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All We Know: Three Lives

3.45  ·  Rating Details ·  219 Ratings  ·  54 Reviews
All We Know is one of Publishers Weekly's Top 10 Best Books of 2012

A revelatory biography of three glamorous, complex modern women

Esther Murphy was a brilliant New York intellectual who dazzled friends and strangers with an unstoppable flow of conversation. But she never finished the books she was contracted to write—a painful failure, and yet a kind of achievement.
The qu
Paperback, 448 pages
Published September 10th 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published July 3rd 2012)
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Community Reviews

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First Second Books
I read this book right after reading Joanna Russ’s _How to Supress Women’s Writing_, which turned out to be an interesting pairing choice – combining a book about how women are generally marginalized and minimalized with a book about some actual women who were marginalized and minimalized at the beginning of the 20th century.

It was fascinating to read about these lives and think about what they could have become if they had had some access to education and societal encouragement. I’m so glad I
Nov 28, 2012 Sharon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book has been so raved about in my bookish circles, and rightly so - it is intriguing and thoughtful, preserving three women hitherto slightly hidden from history without shrinking away from their less appealing qualities. The author is fascinated by the "boths" and "betweens" of these women, the paradoxes that surround each of them (and by extension, anyone who moves in history or who attempts to have an influence on their era and those to come), and communicates the questions and answers ...more
Amanda Mecke
Sep 29, 2012 Amanda Mecke rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When I came out in the 1970s, it was not easy to find biographies and history our early 20th Century "foremothers." Biographies and memoirs of Romaine Brooks, Gertrude Stein, Marlene Dietrich, Janet Flanner, and Sylvia Beach began to fill in background for these first women able to live independently and love other women, but until then most of what was written came from the snide comments of Fitzgerald or Hemingway about Paris before WW II.

Lisa Cohen's biography gives us more background about t
The lush novels of the 20's - full of fitzgerald and hemingway prose and filled with romantic stories of prohibition era parties and salon's, paris and spain adventures, french mediterrian countryside vacations, and rich and in depth social classes are uncovered by the factual stores of 3 women, all somehow entrenched in it.

The first narrative about Ester, was my favorite. Mercedes' chapter seemed to be an afterthought smacked in the middle of of the other two. But more importantly this is a boo
A really strange book, which I can only suppose was a PhD dissertation at some point. The author examines the lives of three lesbians who were middlingly famous in the first half of the 20th century. The packaging is a Great Mystery since she makes absolutely no attempt to connect these three lives.

The most famous of the women was Esther Murphy. Nothing going ding dong in your head? No worries: Nothing ding donged for me either until I realized that Esther Murphy was the sister of Gerald Murphy.
Mar 05, 2013 Amanda rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a gorgeously-written, witty, perceptive, and elegant book that in the end adds up to less than the sum of its highly-wrought parts. Apart from their sexual preference (all were lesbians), their age (all are roughly contemporaneous), their overlapping roster of friends, and the fact that none seemed to have achieved what Lisa Cohen believes was her full potential, what unites these women? Their stories are told independently, in three stand-alone parts, and seemed to cry out for some kind ...more
Aug 12, 2012 Cathy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a very well written group biography about three women born in the late 19th century who influenced the arts in the first half of the 20th century. All three were lesbians who moved in the same social circles in New York, London, and Paris. Esther Murphy was the daughter of "Mark Cross" owner Patrick Murphy, Meredes deAcosta was from a wealthy, stylish family in New York, and Madge Galand an Austrailian who was an early editor of British Vogue. They lived during a time when being gay was ...more
Claire McMillan
Nov 08, 2012 Claire McMillan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm not a biography nut, but I couldn't stop reading this. All these hazy thoughts that have been knocking around my brain about feminism and fashion and style and women and life and society were distilled by the author and passed through the structure of these three women's lives. I adored this book. I'm recommending it to people like a zealot.
Suzanne Stroh
[This review appeared first as a blog post on my website. That explains its length...]

Time to make room for a new biography in the bookcase. But where do I shelve it?

