You better not tell me you forgot

Terry Castle

  • All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen
    Farrar Straus, 429 pp, £22.50, July 2012, ISBN 978 0 374 17649 5

Scene: Chinese restaurant, Cambridge, Massachusetts, early 1980s, the start of a new academic year. Seated at a large table are seven women in their twenties to forties, all writers and literature scholars, most of whom are just beginning year-long fellowships at the Bunting Institute – the feminist think tank (now known as the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study) at Harvard University. Some in the group are old friends; others are meeting for the first time. Everyone is in high spirits. Among those chattering girlishly as spring rolls and won ton arrive:

Young but already world-famous deconstructionist literary critic, long involved in a lesbian relationship with an older professor at Yale.

Somewhat mannish, chain-smoking medievalist of mysterious inclinations, with whom Famous Young Deconstructionist has become infatuated, even as she (FYD) attempts to disentangle herself from said Yale professor.

Eighteenth-century scholar who – to widespread surprise – has just left her husband and embarked on affair with female historian at one of the Seven Sisters colleges.

Future senior colleague of mine, straight till now, if not something of a female libertine, who has recently been seduced by butch 18-year-old daughter of another future colleague.

The 18-year-old in question, now at an East Coast prep school. (Yup, she’s hot.)

Myself, mid-twenties and single, but mad keen on it all: Imminent Global Sapphic Takeover, that is.

Aggressive, competitive, exorbitantly heterosexual Poet Lady with long flowing hair. Thirty years later, one of the Reigning Poetry Divas of Our Time.

Poet Lady [in great excitement, to the group]: Hey, guys, you’ll never believe the weird gossip I just heard!

[Everyone smiles and listens expectantly.]

Poet Lady: Yeah, somebody told me the Bunting Institute is full of lesbians ! ! ! !

[Smiles freeze, entire table lapses into mortified silence. Several women gaze down thoughtfully into bowls of won ton. Poet Lady looks fuddled and vaguely uneasy. Someone finally manages, raggedly, to change the subject. ]

*

‘There is a visibility so tenuous, so different, or so discomfited that it is easy to miss,’ Lisa Cohen observes in All We Know, and, contrariwise, ‘a visibility so simple, so precise, or so extreme that it, too, is obscure.’ Why do we see what we see? Why do we fail to see what others see? Can we see things before they are ready to be seen? Can we see things before we are ready to see them? Such questions lie at the heart of Cohen’s strikingly elegant and assured biographical study of three now almost forgotten lesbian women: the American heiress and intellectual polymath Esther Murphy (1897-1962); Mercedes de Acosta (1893-1968), the Cuban-American Hollywood screenwriter, memoirist and seductress extraordinaire (Garbo and Dietrich and Isadora Duncan were among her conquests); and the brittle yet pioneering British fashion editor and stylesetter Madge Garland (1898-1990). Cohen’s account of their richly oxymoronic erotic lives – lives at once hard to see and hard to miss, archly recondite and recklessly available – will no doubt confound Poet Ladies everywhere. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be twiddling our chopsticks and going all clammy.

Ironically, Cohen herself resists the notion that she is merely bringing light to the clueless, though that is the most immediate and valuable of the tasks this marvellous work of gay and lesbian history accomplishes. ‘In one of her essays on biography, “Lives of the Obscure”,’ Cohen notes in the preface,

Virginia Woolf writes that ‘one likes romantically to feel oneself a deliverer advancing with lights across the waste of years to the rescue of some stranded ghost … waiting, appealing, forgotten, in the growing gloom.’ This romance has its appeal. I have wanted to make these three women visible again, albeit in new ways, and I have spent years tracking them. But none of them thought herself in need of rescue.

This last claim may be true enough: Murphy, de Acosta and Garland were all formidable women, largely unacquainted with self-pity. But not only is Cohen being a bit perverse – the salvage operation here is grand and thrilling – she sounds a tiny bit wishful too. Her overriding purpose, she writes, is to convince the reader that her neglected heroines deserve to be recognised as unsung yet noteworthy ‘thinkers about modernity’. ‘While each one published,’ she argues,

each also produced a body of thought that could not be worked out fully on paper. As a result, each has been seen as not quite part of history, when seen at all … Esther Murphy’s immersion in history, literature and politics, her uncanny memory, and her obsessive talking; the flotsam and jetsam of Mercedes de Acosta’s fandom; Madge Garland’s brilliantly clothed surfaces and her apparently impersonal writings on fashion – all are forms of evidence, of production and of autobiography … All are archives, formal and intimate.

The lesbian element was somehow a stimulus to these deep yet unwritten cogitations; a key, she thinks, to the concealed ‘archive’ of each woman’s heart and mind:

Sexual identity is an anachronistic term for [the context in which they worked], and is in any case too static to convey how the feelings and acts it refers to changed for these women throughout their lives. But for all three, sexual freedom, difference and censure were crucial to their experiences of modernity and to their work as thinkers about modernity.

It’s a nice, if slightly ineffable, idea, that being a dyke might make one a ‘thinker about modernity’. (But of what kind? A lesbian Adorno or a lesbian Heidegger? A lesbian Groucho Marx? What about Harpo?) At the same time, however, such a premise is perhaps rather too advanced, not to mention vague, for those who have yet to wrap their heads around sapphism in its more local and earthbound incarnations. Indeed, from one harsh angle, modernity might as well sit on it and rotate.

Thirty years after dinner with the Poet Lady, one still finds oneself staring into the won ton all too frequently, dismayed yet again at how invisible, literally and figuratively, lesbianism remains, even in the great rainbow-flag-waving cities of the West. Some of the smartest and most well-meaning straight people still don’t get it – in fact, don’t even see it. This mole-blindness is all the more bizarre given the unremittingly vulgar sexual explicitness that otherwise assaults us everywhere in the mass media, not least in the cartoon world of online pornography. One is forced to conclude that heterosexual obliviousness has its own twisty, uncanny, self-perpetuating life: a Rasputin-like determination not to die. You think you’ve finally squashed it dead and then up it pops again. It seems to have the blessing of the tsarina too.

Cohen’s book is a boon, not so much because it sets about canonising three new and previously unregarded ‘thinkers’ about modernity, but because it conveys such an intense, even fetishistic sense of lesbian presence: of individual lesbian lives, sanitised or scandalous, sterile or sensual, lived out in all of their idiosyncrasy, vividness and irreplaceable particularity. Despite the Lockean-sounding title, All We Know is not a work of ‘queer’ epistemology, or at least not of the abstract and theoretical kind associated with the late Eve Sedgwick. (The title phrase turns out to be one of Murphy’s – typically uttered at a supper or cocktail party when she was about to launch into a fascinating yet unstoppable monologue on one of her pet literary, historical or political obsessions. Asked about Madame de Pompadour, Metternich, Saint-Simon’s diaries, Nietzsche, the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, the New Deal, Marxist theory – asked about anything, really – she was likely to begin: ‘Well, all we know is …’ The list of topics that could set her off, friends said, was itself seemingly limitless.)

