Cover image for All we know : three lives
All we know : three lives
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.
Physical Description:
429 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.
Three Lives -- A Perfect Failure -- Fantasia on a Theme by Mercedes de Acosta -- Velvet is Very Important.
Chronicles the lives of New York intellectual Esther Murphy, celebrity ephemera collector Mercedes de Acosta, and British Vogue editor Madge Garland and their lifestyles, influence on fashion, and celebrity friendships.


Material Type
Shelf Number
Book 920.72 COH 1

On Order



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 lies in the thousands of objects she collected to preserve the memory of those performers and to honor the feelings they inspired.

An icon of haute couture and a fashion editor of British Vogue , Madge Garland held bracing views on dress that drew on her feminism, her ideas about modernity, and her love of women. Existing both vividly and invisibly at the center of cultural life, she--like Murphy and de Acosta--is now almost completely forgotten.

In All We Know , Lisa Cohen describes these women's glamorous choices, complicated failures, and controversial personal lives with lyricism and empathy. At once a series of intimate portraits and a startling investigation into style, celebrity, sexuality, and the genre of biography itself, All We Know explores a hidden history of modernism and pays tribute to three compelling lives.
All We Know is one of Publishers Weekly 's Top 10 Best Books of 2012

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

Esther Murphy (1897-1962) was a talker, but a brilliant one; Mercedes de Acosta (1893-1968), was a "seductress" who saved every scrap of memorabilia; witty aesthete, style icon, and feminist Madge Garland (1898-1990) was an editor at British Vogue. They knew each other well from social circles, and none of them had simple lives. Cohen, GQ's fashion editor for nearly three decades, fully delineates the conventional biographical matters of ancestry, parents, schooling, marriages, affairs, friendships, breakups, work, and death. Lovers of both sexes, the three mingled at varying depths with the Bloomsbury coterie, the Paris cohort, and the Hollywood crowd, but this well-researched, gossipy, informative, and entertaining biographical triptych is also a thoughtful, three-part inquiry into the meaning of failure, style, and sexual identity. Murphy, whose major claim to our attention is ephemeral-reading voraciously and never completing her biography of Madame de Maintenon-gets nearly half of the book. De Acosta gets the brief middle, a "fantasia on a theme" that focuses on her collection of personal mementos, while Garland shapes the way British fashion lovers think about couture. All are engaged in making and remaking themselves as the "emergence of women of [their] generation into public life [becomes] one of the major shifts of the twentieth century." Cohen secures a definitive place for them in the socio-cultural history of the period. Agency: Sterling Lord, Sterling Lord Literistic. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* In her deeply researched, incisive, and scintillating first book, Cohen presents a triptych of brief lives portraying now forgotten but nonetheless singular women whose intelligence, passion, creativity, daring, and charisma were shaping forces in modern culture three originals who knew each other and were part of the close-knit and fractious lesbian networks of New York, London, and Paris. Esther Murphy, sister of Gerald Murphy (who, with his wife, Sara, inspired Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night), was exceedingly tall; utterly enthralled by books, history, and politics; archly witty; and famous for her dazzling, unstoppable prolixity in conversation and her correspondence. The striking and intrepid upper-class New Yorker Mercedes de Acosta was a feminist writer and archivist, ardent worshipper of celebrities, and spiritual seeker, whose lovers included Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Londoner Madge Garland emerged from a repressive childhood to become the defining figure in British fashion. With ties to the Bloomsbury group and other luminaries, Garland, rigorous, discrete, yet bold, used haute couture as a vehicle for championing women's rights. Cohen's astute, graceful, and far-reaching profiles not only acquaint us with three extraordinary, innovative, and influential women who rejected gender expectations but also illuminate the essential visions and voices twentieth-century lesbians and gays brought to evolving modernity.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2010 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

