Meticulously researched biography about three extraordinary but underappreciated women who, as they memorialized themselves, also “colluded in [creating their] own invisibility.”
The subjects of the book are the complicated, interconnected lives of New York intellectual Esther Murphy, playwright and celebrity admirer Mercedes de Acosta and fashion editor Madge Garland. Murphy was a brilliant, charismatic woman who dazzled everyone with her “extravagant verbal style.” Despite the minor successes she experienced with her essays and reviews, she was unable to finish any of the books she was contracted to write. Cohen (English/Wesleyan Univ.) hypothesizes that Murphy was a performer whose “need for an audience was so great that she could not isolate herself to write” the texts that would have earned her greater recognition. By contrast, de Acosta actively attached herself emotionally, and sometimes sexually, to some of the greatest performers of her time, including Isadora Duncan, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. But in the process of obsessively collecting memorabilia related to these women, she effectively erased her own life. Like de Acosta, Garland, an editor at British Vogue, also immersed herself in the world of women. A closeted lesbian who led a double sexual life to protect her social position, Garland “played a defining role in almost every aspect of the fashion industry in England in the interwar and postwar years.” Yet because she took interest in the ephemeral (fashion) and because she never trumpeted her achievements, she left no lasting memorial to her accomplishments. Murphy's life was an apparent monument to failure, de Acosta's to the irrational and Garland's to the trivial. As Cohen shows, however, each woman succeeded in problematizing the concept of modern celebrity.
Ambitious, erudite and only occasionally pedantic.