No, the triumph here isn’t to be found in Cohen’s reaching now and then after theoretical straws. On the contrary, the book’s strength lies in the extraordinary, exfoliating, anatomy-like mass of detail she has uncovered about her subjects: her tender, erudite, weirdly jubilant, often microscopic work of historical and biographical recovery. The particulars are the point. The inalienable facts of a life are what really matter, not the cloudy generalisations one might wish to extract from them before or after the fact.

And paradoxically enough, such details can bring with them, as they do here, their own kind of illumination. Though sapphists all, each one of Cohen’s subjects was quite fabulously eccentric, even theatrically so. Each displayed her own distinctive tragicomic quidditas. By capturing this charmed singularity so generously – i.e. by taking Murphy, de Acosta and Garland’s differences from one another as seriously as she takes their similarities – Cohen humanises them. Indeed, so suave is the rendering of the lives of the three women described here, one is emboldened to hope that even the most obtuse reader might come away from All We Know, if not with some synoptic understanding of the lesbian ‘tribe’ (whatever that might be), then at least with an ability to spot members of that tribe when they are seated around the dinner table. All we know – and all we don’t know – is there, in the particulars, the dramatis personae, so to speak; and without particulars, well … there’s no way of knowing.

*

Which isn’t to say that Cohen has chosen her trio of lesbian worthies arbitrarily. Why this particular threesome? In part, because of the way they chose one another. Near exact contemporaries (all born in the 1890s) Murphy, de Acosta and Garland, it turns out, all knew one another well, or well enough. (Murphy and de Acosta attended the same posh New York girls’ day school; Garland and de Acosta may have had an affair.) They shared friends and lovers, or at least lovers-in-law, on occasion. (Sybille Bedford floats around in this book like a benign sapphic putto.) And though residing in different places at different times, all of them moved for more than half a century in the same impossibly glamorous literary and artistic circles in London, Paris, Manhattan, the Riviera and elsewhere. The now seldom heard phrase ‘café society’ captures something of the social milieu they occupied but does not describe it completely. Cohen’s subjects were rather more intellectually inclined than the ‘café society’ label suggests; and all three, though discreet about their private lives, might nonetheless have been put off by the crass (and self-protective) queer-baiting displayed by some of the more loquacious and hypocritical members of the international Jazz Age smart set. (Far more needs to be said – by someone, sometime – about that perplexing, puckish, self-censoring and altogether sinister ‘period’ sprite, the celebrity-chasing and deeply closeted impresaria Elsa Maxwell.)

All three of Cohen’s subjects were intelligent, ambitious, creative, forceful women blessed with charisma, charm and near inexhaustible energy, not to mention the financial wherewithal to create around themselves what their biographer calls, tactfully enough, ‘a carefully arranged life of the senses’. All three enjoyed the frank and gilded perquisites of money and class. Even the fashion writer Madge Garland, embarrassed by her provincial Australian roots and the only one of the three who really had to work for a living, might be described as aristocratic-by-default, in the same contingent and self-legislating way that Cecil Beaton or Elsie de Wolfe was. Impeccably dressed in Poiret or Mainbocher, chummy with dukes and screen idols, little Madge from Melbourne seemed to make herself grand through an act of fiat lux.

Esther Murphy on Long Island, 1923.
Esther Murphy on Long Island, 1923.

Summing up his long and loving friendship with the self-thwarting Esther Murphy in The Fifties (1986), Edmund Wilson recalled how vividly, if also profligately, Murphy – whose particular tragedy was to have an alcohol-saturated writer’s block of mammoth proportions and lifelong duration – embodied ‘the special characteristics of our race of the 1920s: habit of leisure and at least enough money … freedom to travel and read, to indulge and exhaust curiosities, completely uninhibited talks, resistance to challenge of the right to play, to the idea of growing old, settling down to a steady maturity’. Wilson continues to impress because even at his chattiest and most off-the-cuff (as here) he manages to flavour what he says with intellectual surprise: some quick sprinkle or soupçon of conceptual magic. Here it must be that arresting phrase, the right to play. Like Beaton, the Sitwells, Cole Porter, Nancy Cunard, Noël Coward, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Lady Diana Cooper and countless other hedonistic Jazz Age types, Murphy, de Acosta and Garland took the right to play for granted, as well they might. Puritanism was an anachronism and in some renovated pagan sense tiresome and offensive too.

In Cohen’s view, no doubt the most interesting thing her trio of subjects shared was an unorthodox ‘set of emotions’: that tumultuous complex of thought and feeling, at once sweet and ineluctable, risky and recherché, generated by what she calls ‘the socially inopportune ardour of one woman for another’. (The formal-sounding delicacy of this last phrase is characteristic of her style.) Perhaps unremarkably given the social codes of the time and the need for respectable cover, all three women married – Murphy and Garland twice each. But as Cohen reveals, all were ‘committed primarily to other women, all participated in the close-knit, fractious lesbian networks of New York, London and Paris.’

‘Committed’ is a bit of an understatement. Between them, Murphy, de Acosta and Garland seem to have hobnobbed and/or slept with virtually Every Famous Gal on the Bus between 1900 and 1980. Dedicated dyke-wonkettes will flutter, if not hyperventilate, at some of the A-list names cropping up regularly in All We Know: Maude Adams (the first Peter Pan); the Russian film star Alla Nazimova (a teetering Salomé in the ultra-campy cinematic 1923 version of Wilde’s play); Isadora Duncan, the bisexual modern dancer; the interior decorator Elsie de Wolfe and her Broadway-producer lover Bessie Marbury; the actresses Eva Le Gallienne, Katharine Cornell, Ona Munson, Teddie Gerard, Tallulah Bankhead and Hope Williams; the rakish lesbian salonnière Natalie Barney; Dolly Wilde (Oscar’s opium-addicted niece); Marie Laurencin, painter and friend of Picasso; the Ballets Russes dancer Tamara Karsavina; the photographer Berenice Abbott; modernist designer Eileen Gray; Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson, editors of the avant-garde literary magazine the Little Review; not to mention Colette, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Djuna Barnes, Romaine Brooks, Virginia Woolf, Janet Flanner, Vita Sackville-West, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Ivy Compton-Burnett, the gallery owner Betty Parsons – even the kooky, spooky, more-than-a-little-ropey Patricia Highsmith, a gothic late-life pal, intriguingly, of Murphy’s.