GAY men and lesbians are now integrated into mainstream culture to a degree that would once have seemed unimaginable. Television sitcoms feature gay dads proving they can be just as cloying as their heterosexual counterparts. J. C. Penney, a department store not known for outré fashion or radical politics, hired Ellen DeGeneres, an open lesbian, as its spokeswoman and included a page in its Mother's Day catalog featuring lesbian moms. In contrast, Lisa Cohen's "All We Know: Three Lives" plunges the reader into the gay and lesbian world before this assimilation: before Act Up, before lesbian feminism, before marriage equality. A world in which homosexual acts were illegal, and men and women could lose their jobs if they were less than circumspect. A world that one might think would be grim, along the lines of Radclyffe Hall's downbeat lesbian classic, "The Well of Loneliness," which was found obscene by an English court in 1928. Yet as Cohen portrays it, this vanished world is beguiling, its inhabitants members of a stylish, exclusive club. A risky club, certainly. But in the tension between discretion and flamboyance - between fitting in and acting out - Cohen locates the origin of "camp," which Susan Sontag defined as "seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon." Cohen concentrates on three tastemakers who were active during the first two-thirds of the 20th century: Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta and Madge Garland. Although all weathered marriages to men, they preferred the erotic company of women. Each knew the other two - such was the insular nature of upper-class gay life - and between them, they also knew just about every important artist, writer, fashion designer, architect, screenwriter, actor and director in New York, London, Hollywood and Continental Europe. Reading "All We Know," one feels convinced that "gay culture" should simply be abridged to "culture." As individuals, these three women could not have been more different. Murphy and de Acosta started out rich and ended up broke. Garland began with less, made a lot, lost some, but kept on earning - a remarkable feat in the eyes of her independently wealthy coterie. "I was literally the only person they knew who had ever earned her living," she remarked. Cohen opens with Murphy, whose family owned Mark Cross, a leather goods company that cursed her with enough income to avoid even remote exposure to a work ethic. She honed her weakness for bootleg hooch alongside other casualties of Prohibition like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who modeled the characters in his novel "Tender Is the Night" on her brother, Gerald, and sister-in-law, Sara. By the mid-1920s, Murphy had joined the rest of her Lost Generation in France, where she flirted and fraternized with the likes of Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney and Janet Flanner, all the while incubating plans for a grand biography of Madame de Maintenon. But booze, banter and a bizarre marriage to Chester A. Arthur III, a pansexual fortune hunter, got in the way. Long after Murphy's death, her friend Sybille Bedford puzzled over her unfinished opus: "What's the use of being brilliant, if you sit at a cafe all day and are considered the greatest bore because you don't know when to stop talking and never write anything down?" At least Mercedes de Acosta excelled at something. She was "the first celebrity stalker." A distracted, mediocre screenwriter and memoirist, de Acosta was apparently a focused, accomplished lover who counted Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo among her conquests. Garbo, however, was too canny to bequeath unambiguous bragging rights. When she sent de Acosta flowers, she left the greeting card blank. Cohen's chapter on de Acosta climaxes on April 15, 2000 - more than 30 years after de Acosta's death, 10 years after Garbo's death - with the opening of a sealed archive of Garbo's letters to her. This took place not in some cheesy Hollywood fan palace but at the distinguished Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. And the big reveal was: nothing. "There is no concrete evidence that any sexual relationship between these two women ever existed," Garbo's executor declared. There were some weird objects, though, including a Bible in which de Acosta had pasted photographs of Garbo. It reminded Garbo's executor of her "11-year-old goddaughter's scrapbook devoted to Leonardo DiCaprio." Compared with Murphy and de Acosta, Madge Garland was a monument to productivity. In the early 1920s, with her life partner and fellow British Vogue editor Dorothy Todd, known as Dody, Garland transformed the magazine, as Rebecca West put it, "from just another fashion paper to being the best of fashion papers and a guide to the modern movement in the arts." Todd and Garland published Virginia Woolf, Duncan Grant and other Bloomsbury figures. Woolf associated the couple, Cohen writes, with "the knot of art, commerce and sexuality that haunts and defines both modernism and fashion." The golden moment ended in 1926. Unhappy because Vogue wasn't minting money, its publisher, Condé Nast, fired Todd. If she didn't go quietly, he threatened to make a fuss about her "morals." Garland left too, cleaning up after Todd - both her unpaid bills and her empty whiskey bottles. During Todd's downward spiral, de Acosta uncharitably called her "the bucket in the well of loneliness." Alone, Garland survived by writing for downscale publications until Vogue rehired her in 1934. When war broke out, she worked for the Bourne & Hollingsworth department store, as well as for the Board of Trade - studying ways to implement clothes rationing that would not demoralize women. She learned the ins and outs of the textile industry. In the early 1950s, she was named the first professor of fashion at the Royal College of Art. In a wonderful chapter titled "Notes on Discretion," Cohen shows how "camp" - which Sontag linked primarily to the sensibility of gay men - can be practiced by women. Garland was a master, poised between extremes: "flirtatious and commanding, censorious and self-mocking, confiding and bemused." She also had a flair for the put-down. "If you want the damn ball," she said, dismissing team sports, "keep it, don't throw it away." "Every biography," Cohen reflects in her portrait of Murphy, "is a disappointment of some kind, premised on unbearable impasses and opacities, on the impossibility of bringing someone back to life, and on the paradoxes of representing, inhabiting and balancing the past and the present." But Cohen's own idiosyncratic hybrid doesn't disappoint. She builds a rich picture of a lost world - and three women who dared to inhabit it on their own terms. M. G. Lord's most recent book is "The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice." Lisa Cohen portrays this vanished world as beguiling, its inhabitants members of a stylish, exclusive club.

