Feminine desires past and present in an exhibition, a biography, and a book of poems.
Triple ruffled at the wrist, her lace-gloved hand, cocked—index and thumb extended, covers the lower half of her face above which two dark eyes dare. Punctuating their span, the eyes emphasize the scalene triangle of negative space between her two fingers. The hand, a mask itself in covering, holds the face as if it were a mask—the situation of the double mask. All the while, the eyes float behind both. Oh, Dillon read on. Odillon Redon. This geometry of vogue would be enough to make de Honnecourt swoon . . .
These thoughts rushed through my head as I saw Lisa Cohen’s All We Know: Three Lives. Two of the three women the book explores would probably agree that a good cover is almost everything, this would be one-time fashion editor of British Vogue, Madge Garland, and the much misunderstood socialite Mercedes de Acosta. The third, Esther Murphy, was more active in politics and pontificating than appearances…though, all three women were political in some right by uncompromisingly being who they were; minorities at the center of the culture of their time. Their lives do intersect and, where not directly, their circles do. By bringing these three together, Cohen provides a much needed window on the changing expectations and roles of pre- and post-war (lesbian) women, society, and fashion.
The hardships de Acosta, Garland, and Murphy faced present the most fascinating part of this three-faced biography, which challenges notions of success and completion when so much of their work was either forgotten or unfinished. In this sense, their work is forever haunted with desire and plagued by rumor. Cohen’s biography rescues what remains of these women to create a composite against forgetting.
From hand in lace to lace in hand—how many women have faded as the lace was passed from the maker to the collector? All We Know made me more curious about other women who lived and worked off of history’s radar when I was viewing Gems of European Lace, ca. 1600–1920, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Who were those women that made these kerchiefs presented to queens, squares for men’s ascots, and caps to women’s hats; all to be later collected by women who then gave them to the Museum? And then there was the dress in the corner. It was from the ’20s: a shift dress cut, probably meant for everyday wearing, with knotted fringe at the ends of the sleeves and skirt hem, a horse and rider motif on the front of the skirt and intricate floral motif verso. Of the few names that were not lost to history this dress spoke one that stood out from the others, throwing me back to All We Know—Rita de Acosta Lydig, Mercedes’s sister.
Both sisters were socialites at the center of a very rich creative scene. While Rita surrounded herself with friends such as Rodin, Caruso, Toscanini, and Sargent, Mercedes surrounded herself with superstition, the occult. Mercedes filled her life with an intense devotion to her idols—Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Isadora Duncan to name a few—and courted them with many letters and her company. In turn, the stars grew to rely on her as their own little star, their confidant. Just like Rita’s dress, I was thrown a curve back to All We Know—yet again hooked by a book cover suede-like to the touch and printed with an oxide filigree over custard cream (actually blood on wallpaper by Laura Splan) whose title Letters to Kelly Clarkson turned that harpsichord mood to a glittering synth.
Julia Bloch’s new book of poems might bring some resolution for me about Mercedes—I hoped. “Dear Kelly,” begins each of Bloch’s poems framing the space of what she calls the “celebrity jelly” she slips in and out of poking and prodding sometimes with a high heel and at other times with an acrylic nail or tongue.
Unlike Mercedes’s time, when stars were stars, ours is a time of the demi-star, the star-elect. Celebrity is much too democratic now for immaculate conception. In navigating this shift of plane, Bloch tackles not only stardom, but femininity and, in effect, masculinity. In one “letter,” Bloch announces her mission, “Dear Kelly, If I have any agenda, it is one of desire.” This line called to mind Mercedes, or at least my impression of Mercedes . . . notably her collection of letters from people she identified as still living ex-lovers that included Eva Le Gallienne, Marlene Dietrich, Poppy Kirk, and Claire de Forbin. She gifted, and sometimes sold, what would amount to 5,000 such items to the Rosenbach Museum and Library. With these letters, she left instructions that nothing should be unsealed and available to the public until both parties were deceased.
On April 15, 2000, ten years after Garbo’s death, the Rosenbach set to opening Mercedes’s Garbo letters. The press swarmed in for the scoop, but in the end the letters offered no evidence of scandal, no hint of Mercedes’s much rumored affair with Garbo, no heartbeats—the only heartbeats were those of the press. Was Mercedes too much of a lady to say, with a last laugh from beyond, Eat your heart out?
Rather than revealing Mercedes’s own devotion, the letters and vast “starcrossed” collection of ephemera, reveal our own desires. In extension, perhaps they bring us ever closer to Mercedes. She had a childhood ritual of walking with nails and stones in her shoes and lying with her arms extended cross-like for hours to achieve a closeness to the unknown. One comes to realize it is not always the facts that bring us closer to truth, but emotional experience that rounds out “all we know.”
All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.
Letters to Kelly Clarkson by Julia Block was published by Sidebrow Books, 2012.
Richard J. Goldstein is BOMB’s Archive Editor and a painter.