It’s true that the polyamorous de Acosta accounted for many, if not most, of the downright sexual conquests here. To read about her star-studded sex life is to be reminded of those celebrity ‘shag-tree’ diagrams found on the internet, the ones that purport to show that Tom Cruise and Pope Benedict, say, have both slept with X or Y. But Murphy and Garland weren’t exactly pillow-queens either.

Just about the only person mostly missing from the intimate cavalcade of biddable and beddable is Radclyffe Hall, author of the notorious lesbian tear-jerker The Well of Loneliness (1928). But even she makes oblique appearances. De Acosta was wont to describe Garland’s stone-butch girlfriend of the 1920s, the hatchet-faced Dorothy (‘Dody’) Todd, pioneering editor of British Vogue and a heroic if sloppy dipsomaniac, as ‘the bucket in the well of loneliness’.

*

Enchanting tidbits like this last are everywhere in All We Know. (It might be subtitled And Then Some.) But the author is most animated by the pathos of the individual life: who each woman was – or wished to be – when she was alone with herself. For same-sex desire, she implies, has as much to do with introspection as it does with carnality, and in the ‘inopportune ardour’ of her subjects she recognises the potential for a certain radical mental freedom. It makes sense: to embrace one’s sapphic feelings – to come out to oneself – is necessarily to rethink the world. For not only is one made at once to confront one’s apparently permanent alienation from the ‘normal’ or mainstream, one finds one has to adjudicate, in the most piercing and personal way, on a raft of ethical, religious and scientific questions. Are one’s desires felonious or unnatural, as most traditional belief systems (distressingly) continue to insist? Or are they something rather more benign – simply a ‘variant’ expression of human sexuality? If the latter is the case, couldn’t one view same-sex passion, in turn, as a perhaps useful evolutionary adaptation? As an age-old demographic reality, possibly hardwired into the souls of some, that actually enriches and diversifies human civilisation? Such questions are unavoidable and pressing; for no matter how timid and law-abiding one is by nature, at the moment of self-recognition one suddenly finds oneself conspicuously in the wrong in the eyes of much of the world – caught out in a posture of stark and shocking defiance. By merely existing, it seems, one does fairly spectacular damage to entrenched collective presumptions about sexuality and society.

For some women, the challenge is too much. A more conventional life, some compensatory indulgence, some bad faith option, may beckon and offer refuge. Yet in others, the experience prompts an intellectual liberation, a new Weltanschauung of sorts. An entire edifice of socially imposed sexual myths, assumptions and taboos suddenly begins to look termite-ridden, carious, rotten: morally indefensible. The world itself is seen to be wanting; everything must be adjusted accordingly. Each woman who experiences this kind of epiphany has to decide for herself by how much; and Cohen’s three subjects varied dramatically in how well they adapted to the cognitive challenges of self-acceptance.

*

Nowhere is the pain of the challenge conveyed more acutely than in the book’s inaugural section, on the voluble, gawky, prodigiously informed, rueful and ruinous Esther Murphy. One reason Murphy remains obscure (she was so to me before reading Cohen) is that it’s hard to know how to describe her succinctly. About the most one might say is that she was a Big Deal – a Major Muckety-Muck, a Regular Somebody-or-Other – in literary and artistic society in New York, London and Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. Which isn’t on the face of it to say a lot. Though superbly gifted she left no obvious or tangible legacy. (Cohen repeatedly calls her a failure: in fact she gives one chapter the title ‘A Perfect Failure’.) Her story is nonetheless a moving and emblematic one: that of a bluestocking would-be genius for whom everything unravelled.

The failure was multifaceted though mostly self-administered. Born in Manhattan into a wealthy Irish-American business family (the Mark Cross leather goods fortune), Murphy has remained out of focus in part because she was, and continues to be, overshadowed by her splashy older brother, the sleek, sociable (and seriously good) modernist painter of the 1920s, Gerald Murphy, patron of Picasso and Léger. (Together with his wife Sara, Gerald was party-giver-in-chief for the Lost Generation, that fabled crowd of American expatriates in Paris between the wars, and the likeliest model for Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night.) All her life Esther envied Gerald his education and masculine privilege, while he, in turn, seems to have found her lesbianism objectionable. He and his wife mostly shunned Esther later in life – not being able, as one friend put it, to accommodate her in that ‘little opalescent sphere in which they maintained themselves’.

But Esther too moved in charmed circles. Edmund Wilson was one of the few people who could match her in both learned wit and alcohol intake. (One of the odd things about Murphy and Wilson – at least to judge by photos in this book – is how much they looked like each other: the same penetrating, separated-at-birth expression, tight small mouths and grapey dark eyes.) Other famous Esther-admirers, and they were numerous, included both Fitzgeralds, the New York society hostess Muriel Draper, John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, Nancy Mitford, Dawn Powell, even Mary McCarthy, whose rivalrousness towards other intellectual women is legendary. The fact that Murphy seems to have been one of the kindliest people on earth no doubt only magnified her attractiveness.

Though lacking scholarly training (like Virginia Woolf, Murphy basically educated herself in her father’s library), she had, by all accounts, an encyclopedic knowledge of literature, history and the arts, politics past and present, and could expatiate on hundreds of topics at dazzling, dizzying length. (Too much so, some thought; she tended to monopolise supper-table conversation and according to one friend needed to be ‘steered’ back to chitchat when she became too excitedly pedantic.) The Ancien Régime particularly absorbed her: she would spend most of her life researching an erudite, never-to-be-completed biography of Madame de Maintenon, unofficial consort and second wife of Louis XIV. Another biographical project on Madame de Pompadour also went unfinished. Nancy Mitford and others who knew Murphy well considered her a modern incarnation of the salonnière – a woman whose witty talk, warmth of spirit and intellectual authority might have given the Marquise de Rambouillet, Madeleine de Scudéry or even the stupendous Germaine de Staël a run for her money.

Despite a profoundly homoerotic disposition (early loves included her fellow millionairess, the Paris hostess and ‘wild girl’ Natalie Barney) and her complete lack of anything resembling conventional prettiness or femininity – she was gangly, six feet tall and favoured tweeds and brogues – Murphy married twice: first, in 1929, the Labour politician John Strachey (Oswald Mosley was best man); second, in 1935, Chester Arthur III, known as Gavin Arthur, the spoiled grandson of the 21st American president. Both men seem to have married Murphy – dubbed by New York papers the ‘Bachelor Heiress’ – in some portion for her money: Strachey (from whom she was soon divorced) to finance his parliamentary campaigns, Arthur in order to dabble in astrology and various experiments in socialist living. Arthur was not only a member of something called the Utopian Society, dedicated to abolishing capitalism, but the head of the ‘Dunites’, a weird collective made up of ‘mystics, hermits, vegetarians, psychics and nudists’ who lived in a commune – yes, near the dunes – in Oceano, a beach town in California.