Choice Review

Cohen's triptych could very well have been subtitled "A Study in Failure." In fascinating, well-chosen detail, Cohen (English, Wesleyan Univ.) explores the careers of three notable women whose paths crossed frequently in the 1920s and 1930s but who are little remembered today. Esther Murphy, who seemed destined to write a great biography of Madame de Pompadour, never completed it. Madge Garland, instrumental in using fashion to shape the modernist sensibility, proved unable to put her vision into words that could be contained between the covers of a book. Mercedes de Acosta, as much a fan of movie stars and actresses as she was a memoirist, never made any career cohere. In each case, though, the reasons for failure and the proximity of these women to those who did ultimately succeed--figures such as Greta Garbo, Rebecca West, and F. Scott Fitzgerald--say much about the age in which Cohen's subjects lived. Cohen's meditation on the role of biography itself situates the volume among the classics of biographies about biography, including those by Richard Holmes (Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage, 1993), Janet Malcolm (The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, CH, Nov'94, 32-1392), and A. J. A. Symons, (The Quest for Corvo, 1933). Summing Up: Essential. All readers. C. Rollyson Bernard M. Baruch College, CUNY

Library Journal Review

Cohen (English, Wesleyan Univ.) presents three prominent yet marginalized women who were in their prime amid the flourishing social and cultural elite of America and Europe between the world wars. Esther Murphy (1898-1962), from a wealthy Irish Catholic family accepted by WASP New York, was sister to Gerald Murphy, famous expatriate who mingled with F. Scott Fitzgerald in France. Voracious reader, brilliant talker, she was long expected to produce books of towering intellect on her special subjects in French history-but she never did. As a woman, a lesbian (who married), and an unpublished intellectual, hers became a marginalized life. Madge Garland (1896-1990), Australian-born fashion editor of English Vogue in the 1930s was, like Murphy, a lesbian who married, who functioned both as insider and outsider. Mercedes de Acosta (1893-1968), largely known today for her relationships with Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich (and covered here in a much shorter section) garnered both attention and disdain. VERDICT Readers will not necessarily be equally intrigued by Murphy and Garland (this reviewer stands in the Murphy camp). In spite of the underlying themes, it's not entirely clear why Cohen posed these women alongside one another. They traveled in the same crowds (with Janet Flanner, Edmund Wilson, etc.), but were not close friends. Yet, with an accessible prose style free of academic jargon, Cohen brings deserved attention to these women who lived often in conflict with themselves and their age. Strongly recommended for readers in LGBT history, Lost Generation literature, women's studies, and biography.-Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal (c) Copyright 2012. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