After Here Lies the Heart by Mercedes de Acosta, between Diana McLellan’s The Girls and Loving Garbo by Hugo Vickers? In what proximity to Diana Souhami’s sparer Greta and Cecil or Maria Riva’s spare-no-details book about her mother, Marlene Dietrich? Or should it go on the Paris-in-the-Twenties shelf beside A Moveable Feast, Henry
Oct 31, 2016 Jason rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An amazing biography of 3 extraordinary women and an extraordinary time!
Jenny McPhee
Aug 23, 2012 Jenny McPhee rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

In trying to come to terms with what she perceived as her friend Esther Murphy’s colossal failure of a life, the novelist Dawn Powell wrote to Esther’s brother Gerald, “Some people don’t want to be the action -- they really want to be spectator.” In All We Know: Three Lives, Lisa Cohen’s mind-stretching book about three early 20th-century women who dwelled on the margins of celebrity, Powell’s
Michele Weiner
This was a semi-interesting recounting of the lives and social milieux of three lesbian women who were impactful in some way during the '20's and '30's and beyond. Esther Murphy was a daughter of privilege. Her father was the owner of the Mark Cross company, maker of leather accessories. Her brother, Gerald, and his wife Sarah were close to the young Ernest Hemingway. Esther was an intellectual, a brilliant child and woman from whom much was expected. Her curiosity was enormous, and so was her c ...more
"A revelatory biography of three glamorous, complex, modern women. Esther Murphy was a brilliant New York intellectual who dazzled friends and strangers with an unstoppable flow of conversation. But she never finished the books she was contracted to write—a painful failure and yet a kind of achievement. The quintessential fan, Mercedes de Acosta had intimate friendships with the legendary actresses and dancers of the twentieth century. Her ephemeral legacy is the thousands of objects she collect ...more
Rebecca Wilkins
Sep 11, 2016 Rebecca Wilkins rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016
This is a biography of 3 women who were on the border of fame in Europe from the 1920's through the 1950's. These women were a failure, a fan and a fashionista or another adjective the author uses failure, irrational and trivial. I chose it because I wanted to know more about Esther Murphy, sister of Gerald. She was always on his bad list and asking for money. Apparently she was supposed to write books but instead all she did was talk about the books she was writing. The description of her is "S ...more
Feb 15, 2013 Joyce rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is sub-titled "Three Lives" and is a sort of biography of three women whose lives escape biography because they lived quite privately. Of necessity, as all three were lesbians, at a time when such a choice could be personally and professionally ruinous.

Of the three, Madge Garland was the most interesting to me due to my interests in both fashion and journalism. Ms Garland was one of the first fashion editors of British Vogue, or Brogue as it was affectionately termed. She lost that job
John E.
Jun 25, 2014 John E. rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An excellent triple biography of three women: the brilliant New York intellectual Esther Murphy (1897-1962), the Hollywood sceen writer Mercedes De Acosta (1893-1968), and British fashion icon Madge Garland (1896-1990), all famous during the 1930s, but now obscure and almost forgotten.

Almost forgotten, at least until "All We Know: Three Lives" by Lisa Cohen came out. This book stands out as outstanding biography, as biography should be written.

As the biographer of Esther Murphy's second husband,
Jun 21, 2013 Alice rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2014
Intriguing biographies of three women who lived and made or (didn't make) their mark in the early 20th century. Cohen details the complex struggles of women who knew they were lesbians and how they lived their lives without becoming moral outcasts in a time when homosexuality was a threat and a stigma. The book is full of fascinating detail about the culture of the twenties - through the fifties as these three women moved in out of political, intellectual, cultural, and haute couture circles. Th ...more
Jacob Wren
Aug 07, 2016 Jacob Wren rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Lisa Cohen writes:

“What is style?” the American modernist Marguerite Young has asked. Her own reply: “Style is thinking.” A riddle of unconscious excitements and conscious choices, style is a way to fascinate oneself and others – and to transform oneself and the world. It is an attempt to make the ordinary and the tragic more bearable. Style is a didactic impulse that aspires to banish doubt, a form of certainty about everything elusive and uncertain. Style is at once fleeting and lasting, and i
Aug 07, 2014 Amie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Another book, that I am not sure why I put this on my list to read, but it was an interesting read. I just wish that I knew more about the women involved, as some of it was a bit hard to follow, not knowing there lives.

The first section on Emily Murphy was a bit dis-jointed and to me had no real flow to the writing. It is a shame, as I would have liked to have read more about her.