Why Murphy wished to marry either of them, other than for social camouflage, is difficult to figure. In the case of the madcap Gavin Arthur (later to move to San Francisco and become one of the first ‘Radical Faeries’) Cohen suspects it was ‘some combination of blindness, desire for intimacy, and the knowledge that he would leave her alone for much of the time’, an astute calculation given his lifelong penchant for sailors and rough trade. (Arthur clearly demands a biography of his own. Raffishly handsome and an occasional film actor, he can be seen to absolutely riveting effect in Kenneth Macpherson’s 1930 avant-garde masterpiece Borderline, starring H.D., Bryher and Paul Robeson. He plays the adulterous husband of H.D., who is likewise visually transfixing. Later, he would become a popular Bay Area psychic, a friend to Allen Ginsberg and the Beats and the experimental filmmaker James Broughton and a prominent gay political activist.) Despite Arthur’s chronic selfishness, Esther appears to have treated him in a generous if not saintly spirit. He ended up extracting quite of lot of money from her and decades after they split was still trying to blackmail her for more.

It was while married to Arthur that Murphy produced the only real ‘work’ of her life. This meagre corpus consists of a few published essays and a series of political speeches and radio talks. (As the Second World War approached she became a fervent anti-isolationist and Roosevelt partisan.) She continued to labour on her Maintenon and Pompadour research; wrote reams of correspondence to her many friends; and drank to Rabelaisian excess. By the mid-1940s she was prominent enough in certain circles to be made – as her brother was – into a fictional character. She appears in Lloyd Morris’s This Circle of Flesh as Sheila Conway, an odd-looking précieuse with ‘the figure of a Valkyrie, the broad and candid face of a plain boy’ and the ‘puzzled eagerness’ in her eyes of ‘a woman who has found no means of provoking desire in men’. In what sounds like a fairly silly short story by her friend Max Ewing, she goes by the Firbankian name of Miss Boadicea Hangover, an ‘appallingly erudite heiress … [who] declaimed excitedly, her voice resounding … On and on she went, Meditation after Expostulation, her memory never failing.’

Rather more cherishably, she’s a central figure in one of the great cult books – by one of the great cult authors – of the 20th century. In 1946, Murphy accompanied Sybille Bedford, with whom she had fallen passionately in love after leaving Arthur, on a strenuous and often rackety year-long peregrination through pre-tourist Mexico. (O, charmed and charming Sybille, when will someone write your biography?) In Bedford’s stylish mock-epic account of the trip, A Visit to Don Otavio (1953), Murphy appears as ‘E.’ (sometimes ‘Mrs. A.’), the narrator’s mysterious, mandarin and hilarious travelling companion, a tall, portly and patriotic American lady resolutely unimpressed by Mexico and Mexicans, and given to bluff Johnsonian harumphings on the people, the scenery, the food and drink, the political corruption and considerable squalor they encounter. It’s a comic portrait filled with love and intelligence and camp, strangely intimate too, even though Bedford, by temperament (and necessity) a somewhat fey Boswell, nowhere makes the amorous nature of their relationship explicit.

Yet, as a bequest, none of it amounts to much. If Murphy was a ‘thinker about modernity’ the thinking was of some ultimately hobbling and self-critical kind: she couldn’t bring herself to write any of it down. The great thoughts were soap bubbles, afloat for a few seconds, then gone. Cohen’s account of Murphy’s later years is a depressing one, her subject having been pickled in gin and bourbon most of the time. (Not only that: never having been particularly fastidious even in her youth, it seems, she also took up ‘urinating when and where she felt like it’.)

True, Murphy had a soft, sad landing – dying suddenly of a stroke in 1962. But intolerable still is the discovery made by Bedford, her executor, while sifting afterwards through the massive jumble of her papers: of the much touted Maintenon biography – the life’s work, bruited about and brooded over, Gibbon-like, for nearly half a century – all that Murphy had managed to leave behind were thirty or so handwritten pages in an old notebook and a wodge of loose sheets, the pitiful drafts and redrafts of a never-to-be finished first chapter.

Naturally, one ends up wondering how much her homosexuality had to do with the gabble and the drinking and the peculiar blockage and disappointment of her life. Among other things Murphy’s own perfectionism seems to have defeated her. But perfectionism almost always develops out of some prior, self-inflicted wound. Did some inner shame or disquiet over her lesbianism make her feel she didn’t deserve to succeed? There were similar flame-outs among her lesbian friends and acquaintances: Djuna Barnes, silent for five misanthropic decades after the success of Nightwood (1936); Jane Bowles, the brilliant, dissipated short story writer, another victim of sapphic acedia. It’s all very circular and maddening and Cohen, wisely, resists any reductive explanations. All we know – here at least – is that when it comes to writing, the despairing perfectionism known as alcoholism can be as tragically inhibiting as it is sordid to witness.

*

No such blockage seems to have afflicted Cohen’s second subject, the poet, hack playwright, Hollywood screenwriter, society gadfly, guru-chasing theosophist and world-class sapphic seductress Mercedes de Acosta. She had no trouble whatsoever producing claggy reams of verse and feeble costume dramas devoted to butch medieval heroines like Joan of Arc. Nor does she seem to have agonised much over her flaky memoir, Here Lies the Heart (1960), a strange kiss-and-almost-tell-but-not-quite about her lifelong erotic obsession with Greta Garbo and other glamorous Hollywood iconesses. (When de Acosta’s former lover Eva Le Gallienne heard the memoir’s title, she suggested the words ‘And Lies and Lies and Lies’ be appended to it.) If anything, bathos, as much as pathos, was the element in which Mercedes delightedly swam, like a preening baigneuse breasting the warm-water waves off Malibu and Santa Monica.

Mercedes de Acosta in 1934.
Mercedes de Acosta in 1934.