All We Know: Three Lives By Lisa Cohen Farrar, Straus & Giroux ISBN: 9780374176495 ALL WE KNOW No Such Word As Fail (Chapter One) Esther is without a doubt the most widely read and best informed woman in New York," wrote a friend of hers in 1927, "and her father's admiration for her and devotion to her is one of the rarest things to behold...Mrs. Murphy, very patrician with beautiful white hair and many jewels, sits back and smokes her cigarettes without interesting herself very much in her husband's and her daughter's very brilliant dialogue." Patrick Murphy bullied his sons, Frederic and Gerald, but he was Esther's champion--"so proud," in his wife's words, "that he [could] hardly see straight." Part of the first group of Irish Catholics to find acceptance in New York society, Murphy raised his children in a muddled combination of privileges deriving from his success and scorn for the fact that they could not repeat his trajectory. Esther, whom he called Tess, was exempt from some of the expectations that haunted her brothers, such as success in business, and she exceeded others, with her scholarly acumen. Still, like her brothers, she grew up steeped in an atmosphere of opportunity and exclusion and in the myth and fact of Patrick Murphy's professional and social climb. She also absorbed or inherited some of her mother's nervousness and depression. Anna Murphy's letters to her children often report her bad dreams and anxieties. She took "life and the living of it so tragically," Gerald wrote in 1915. In the late 1950s, more than a quarter of a century after their parents' deaths, he wrote to Esther: "Mother was devoted, possessive, ambitious, Calvinistic, superstitious, with a faulty sense of the truth. She was hypercritical and as I recall it, ultimately resigned from most of her friendships." He remembered their father as a man who "avoid[ed]...close relationships including family ones...a solitary [who] managed, though he had a wife and children, to lead a detached life." Esther adored her father, but as the girl in the family and the youngest child, she found her place was with her mother and spent long stretches of time alone with Anna Murphy, at home and at the watering holes of the wealthy in Europe and the United States. Every once in a while, Patrick Murphy would appear from Paris or London, where he spent half of every year supervising the Mark Cross factories, procuring the fittings of upper-class European life for American consumption, and maintaining a mistress. "Our father who art in Europe," Gerald would say. Esther posed with a newspaper (Esther Murphy's photo album, AFP) Born in Boston in 1855 or '56, the eldest of thirteen children, Murphy had gone to work for the saddler Mark W. Cross in the mid-1870s, first as a bookkeeper and then as a salesman. He eventually bought the company, relocated it to fashionable Tremont Street, and transformed it into a purveyor of small leather goods, including bags, cigar cases, tea baskets, gloves, and stationery cases. In 1892 he moved his business and family to Manhattan--the former to a shop on Lower Broadway, opposite City Hall and near the Financial District, the latter to a brownstone on lower Fifth Avenue. He had married Anna Ryan in 1884; Fred and Gerald were born in Boston in 1885 and 1888. Esther was born in New York on October 22, 1897. Murphy weathered the financial panics of 1890 and 1892-93, and in 1902 he opened another Mark Cross shop, at Fifth Avenue and Thirty-seventh Street. He also had a shop on Regent Street in London and a glove factory in Wiltshire, and he eventually bought the leather factory in central England that produced much of his inventory. Mark Cross still made luggage, equestrian supplies, and writing accessories, but Murphy also brought the thermos, the hot-water bottle, Minton china, English crystal, Scottish golf clubs, the demitasse, the highball glass, and the cocktail set (later subjects of Gerald's paintings) to market in the United States. His political life was at least as important to him as his business. He had served in the Massachusetts Legislature as a Democratic representative of Boston's Twelfth District in 1878-79; in New York he associated with the reforming wing of Tammany Hall and was a friend of Al Smith, the progressive Irish-Catholic governor and 1928 presidential candidate. By the time Esther was a young child, he had also begun to move toward the circles of ruling-class power in Manhattan. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, New York society "was still a closed circle to which one either did or did not belong," wrote one critical insider. Religious, racial, and ethnic prejudice went without saying, as did a rigid "social hierarchy, from which all random elements were rigorously excluded." The Four Hundred, that group of families identified as "Society," would also "have fled in a body from a poet, a painter, a musician, or a clever Frenchman." But by the turn of the twentieth century there was room for an anomaly or two, and Patrick Murphy's controlled wit made him a celebrated speaker at the enormous banquets that were part of the public life of the city's elite. He made his debut in 1903 at one of its premier rituals, the National Horse Show Association dinner, held in the old Madison Square Garden, where his audience was composed of Astors, Harrimans, Vanderbilts, Schermerhorns, and Hamiltons. He came "to be regarded as the official orator of the...Association" and was in such demand as an after-dinner speaker, to business groups and private