‘All We Know: Three Lives’ by Lisa Cohen

'All We Know: Three Lives' by Lisa Cohen

‘All We Know’ is a book about three women who all lived and loved in the 1920s/30s. All three women crossed paths – running across each other at cocktail parties, or at Parisian salons, or through the sharing of a lover as all three explored both male and female sexual relationships. But mainly, all three women have one characteristic in common – or at least according to author Lisa Cohen – that each lady in question did not live up to their ‘potential’.

‘It is a cliche of American life that we like our brilliance to flair up and die young, we like it to crash and burn.’

'All We Know: Three Lives' by Lisa Cohen

Esther Murphy was the first lady explored in this book. She was also the inspiration for the book’s title, as she tended to start her conversations with ‘All we know…’. Esther loved debating and learning, history and literature, but she seemed to most enjoy the sound of her own voice. She was best know for her long monologues – presented over dinner, drinks, or wherever. For the whole of her adult life she worked to gather data and write a novel – but at the end of her life she never managed to produce a completed or even partially readable draft.

Mercedes de Acosta’s story seemed more abriviated than the other two – and there also seemed to be a slight tone of condescension coming from the author, perhaps because Mercedes lived more the life of a concubine and less the life of an intellectual artist? From Mercedes’s telling, I most took away that she enjoyed taking female movie stars of great fame and beauty to her bed – and telling tales later. Good for her, if that is how she enjoyed living this blogger has no urge to pass judgement or deem her life unfulfilled.

I found I was most interested in Madge Garland’s tale as she was one of the founding forces between British ‘Vogue’ and her personality was one I could relate. She was a hard-worker and strong woman. She picked herself up after illness and failures, firings and bankruptcies, and always seemed to land on her feet. This was the one woman within the trio that I would heartily not consider a ‘failure’. She accomplished everything she hoped to in life, and more. And although she isn’t as well know a fashion luminary as Anna Wintour – Madge did in fact lay the groundwork for the modern day fashion scene.

I found that reading this book was a bit like attending a college lecture hall, which in the end makes perfect sense as Lisa Cohen is a professor by day/author by night. Cohen was sure to explain her theories and view in detail negating to a certain extent any desire for the reader to form a personal opinion. As I had little to no prior knowledge of these women and their lives, I found that most of Cohen’s explanations were incredibly informative though not exactly amusing. I also feel as though I would like to read some of the works created by these women – especially ‘Here Lies the Heart’ by Mercedes de Acosta and ‘A History of Fashion’ by Madge Garland – as I feel their words may give me a greater sense of their person than Cohen was able to project.

Through the course of telling Esther’s tale, her father Patrick Murphy is quoted as saying thus, and I find this sentiment best described how I felt nearing the end of this book …

‘The art of speaking is to say nothing – briefly. But the tragedy of it is the less a man has to say the more difficult he finds it to stop.’

Salon Summary

RECOMMENDABILITY: 3 {out of 5} stars  |  ★★★☆☆
REPETITIVE READABILITY: 1 {out of 5} stars  |  ★☆☆☆☆
RATING: 2 {out of 5} stars  |  ★★☆☆☆