Cohen’s portrait of her is relatively brief compared with those of Murphy and Garland, in part, one assumes, because some of de Acosta’s bizarre story has been told before. If not exactly ‘known’ – or at least not to many straight people – she’s not entirely unknown on Queer Street. Gay and lesbian scholars have paid sporadic tribute to this cheekiest of mares. There’s a full-length biography (not so great) and two books, both excellent, dealing with de Acosta’s Garbo fixation – its rhapsodic beginnings (she and the star had a glorious secluded tryst at a mountain cabin in the High Sierra); Garbo’s infuriating ‘go-away-a-little-closer’ routine as de Acosta became ever more importunate; and how the whole business got farcically triangulated with, of all people, Cecil Beaton, who in a moment of uncharacteristic studliness had himself also romanced and bedded the beautiful Swedish numb-eel.[*]

Not that one ever tires of hearing about Mercedes – she gave, and still gives, fabulous copy. Like her friend Murphy she came from the upper echelons of New York society: her father was a wealthy Cuban political exile and her mother a minor Spanish grandee of the old school. For some reason, these comic-opera parents raised de Acosta as a boy: she was called Rafael and made to wear little trews and bolero jackets until puberty. Perhaps as a result the excitable Mercedes seems to have suffered from – some would say enjoyed – a walloping case of gender dysphoria all her life. Adolescent crushes on the actresses Maude Adams and Alla Nazimova foreshadowed a lifetime of chasing after any celebrated female thespian who aroused even a hint of Schwärmerai. Having landed the longed-for damsel, de Acosta would proceed to shower her with trinkets and slave-girl adulation for as long as the woman could stand it.

However cloying, the gambits were wildly successful. Many ladies were called and many, bogglingly enough, let themselves be chosen: Nazimova, Isadora Duncan, Le Gallienne, the silent film star Pola Negri, and later, not only the skittish Garbo but Dietrich too. (As Cohen puts it, lascivious ‘little Mercedes’ was someone who experienced a ‘lifetime of fantasies coming true’.) Some of this success was no doubt the result of her own sleek charms: judging by pictures, de Acosta was dark and slim and pretty much a knockout, if in a somewhat Bela Lugosi mode. Even while residing in sunny Hollywood she dressed much of the time like one of the undead – silky and nocturnal-looking in black vampire cape, tricorn hat, pointy flamenco shoes, white geisha make-up and a slash of dark red lipstick. This ghoulish get-up seems to have made her irresistible.

Cohen rehearses de Acosta’s astonishing sensual history gracefully enough, but her main goal is to persuade us that de Acosta was also an intellectual of sorts, above all, someone whose ‘archival’ legacy deserves to be taken seriously. We should be impressed, Cohen argues, by what she calls, somewhat pompously, de Acosta’s lifelong collecting ‘practice’, the rug rat way she hoarded everything she received from Garbo and other lovers, no matter how trivial: letters, telegrams, random cards and blank scraps of paper, dried flowers, snapshots, pieces of clothing, even a sheet of tracing paper with the outline of Garbo’s foot on it. (All of these relics are preserved at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia.) Among the Garbo souvenirs the oddest is the ‘Garbo Bible’: de Acosta’s personal Bible, into which she collaged pictures of the actress, along with handwritten transcriptions from the Book of Matthew. (‘The stars she admired’, Cohen writes, invariably ‘condensed divinity and celebrity’.) Of the back-up goddess – Deputy Goddess Dietrich – there are likewise striking mementos, including a single yellow sock and a lipstick-smeared scarf, all now, one presumes, in protective acid-free envelopes.

I must confess at this point to being something of a Mercedes-de-Acosta-phobe. Energetic as she may have been, she’s always struck me as comically stupid: a sort of lesbuffoon. (A vastly entertaining one, though. Here Lies the Heart is kitsch and insane and wonderful.) However seductive, she seems never to have acquired much self-knowledge or common sense – not even by the end of her life, which, having bungled her professional affairs, she spent in considerable penury. But Cohen wants to see her, again, as a ‘thinker about modernity’ and discovers in her gamey treasure-trove – surely an eBay lover’s wet dream – evidence of rhapsodic cerebration: ‘It is a body of work that makes it clear that the poetry for which Mercedes de Acosta should be remembered is made of the fugitive lines of a fan’s devotion, and that this affect and activity have more than a little in common with an archivist’s belief in the importance of preserving a material sense of history.’

Precisely by way of relic-collecting, Cohen suggests, Mercedes articulated a quasi-curatorial reflection on sexuality and the sublime, fame and its aura, eros and imagination, and the emotion-drenched significance of collecting itself:

Amassing material about her famous friends, [de Acosta] amassed proof that she had existed; proof that she had participated in worlds that she loved and admired; proof that she, too, had been loved and admired; proof that, although it was impossible to think of herself as great, it was possible to think of herself as someone who understood greatness and had inspired the great to be greater.

True, I guess, but maybe a bit puffed-up? At such florid moments Cohen seems to lose her otherwise sophisticated sense of the absurd. Granted, one more mite of disclosure is only fair here: I couldn’t help noticing I was discreetly reprimanded in All We Know for having once declared the divine Mercedes – a believer in the Astral Plane – hopelessly daft. Yet rhetorical chastisement notwithstanding, it’s still hard to view a lipstick-smeared scarf, a yellow sock etc as ‘material’ poetry or some kind of performance art. Hearteningly, the sensible Esther Murphy seems to have agreed. While attached to Mercedes and ready to see her, paradoxically, as ‘fundamentally an intelligent and subtle woman’, Murphy also noted (in a letter to Gavin Arthur) that ‘her mind seemed to go in layers like Neapolitan ice, and some of the layers were pretty trashy.’

*

Far from trashy, by contrast, the mind of Cohen’s last subject, the multitalented sartorialist Madge Garland. At nearly two hundred pages, this portrait comes close enough to full-blown biography: it could almost, but not quite, stand alone. The intensified sense of sapphic networks would be lost and some of the intriguing cross-links between the trio members – such as Garland’s provocative comment not long before she died that de Acosta was ‘one of the women I have loved most in my life’. (She and Mercedes may have had an affair when Garland visited the US as a trade representative for the British fashion industry.) But Garland had a strength and resilience – a sort of iron-rod emotional realism and pragmatism – that the other two lacked. ‘What is it,’ Cohen asks, ‘that allows some people to rescue themselves – to make something of what they know and have lived through – while others sink?’ In the case of Garland, the woman would seem to have decided somewhere along the line – simply yet ruthlessly – not to bollix her life up.

Which would have been easy enough to do given some of the obstacles to satisfaction she faced. Born in Melbourne, Garland was the child of respectable but dull and philistine parents – a well-to-do businessman father, a distant fashion-plate mother, who while ‘sensuously impressive’ was ‘inadequately loving’. Like her contemporary Edith Sitwell, Garland suffered as a child from a curvature of the spine that necessitated her spending hours propped up in a steel corset or strapped to a sloping wooden board. And like Sitwell, too, Garland developed an aggressively stylish yet weirdly non-permeable exterior: perhaps as a compensatory by-product of this strange, primitive, artificial stiffening. What reserves of softness there were were hidden deep, deep inside.