clubs, that he spent most of his evenings out. Bald, clean shaven, meticulously tailored, he would hold himself rigid, clasp his hands behind his back, and speak in a "clear fluent monotone." His talks were a series of epigrammatic utterances, strung together cleverly and recycled frequently, with just a glancing mention of the group he was addressing. He timed himself ruthlessly. His themes were government, business, history, alcohol, and taxation. (The excise tax on business income and the graduated personal income tax were introduced in 1913.) He cited Macaulay, Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Greeks. The need to pay tribute to a prominent man of the day, often the guest of honor at such occasions, meant that he spent a certain amount of time musing about success and flattering his audiences. "He who breeds thoroughbreds must be a thoroughbred himself" was "an aphorism that elicited the liveliest applause" at the Horse Show banquet of 1904. He was compared to Mark Twain and other entertaining orators of the previous century. His characteristic rhetorical gesture was an ostensibly serious or paradoxical statement followed by a deflating quip. "The art of speaking is to say nothing--briefly," he observed, more than once. "But the tragedy of it is the less a man has to say the more difficult he finds it to stop." Paradox and didacticism were also the style of the advertising copy for his firm, which he wrote. "Buying inferior articles to save money is like stopping the clock to save time," ran one. Esther's prolix and imaginative verbal style shared little with her father's disciplined and formulaic method. Even as a child, she performed constantly, testing her own and others' authority. On a transatlantic voyage with her parents, age eleven, she initiated a trial on behalf of a passenger after she overheard him complain about his wife's cigarette smoking, appointing herself prosecutor and choosing a jury. "Before we knew it there were a hundred people around her," her mother wrote from on board the Amerika in June 1909. That summer, at the Beau-Rivage Palace hotel in Lausanne, a pinnacle of prewar leisure, Esther "instigated" a baseball game, corralling the guests into two teams, coaching those who did not know the game, again attracting a crowd. At home in New York, when her elderly nanny took her to Central Park for exercise, Esther would skate off, a gawky girl Pied Piper, pulling a group of children after her and mesmerizing them with terrifying "Edgar Allan Poe-ish" stories. But if her style was unlike her father's, she was shaped by his preoccupations and riveted by his political savvy. "History is simply a record of the failures of government," Patrick Murphy told one audience. And: "History teaches us one thing only, and that is no statesman has ever learned anything from history." At the Horse Show in 1907, he addressed the financial crisis of the preceding month. "We have had explosive financial fireworks," he said of Theodore Roosevelt's attempts to regulate big business, the collapse of confidence in the banking system, the failure of the trust companies, and J. P. Morgan's rescue of these institutions after negotiations in Morgan's home with a consortium of bankers. Esther with the actor John Drew (Esther Murphy's photo album, AFP) Happily...American difficulties have produced the great Americans. It is not alone in the battlefield that valor is displayed; courage may be shown even in an art library. No sounder pieces of American manhood have been put together than the group of financial statuary that defended American credit...In the lexicons of Morgan's library there is no such word as fail. For Murphy, too, there was no such word. But his success, which stemmed from his accomplishments in business, was seldom attributed to them. He was a well-to-do merchant who catered to wealthy New Yorkers, and he was on the board of directors of at least one bank in the course of his career; yet when his speeches were reported in the newspapers, as they often were, he was not identified as the president of Mark Cross. It was important to him and others that he never "appeared the business man." In the words of one acquaintance, "He looked like a gentleman and he was a gentleman." The reporter added: "He always carried a cane and gloves." Membership in the Manhattan, Pilgrims, and Lambs clubs; a move uptown to West Fifty-seventh Street, then to an enormous apartment at 525 Park Avenue; the purchase of a summer house in Southampton and membership in the Southampton Club (of which Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University, was president)--all signaled and facilitated his rise. And so, as Esther grew up, a number of the "distinguished and remarkable...American women" she knew were members of New York's elite families. One, Margaret "Daisy" Chanler--broad-minded, kind, and married into the Astor family--was also a sharp analyst of New York society, and her children became Esther's friends. The travel and political writer Edith O'Shaughnessy--"a clever and ponderous dowager and a great crony of my Ma's"--was another fixture of Esther's childhood. But the heroine of Esther's youth and young adulthood was Edith Wharton. A voracious scholar, largely self-educated, Wharton was at once a serious artist and a commercial success who had also been a pawn in the marriage market. For a bookish young woman who was studying her own awkward social position, Wharton was an inspiration and a caution, and Esther read her closely. In The House of Mirth, Wharton's