that can only be understood retrospectively. Or you can approach her life the opposite of a signifying narrative — there’s not going to be a single explanation or meaning that you can extract from it. 

Well put. And it’s connected to why the book is called All We Know. We can’t know everything, but we want to. It’s at once everything we know and the very little we know.

I think that marries beautifully to your choice to portray three women in conversation with one another. Not just a single life, but also a collectivity. 

Absolutely. But you know, it’s not that these are non-narrative portraits; they are narratives. It was important to me to write stories that were compelling to keep reading. But yes, to also give a sense of not a single trajectory, but a sense of collectivity. Part of that was making things visible that are difficult to see — marking the values of the connections they had with other people, other women. There was a tension, as I was working, between the need to produce a narrative of a particular life, and my desire to not isolate that life from the others around it. There’s always the pull of the richness of all the other lives, including all of these non-central figures whose stories are really compelling — like Dorothy Todd, like Chester A. Arthur. It was not only that the three women were connected with each other and with people we already know about, but were embedded in this greater context, or multiple contexts, some of which haven’t been seen. Not many people know that Esther Murphy was such a close friend of Edmund Wilson, for example. He and his life are well known, her connection to him not so well known. And I wanted to make visible the lives of others, too, whose names haven’t come down to us in the same way.

It has to do with the idea of indebtedness. Biographical writing is completely riddled with indebtedness. You saw how long my acknowledgements are. My debts are to all those people who helped me, whose stories and memories and testimonies and documents made these portraits possible. And of course I’m incredibly indebted to my subjects. Each of the three of them was indebted to the people in her life, and often acknowledged those networks of indebtedness — emotional, financial, professional — particularly to other women.

Madge Garland, for example, was committed, up to the end of her life, to supporting younger women journalists as they started their careers. She really encouraged them. I met several of those people, who talked about their debts to her. How she simply encouraged them at a time when what they were doing wasn’t so common. It wasn’t like, for example, you: graduating from college at a time when it’s clearer to you, that [writing] is something you could do. It was a different moment, even in the seventies. And she remembered so acutely her struggle to write, and the people who had supported her. It was very important to her to pass that along.

And she encouraged you!

Well, in the sense that she grabbed my interest and didn’t let go. I really was driven to find out what I could about her. And by writing about her — deciding to write about her allowed me to change my life in some important ways.

What kinds of ways?

Oh, by making a commitment to write a book about her. That changed my life. Biography isn’t just a solitary occupation. All those people I interviewed — I met them, my work depends on their work. I wasn’t just sitting in my room writing a book. I was traveling and meting people for many years before I was writing. The process of that research was transformative in all kinds of ways.

One last question. You’ve said in other interviews that your triptych approach to All We Know is “nothing new.” But it does remain an untraditional way of approaching biography, and yet biography remains unseen as a creative form.

That’s true. Michael Holroyd has written about this, and talked about this in some very interesting ways. One of the things he argues is that nonfiction, the idea of nonfiction writing, is such a negating term and outlook. “Re-creative writing” is the term he’s interested in, or proposed.

What I wanted to do was to figure out how to produce a work of imagination that remained utterly true to the facts, while also grappling with what the facts are and can be. That tension between fact and imagination is what makes biographical writing so compelling. The interest is in language, as much as in lived experience — but I don’t see those two things as opposed. When it came to Madge Garland’s clothes, for example, and thinking about fashion, I wanted to write about couture as a rhetorical phenomenon, as well as a material phenomenon. Again, I don’t see those two things as diametrically opposed.

In every case, with each of these people, it’s a linguistic challenge, and an imaginative challenge, as well as an archival, factual challenge. I was trying to meld those impulses or drives. [That] is what motivated me, what held my interest through many, many years. It seemed like the problem I was trying to solve, just as much as I was trying to solve what Madge Garland had actually done between 1914 and 1918.  (Pauses.) I hope your tape recorder is working, because that was the nail on the head.


 

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