Yet if Garland grew up moody, shy and withdrawn – her parents described her to friends as ‘charmless’ – she was also fired with ambition, a love of beauty and a burning curiosity about the world. A brief stay at a posh boarding school in Paris just before the outbreak of the First World War, Cohen writes, gave Garland ‘the chance to see things she never would have seen – the built and beautified world; artful thinking about texture, light and movement’ – and she ‘grabbed it all avidly, understanding for the first time what made her happy’. Unsurprising, then, that when her parents demanded she come back to Melbourne to live with them, her response was to run away for ever. Informed of her plan to live permanently in London, her father at once cut her off, thus forcing her to seek a living – no easy task given the paucity of paying jobs then available to respectable young women. Not that Garland complained: she seems to have accepted from the start that she would have to find her own way in life, professionally and emotionally, and this she did, despite considerable initial hardship.

Fatefully, the job she found was as an assistant to a London publisher, William Wood, who oversaw the English edition of Vogue. During the war and in the years immediately after the Armistice, British Vogue – originally only a reprint of the American edition with a few additions – had come into its own as a stand-alone publication with its own cadre of editors, reporters, illustrators and photographers. (Beaton was one.) Enchanted with haute couture and the liberating ‘modernist’ styles then being introduced by avant-garde Paris artists and designers like Vionnet, Lanvin, Schiaparelli, Sonia Delaunay and Chanel, Garland made herself indispensable, not only by way of the witty style reports she sent back from the Paris shows, but also by her ardent support – especially as she became more knowledgeable about the inner workings of the fashion industry – of British designers and clothing manufacturers.

Over the next fifty years she would hold a series of prominent and increasingly lucrative positions in the fashion world: ‘woman editor’ at Britannia and Eve and the Bystander in the 1930s; buyer-in-chief for the Oxford Street department store Bourne and Hollingsworth during the Second World War (wartime shortages would prompt her pioneering interest in experimental synthetic textiles); consultant to mass-market clothing firms; head of a design centre sponsored by the postwar Council of Industrial Design; BBC radio and television broadcaster on fashion and design; and from 1948 until the late 1950s, director of the Fashion School of the Royal College of Art, the first such programme of its kind. And though now almost forgotten, Garland’s role as a national taste-maker seems to have been substantial. (Cohen makes an apt parallel between her sophisticated fashion work in the 1940s and 1950s and Elizabeth David’s ‘postwar education of the English palate’.) Garland became fairly well-to-do along the way: the owner of houses in South Kensington and Shoreham in Kent, both of them graced with art and furnishings by glamorous friends like Marie Laurencin, Eileen Gray and E. McKnight Kauffer. She cultivated a soigné personal style to match – one glowingly caught in studio portraits by Beaton, Paul Tanqueray and others. The ugly duckling from provincial Melbourne had metamorphosed into a startlingly chic and beautiful woman.

Yet, as one also sees in such images, it was a strange kind of beauty that she had. Cohen calls it the beauty of ‘hyperfemininity’: a delicate porcelain look which masked both her ferocious psychological strength and her homosexuality. (With her glossy Cupid’s-bow lips, she sometimes bears a curious resemblance to her French contemporary, the lesbian artist and photographer Claude Cahun, maker of surreal self-portraits in which she too experimented with dramatising a kind of uncanny ultra-femininity.) Garland would no doubt be called a ‘femme’ in today’s gay parlance, if not a femme with a vengeance. Her almost eerie magnetism, much remarked, seems to have extended from this theatrically considered self-presentation: a ladylike mode that avoided even the slightest hint of virility, sartorial or psychic, yet remained steely-seeming and assured. (Perhaps not so surprising that, reverse-wise, in her choice of girlfriends, Garland favoured the classic stone butch type: witness the spit-curled, Eton-cropped Dorothy Todd.) Precisely by way of this ongoing, fastidious impersonation of feminine elegance, periodically renovated over the decades (she would live into her nineties), the woman-loving Garland made for herself what might be called the Closet of All Closets, a stunning one, to be sure, filled with dresses by Balmain, Balenciaga and Dior and the shoes, hats and gloves to go with them.

In private life Garland used her inscrutable magic to cut a swathe. (‘Everybody was one of Madge’s old flames,’ said the ubiquitous Bedford.) But in this sphere, too, Garland’s self-protective impulses trumped any sentimental weakness somebody so gauzy and delicate might be supposed to show. The toughness was apparently hard-won – the result of a near Waterloo-like emotional catastrophe in her early life. While Garland seems to have been clear about her erotic orientation from adolescence onwards – by her early twenties she had already had a serious lesbian relationship with an American girl with the delightful name of Olguita Queeny – she was not entirely unsusceptible to more conventional impulses. In 1922, facing a temporary financial crisis, plus a debilitating case of jaundice that left her too weak to work, she married a man named Ewart Garland, a war hero and old family friend. (Though she refused to take his surname while they were married, she would adopt it after their divorce, Gertrude Stein having persuaded her that her maiden name – Madge McHarg – was too ugly for a maven of beauty and haute couture.)

The marriage was shortlived, not least, one suspects, because Garland was unwilling to jettison her career and run the marital household. (She also warned the hapless Ewart, a sort of masochistic Denys Trefusis type, it seems, that it would be ‘instant divorce’ if he ever got her pregnant.) Within a year or so she had phased him out completely and on the rebound taken up with the mannish Dorothy Todd (a.k.a. ‘Dody’). Older, cultivated and, as noted, butch as pig iron, Todd had just been appointed editor of British Vogue. Garland, then still in her mid-twenties, quickly became her editorial second-in-command and almost as quickly, her live-in lover.

*

‘Dody and Madge’, as they were known, rapidly metamorphosed into a lesbian power couple, a rather more incendiary and unstable version, perhaps, of their Paris friends Stein and Toklas, or other sapphic coevals like the bookseller-publisher Sylvia Beach and her lover Adrienne Monnier. Over the next two years, Todd and Garland enjoyed a flamboyant and (within limits) increasingly public partnership, one founded on a shared love of artistic experiment and a fierce desire to see Vogue become a general intellectual and cultural index to the avant-garde, not merely a magazine about ‘expensive frocks’.

The goal, Cohen writes, was to represent ‘haute couture, painting, photography, literature, theatre, modern design and good food as part of the same excitement’. And for a while Garland and Todd were conspicuously successful – especially at recruiting starry contributors from the ranks of their friends in Bloomsbury and other bohemian redoubts. However fleetingly, Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, Vanessa Bell, Raymond Mortimer, Roger Fry, Vita Sackville-West, Frederick Ashton and the like made Vogue, for a couple of seasons, a contemporary intellectual and artistic touchstone.