first major novel, her protagonist's failure is one of reputation--the old story. But Wharton also exposes exactly what Lily Bart's fall has to do with money--with her carefully calibrated yet blind accountings of expenditure and indebtedness--and she shows how a social system that offers meager alternatives to selling oneself in marriage is itself a failure. Through Margaret Chanler, Wharton's closest friend, Esther eventually met Wharton, and she continued to encounter and admire her as an adult. Patrick Murphy (Esther Murphy's photo album, AFP) Despite her father's delight in her, Esther also grew up with a heightened awareness of her physical and psychological imperfections, just as her brothers had. Fred was diagnosed with mastoiditis and bleeding ulcers as a young man and he had several surgeries when such procedures were extremely dangerous. Gerald suffered from depression, which he called "the Black Service," and understood himself as having "a defect over which I have only had enough control to scotch it from time to time"--his attraction to men. When he announced his engagement to Sara Wiborg, the daughter of multimillionaire Frank Wiborg, Patrick Murphy castigated him about his poor work ethic and "fail[ure] to grasp the fundamental duty in life, i.e.: self-support,--and financial independence" and told him he "did not deserve to be married." Esther was an attractive child with long hair and her mother's wide face, but she did not grow into a beautiful young person; she had no interest in the conventional pastimes of girls of her social class--dancing, clothes, marriage; her enormous height was beyond the pale for a woman at the time; and she had a lazy eye, which heightened the impression of peculiarity. She was conveyed constantly to eye specialists in New York and Europe as a child and had at least one surgery to correct her vision as an adult. It was still ordinary, moreover, for a girl's scholarship to be seen as freakish and physically destructive. When Esther was eight, a doctor diagnosed her as suffering from "a peculiar form of 'Hives'" brought on by what he called "intellectual indigestion." By her late teens, she had developed an ironically inflated, self-deflating way of speaking about her body: "My appearance is more than usually attractive owing to the gargantuan proportions of one cheek," she wrote Gerald. "An ulcerated tooth does not add to one's attractions." From the Maine resort where she and her mother stayed in the summer of 1915, she asked him to send her a set of golf clubs, the doctor having ordered exercise. She wanted equipment that was "as light in weight as possible, because although my height might impress the casual observer to the contrary, I am not an Amazon." Her body and her books were in constant conversation: "I assure you I shall probably be fairly apoplectic with physical well being when I leave here," she wrote. "I brought with me among my books a new and formidable French biography of the reign of Louis XIII, and so far have only read eight you see down what alien byways I have wandered." Later, some would say that Esther looked like Gerald--only less pretty. "All the masculine traits seem to be concentrated in Esther," wrote Edmund Wilson, quoting John Dos Passos, "and the feminine ones in Gerald." The message about inadequacy was general in the family; it was an upbringing in which one was encouraged to think of oneself both as exceptional and a failure. Patrick Murphy sent his sons to Yale, expected them to excel, took it for granted that they would then work for Mark Cross, and gave them executive positions when they graduated, but his dissatisfaction with them was constant. "Come, brace up," he wrote to Gerald during his second year at Yale. "You can't afford to let this thing [his studies] go now. It means failure." Although Gerald never resigned his position on the board of directors of Mark Cross, he stopped working for the company for almost twenty years when he enlisted in the army in 1918. His allergy to his father and to the commercialism of American life propelled him to Europe in 1921, where he spent the next decade, partly in the South of France that he and Sara Murphy helped to popularize, painting, living a carefully arranged life of the senses, and trying to be the kind of father he had not had--funded, of course, by his father and father-in-law's enterprises. Fred, who was Esther's favorite, worked for the company, then enlisted as a private in the army at age thirty-two, over a doctor's objections, as soon as the United States entered the First World War. Commissioned as a lieutenant several months later, he fought at the battles of the Somme, Saint-Mihiel, and the Argonne Forest and served as a liaison officer between the French and American armies. He had his thigh shattered by machine-gun fire and his politics radicalized by what he saw on the battlefield, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French. He had dabbled in the theater when he was younger and in 1920 he married Esther's close friend Noel Haskins, a Park Avenue debutante and trained lieder singer who had acted with the Provincetown Players. For a short time after the war, Fred continued to work for Mark Cross, in New York and England. But his old ailments, war injuries, shell shock, and disagreements with Patrick Murphy about how to run the company soon made work impossible, and he and Noel moved to France. He died in 1924 at age thirty-nine, from complications of his ulcer or his war wound. Six months earlier, the French government