The middle section on Mercedes de Acosta was interesting but short. I felt just as I was getting into her life, the s
‘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 l
Maureen M
Oct 08, 2012 Maureen M rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviews
I wrote this review for the paper:
They were once well-known, or even famous. Today Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, Madge McHarg are… who? These women cut a swath through literary, style and sexual circles in the 1920s and ’30s before sinking into obscurity. Author Lisa Cohen resurrects them in a trio of telling and fairly compelling mini-biographies. Murphy was a confidante of F. Scott Fitzgerald and a writer in her own right. But the biography she talked about endlessly never got written. De
Elisabeth Watson
Dec 21, 2012 Elisabeth Watson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Deeply satisfying, and a wonderful demonstration of the intellect's ability to engage emotional life. From beginning to end, Cohen is simultaneously generous and clear-eyed toward her subjects, three lesbian women who lived--more or less--in the first half of the 20th century. They were largely "unintegrated" into societal fabric through ties to important men or childbearing, and three devoted their lives to art forms (conversation, fashion, collecting) that are not usually mass-produced for fut ...more
Aug 12, 2013 Alison rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This one unfortunately suffered I think from too much authorship and too little editing. I admit to skimming past some pages because they were just getting...boring. There was too much space devoted to two of the subjects - Esther Murphy and Madge Garland - and too little to the third - Mercedes de Acosta. Murphy and Garland were certainly interesting, but the amount of detail and tangential stuff in their sections was unwieldy and made the sections drag. I almost feel like they would have worke ...more
Carl Rollyson
Oct 31, 2012 Carl Rollyson rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm listing this book as one of the five best biographies of 2012. Quite aside from the fascinating narrative about three women I was barely aware of, I found the treatment of biography, and Esther Murphy's penetrating study of the genre, fascinating. Of course I am a practicing biographer, so the book holds a special interest. One of the women, Madge Garland, I encountered when researching my biography of Rebecca West, but to see Garland become a major character was thrilling. This book first c ...more
Dec 27, 2012 Leigh rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: feminist
Not the most engrossing book. I think I wld have gotten a lot less out of it had I not read it for my feminist book group which had an excellent moderator who really did her homework on modernism in advance. Reading this book really made me appreciate all the advantages that women and lesbians have today compared to the early 20th century when these women were struggling to find their place in the world. I think it is easy to forget how hard it must have been for them. So it's good to be reminde ...more
Sep 07, 2015 Emily rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biographies-etc
The first two lives were a little thin. I got the feeling that a more traditional biography could be made of the first life, but somehow the author veered away from it and went off on some philosophical tangents, some of which repeated each other. My preference is for a more traditional biography, hence my crankiness. Sadly, said crankiness only increased with the second one, which was more of an extended essay than anything else.

The third life, however, was gripping and quite successful. Well-b
Aug 19, 2013 Bob rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was surprised at the number of notes and bookmarks I posted throughout this book. The subtitle of "All We Know" is "Three Lives" and on one level it is simply a biography of these three women. On the other hand, it is chock full of concepts that often get lost in biographical narratives. To quote Lisa Cohen, it is "a storehouse of modern anxieties about what we call failure, irrationality and triviality" "These are three stories, then, about how history is lived, written, and imagined-three li ...more
Dec 16, 2012 Jennifer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
What an ambitious and well structured book. I don't recall reading a biography of three people who weren't directly related but she makes an excellent case for showing three semi-forgotten lives to reveal about the times. There is a lot of research and thought in this book, many interesting ideas and historical alleys to wander down. If it does bog down in passages, it is not dull. I enjoyed reading this as a long discussion spanning many ideas.
Ms. Kamerow
All We Know is an incredibly thoughtful book. Lisa Cohen describes the lives and contexts of three people whose names have faded a bit with time. I enjoyed her commentary on topics like camp, but the first third of the book was a little bit slow. Overall, I feel as though I could have read several longform articles on these subjects and been satisfied, but I respect the body of research that went into this work. I would recommend this book for history buffs interested in a deep dive.
Lisa Luczek
Mar 16, 2014 Lisa Luczek rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Biography containing profiles of three women in the first half of the 20th century as they explored their lives, often skirting the 'L' question. Read this just after the Isherwood bio which made for compare and contrast observations since the time lines were similar. Definitely chick lit, but would be interesting to those interested in this era, and the highly stylized ways (and sexuality) of those times.
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