Still, it ended in tears, perhaps not surprisingly, given Todd’s underlying self-destructiveness and the not so hidden homophobia of the London fashion world. Although later in life (when pushed) Garland would acknowledge Dody’s shaping influence on her – Todd, Svengali-like, had been her professional mentor and tutor, she said, in all matters related to design and the arts – Todd also brought with her some spectacular baggage. Like so many 1920s types, she was an alcoholic, an increasingly sodden and surly one; and while frankly masculine in appearance, actually had an illegitimate daughter, Helen, whom she was raising as her niece. (Todd would never say who the father was, but Cohen thinks – adding an Oresteia-like touch to everything – that he may have been Todd’s mother’s lover, a fellow named Lukach.) The unfortunate Helen, meanwhile, disliked by Todd and Garland both, it appears, would not discover her real relation to her ‘aunt’ until she was in her thirties and had problems of her own, including her own illegitimate child. Some years after breaking with Todd, Garland was sitting with her friend Janet Flanner, the New Yorker Paris correspondent, at the Deux Magots when they spotted Helen walking by with her new baby. ‘I see Dody’s niece has had a niece,’ said the unflappable Flanner.

Todd’s fairly unrepentant bull-dyke ways, in turn, made her unpopular with colleagues. Even though she and Madge had supported him in his budding career as a society photographer, Beaton described Todd in his diary as ‘that filthy Editor of Vogue’ with an ‘objectionable face… like a sea lion’. And the more obvious the intimacy between editor and deputy became, the more carping nastiness Dody’s seigneurial relationship with the china doll Madge seemed to inspire. Nicknamed ‘das Tod des Maedchens’, Todd became a subject of fashionable drollery. (‘What is a sapphist?’ ‘A Doderast who practises Todomy.’) Garland, meanwhile, became ‘the maîtresse en titre’. Even Virginia Woolf, though very fond of Madge (she and Garland had become close friends), played up the scandalousness of it all. ‘The Todd ménage is incredibly louche,’ she wrote to Vanessa Bell after lunch with the couple: ‘Todd in sponge bag trousers; Garland in pearls and silk; both rather raddled and on their beam ends.’ Later, as she witnessed the relationship implode, Woolf described Dody – virile yet also somewhat grotesque – as being ‘like some primeval animal emerging from the swamp, muddy, hirsute’.

No question Todd was a bit swampy, not only in her treatment of her daughter, but also in her behind-the-scenes abusiveness towards Garland. Nor did she have many psychic resources in a crisis. Displeased by Dody and Madge’s aggressively highbrow reinvention of the British version of his flagship magazine, and troubled by the gossip they seemed to be provoking, Condé Nast, from his perch in Manhattan, had them both summarily fired in 1926. Following this sudden (and public) humiliation, and with no new job in the offing, Todd went to pieces. She drank unceasingly and was barely functional from day to day. To compound the mess, Garland now discovered that her reckless companion had also racked up debts in her (Madge’s) name ‘on a scale that was almost lunatic’ and that their creditors were demanding to be paid. It was the worst ordeal of Garland’s life but also the event, one infers, that honed her already strong survival instincts. In agony and near penniless, she abandoned the wretched Dody and moved out of their house, most of their belongings having already been seized by bailiffs. She would find a haven and freelance work for a spell in France, but it would take her several years of struggle and relative poverty to clear the debts Todd had accumulated.

Professional vindication came relatively quickly. The rackety past with the ‘Doderast’ notwithstanding, Garland would be rehired at British Vogue for another stint as fashion editor in the 1930s. (Obviously femmes – or at least those as gifted and charming as Madge – don’t present the long-term PR problems that butches do.) But never again would Garland hanker after a passionate live-work relationship like the one she shared with Todd; nor would she ever again be quite so much under someone else’s emotional sway. The two women remained estranged, and though even in old age any mention of Todd was acutely painful for her, her lover’s death, in the mid-1960s, seems to have left Garland mostly unmoved and possibly even relieved.

There would be other girlfriends, a whole breezy armada of them: the London solicitor Fay Blacket Gill; the theatre designer Sophie Fedorovitch; Marie Laurencin (very likely a lover as well as intimate friend); the ineffably glamorous Christine ‘Kitty’ Salmond Pringle Mocatta (now there’s a name), ‘a paragon of elegant butch femininity’, in Cohen’s description, who had her suits made for her on Jermyn Street and ‘smoked her own blend of Egyptian (oval) cigarettes from a Bond Street tobacconist, wore Mitsouko or Jicky by Guerlain, carried crocodile handbags, and wore crocodile pumps’. Beulah, bring me my Jicky, then peel me a grape.

After the Second World War, the photographer Lee Miller, Man Ray’s former model, mistress and protégée, became a close friend, as did Ivy Compton-Burnett. The often forbidding Ivy, she of the frightening pinned-up hairstyle, rusty suits and morbid-spinster ways, whose decades-long relationship with the furniture historian Margaret Jourdain has generally been assumed to have been, if sexless, a sapphic one, was said (by Francis King) to have been ‘besotted with Madge’, absolutely ‘dazzled by this woman who moved in the fashionable world’. Fans of Compton-Burnett’s astringent satiric fiction can no doubt imagine the weird and vinegary titillation of it all. Closety as each woman was – even, perversely, with each other – it was precisely the unspokenness of the bond between them, the orientation they shared but never mentioned, that infused their bizarre intimacy with a tingling, flirtatious energy. The friendship with Compton-Burnett was so extremely pleasurable, Garland observed later, because ‘nothing was said. Nothing. We didn’t have to say anything.’ Elegance is refusal.

And in 1952, though it lasted only a nanosecond, there was even a second marriage, to a ‘queer friend’ from the 1920s, Sir Leigh Ashton, curator of textiles and later director of the V&A. The marriage was meant to be a blind for both: a white marriage along the lines of the marriage of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. But it didn’t work out as planned. Ashton turned out to be yet another confirmed drunkard and Garland, disgusted by his tendency to pass out at society gatherings, left him after nine months. (All we know is everybody drank.) Still, the relationship was not a complete bust. Like her equally original, equally status-driven contemporary, the lesbian interior decorator Elsie de Wolfe – who suddenly, at the age of 61, became Lady Mendl by marrying the diplomat Sir Charles Mendl – Garland now acquired her own impressive title, Lady Ashton, an emolument she greatly relished. She would use it until her death – after many more adventures (including mad solitary voyages to far-flung parts of the world when she was in her eighties) – in 1990.