had made him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for his wartime work. He died without being reconciled to his father. Just as Patrick Murphy subjected his sons to pressures that he would not have dreamed of imposing on Esther, Anna Murphy made demands on her daughter that she did not make on Fred or Gerald. She had longed for a girl (another child, Doris, had died young) and she was overjoyed when Esther was born. But her dissatisfaction was soon profound and expressive. It was always clear to Esther that she had failed her mother by being the wrong kind of girl, intellectual and ungainly. It is a truth not universally acknowledged, moreover, that a girl in possession of a mother whom she has disappointed often feels responsible for that parent. When her mother telephoned "in a bad depressed," saying "she was always alone," Esther proposed leaving school to keep her company. When Fred was dying, Esther stayed in New York with Anna Murphy, instead of sailing to France to be with him, and she cancelled plans to go to France later that summer to comfort Noel. Esther's education was often a site of family conflict. Although her father was a worldly, Irish-Catholic atheist, her mother was apparently a pious Protestant who nevertheless felt it her duty to raise her children in her husband's tradition. Esther was first enrolled at the Sacred Heart, on East Fifty-fourth Street, the international school for the daughters of well-to-do Catholics, where Mercedes de Acosta was one of her classmates. But when she tested the nuns with the "paradox of the stone"--the series of questions about God's omnipotence that asks if it is possible for God to create a stone that is too heavy for God to lift--her teachers deemed the line of inquiry blasphemous, told her to sit in the corridor, and notified her parents. Thirty years later, Esther wrote that while she could not imagine Esther and her mother (Esther Murphy's photo album, AFP) a more completely relapsed Catholic being than myself, I freely admit that my whole view of life and of men is coloured by the fundamental philosophy of Catholicism...Their attitude towards life and men, half pessimistic, half cynical, is the only thing in the Catholic religion to which I can still subscribe, since their theology seems to me an ingeniously concocted farrago of nonsense and their ritual (unless seen with the setting of a place like Chartres) a pretty tedious piece of trial mummery. The Roman Catholic Mass and Wagner's Parsifal are two things I do not intend to go to again. Yet, as she noted, she was strongly marked by her Catholic education. Mary McCarthy, writing about her own--and writing when she had become a close friend of Esther's--observed that "if you are born and brought up a Catholic, you have absorbed a good deal of world history and the history of ideas before you are twelve, and it is like learning a language early, the effect is indelible." But, she added, it is also a matter of feeling. To care for the quarrels of the past, to identify oneself passionately with a cause that became, politically speaking, a losing case with the birth of the modern world, is to experience a kind of straining against reality, a rebellious nonconformity that, again, is rare in America, where children are instructed in the virtues of the system they live under, as though history had achieved a happy ending in American civics. This training also taught, "together with much that proved to be practical, a conception of something prior to and beyond idea of sheer wastefulness that is always shocking to non-Catholics." Both that sense of wider engagement with the world--"knowing the past of a foreign country in such detail that it becomes one's own"--and the devotion to a beautiful uselessness were legacies that Esther carried. Patrick Murphy responded to the nuns' punishment of his daughter by enrolling her in the Brearley School, founded in 1884 to give upper-class New York girls a secular education comparable to what was then available to their brothers. Esther was at Brearley from 1910 to 1913, made lifelong friends, and was in the company of young women who went on to Bryn Mawr. At the Swiss finishing school that Anna Murphy then insisted on, Esther was too studious to fit in and was devastated by the social aggression of the other girls. Back in New York during the Great War, at a school just outside the city, she participated in every social, athletic, and dramatic activity. Her father then offered to send her to college, but her experience in Switzerland and sense of obligation to her mother deterred her. Instead of enrolling her at Bryn Mawr, he arranged for her to follow the Harvard curriculum at home. To Patrick Murphy, who was inclined to retreat to his study to read Macaulay's History of England and Pascal's Pensées, Esther's intellectual achievements were one of his own successes, helping to fulfill his idea of himself as something more than a triumphant entrepreneur. For Esther, immersion in history and politics was a way to be close to him, to find some purchase in the miasma of depression and fear of withdrawn favor that was the family climate. But reading was not an achievement for her; it was life. And it had as much to do with imagining a relationship to the women who had preceded her as it did with connecting to and escaping from her family. ALL WE KNOW Copyright 2012 by Lisa Cohen Excerpted from All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher. Excerpted from All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.