*

Cohen is eloquent on Garland’s cultural importance and explains it convincingly. (Along with all her journalism Garland wrote two books, The Changing Face of Beauty, 1957, and the short but incisive Fashion, published by Penguin in 1962.) By conventional markers she was the most successful member of the trio considered here, the one whose contributions are easiest to grasp: the one whose curiosity and privilege enriched rather than destroyed her, the one who really worked it. Granted, had one to choose which woman to sit next to in economy class on some long-haul plane trip (not that any of them, I realise, would be travelling economy), Mercedes might be the gal to go for. Definitely good for at least 11 or 12 hours of 1940s Hollywood gossip and the lady most likely, one imagines, when the cabin lights have been turned down, to accompany one into the lavatory at the back of the plane to take a shot at qualifying for the Mile-High Club, Sapphic Division. But for the person aroused most by an exquisite résumé, a filigreed set of professional credentials, Garland would be the hands-down choice for VIP status.

Madge Garland in the late 1920s.
Madge Garland in the late 1920s.

Even so, there’s importance, and then there’s importance. (Or, to put it another way, there’s importance, and, well … importance.) How someone or something becomes ‘important’, culturally and historically speaking, is a puzzle Cohen poses explicitly and often in All We Know, no doubt because she’s on a mission to invest three ostensibly unimportant women, all supposedly ‘minor’ artistic figures, with the nimbus she thinks they have been unjustly denied.

And no doubt it’s a profound question: really, the only question. What makes anyone or anything worthy of remembrance, worth fixing on, learning by heart, recalling over time? And once things of importance have been identified, how to allot them degrees of value in relation to one another? What makes one thing major and another minor? What makes one thing major and another – though still major – not as major as the first thing?

Not that resolving matters of relative significance will ever be easy, or absolute. But the process of comparison, the task of a lifetime, is valuable in itself. Presumably, few readers of All We Know will be familiar with Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta or Madge Garland. Nonetheless, Cohen invites us to weigh their relative importance: to hear their stories and ponder their putative achievements, particularly in relation to the history of the Modern Movement as it unfolded over the first half of the 20th century in Britain, Europe and the United States. And as one reads one seeks, indeed, to fit them into the bigger picture. Should any of Cohen’s subjects be compared in historical importance with Picasso or Eliot or Woolf? No, that would obviously be stupid. OK: not with them; but what about Djuna Barnes or Janet Flanner? Carrington or Eileen Gray? Mina Loy or Martha Graham? The activity of juxtaposition and judgment, once initiated, may well be ever renewing and unlikely to lead to any final rankings. But something will be clarified over time; some intellectual or aesthetic ground gained; some deeper sense of human experience begotten.

And Cohen sets the process in motion beautifully, even if one doesn’t always agree with all of her in-the-moment assertions. If I’ve waxed satirical about the ‘thinkers of modernism’ business here it’s only been possible, I realise now, because the book itself is somehow open and gracious enough to allow such waxing (and waning). All We Know has to be one of the least threatened books I’ve read for a while. It doesn’t mind being teased. It seems to know it’s more than OK and that the reader, having dispatched her little squibs, will come around. Which she does. Reading Cohen on the importance of fashion in the relationship between Madge Garland and Virginia Woolf, for example, one wants to back-pedal madly and apologise for making fun:

To Madge, Woolf was a venerated writer who was scared of and moved by clothes. Both women were fascinated by how we wear what we wear, by the effects of clothes on the body and mind, and by the effects of corporality and consciousness on clothes. They shared an appreciation of the awkward details to do with dress and character – a sense of elegance spiked with glee – and an understanding of fashion’s powers of humiliation and conversion. When the fashion expert who was never really that interested in fashion … first glimpsed Woolf, at a lecture by Roger Fry, she saw ‘a very beautiful woman … But what also attracted my attention was that she appeared to be wearing an upturned waste-paper basket on her head’ – a comically unflattering hat.

And finally, when it comes to the subject of lesbianism – which in this book it usually does – the pleasure and profit are in the reading. It sometimes strikes me that the cultural recognition of female homosexuality has taken place (to the degree that it has) via odd little jumps and starts: anomalous effulgences, things out of sequence, strange asynchronic quirks and singularities. These singularities can often mystify at the time: indeed come trailing uncanniness in their wake, but later on, when one looks at them again, suddenly seem prescient in awareness, full of intellectual and emotional portent.

Madge Garland photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1927.
Madge Garland photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1927.

In high literary culture, something like Coleridge’s poem Christabel, long one of the most celebrated English Romantic poems, might be considered a singularity of this uncanny sort. Kinky indeed is the poem’s central incident: the seduction of its eponymous heroine by a lamia-like older woman – a slithery sorceress called Geraldine. How could one not talk about such a poem as a sapphic fantasy, and an ultra-bizarre one at that? Yet only very recently has it ever been examined as such, as if for two centuries nobody took note of, thought worthy of comment, or even saw, what now seems to be (in the ubiquitous phrase) that large pachydermous entity staring us in the face, the elephant in the room. Perhaps it is always thus and necessarily so, that in order to be assimilated at all, the lesbian element has to remain for a time subliminal, subsist in a kind of unconscious collective limbo, there and not there, until a later generation of readers, born into some critically altered perceptual and social world, is ready to see it and as it were ‘catch up’ with the secret life of the poem itself.

On a somewhat less elevated plane Frank Marcus’s The Killing of Sister George, both play (1964) and film (1968) versions, is another of these cognitive anomalies: a lesbian fable at once so jolting and so sophisticated, so true and so false, so intelligent and raffish about what women do together, it seemingly had to be forgotten immediately. And yet seeing it again, in 2012, one may feel one still hasn’t caught up with it. Susannah York in lingerie and bunny skuffs, chomping on a cigar fished from the toilet by her lover, a raddled Beryl Reid: it’s a revolution in awareness still waiting to happen.

Cohen’s book itself is one of these odd, wayward, portentous things; you don’t quite know where it’s come from; you are stunned by its depths; and you hope its excellence and pertinence and originality will not lead, doomfully, to its sinking without a trace, as fine things connected with the subject of lesbianism have had a way of doing for so long. It’s a major work of scholarship and interpretation, but also one that some readers may foolishly reject as unimportant on account of its theme, the ultimate ‘minor’ topic in the eyes of the heterosexual masses. But, as Mercedes de Acosta might have said – or possibly even warbled – to Greta: ‘Qué será, será.’ And while we wait to see what happens next (or doesn’t), let me pose, by way of valediction, a quick professorial quiz question for the reader: What was the Bunting Institute full of in the 1980s? You better not tell me you forgot.

[*] Terry Castle wrote about Robert Schanke’s ‘That Furious Lesbian’: The Story of Mercedes de Acosta in the LRB of 24 June 2004. Hugo Vickers’s Loving Garbo and Diana Souhami’s Greta and Cecil were both published in 1994.