Books Full of Women

Biography never tells the story of a single life. Even a biography ostensibly focused on an individual also tells the story of its subject’s family, friends, or associates; it invites us to download ...

Biography never tells the story of a single life. Even a biography ostensibly focused on an individual also tells the story of its subject’s family, friends, or associates; it invites us to download bits of the lives of others and make them our own: biography as file sharing. Collective biography compounds the melding of author, reader, subject, and social milieu that is intrinsic to standard biographies focused on individuals.

Take Alice Kaplan’s Dreaming in French, an account of the Paris years of Jacqueline Bouvier, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, and Lisa Cohen’s All We Know, which turns the minor lives of Esther Murphy, Mercedes da Acosta, and Madge Garland into the stuff of legend. Each of these triple biographies revives history as a series of shocks that shaped each woman’s career and legacy—from the World Wars and the Depression to the upheavals of the Sixties. Cohen’s and Kaplan’s brilliant biographical triptychs of diverse cosmopolitan women, each of whom had ties to Paris, trigger a not unpleasant sense of dislocation, of watching the glamorous past from afar.

The evocative prose and superb illustration of both books allow each biographer to balance historical assessment with intimacy and a vivid sense of place and scene.1 Kaplan focuses on three notable women’s mid-20th-century “French lessons,” a theme drawn from her own memoir.2 Cohen’s book renews a longstanding tradition of biography centered on failed lives.3 Whereas Kaplan focuses on the youth of three famous women, Cohen’s subjects are now obscure, though each is notable for having had female lovers and famous friends. Enjoying fine living most of their lives, the intellectual Murphy and the star-struck collector de Acosta squandered fortunes and left little behind, while Garland was fashion editor of British Vogue and rose to become the “first professor of fashion.”


Collective Biographies of Women


Kaplan and Cohen have both assembled sets of comparable lives rather than portraits of a group or coterie. Cohen addresses more explicitly the experimental aspects of this thematic approach to life writing. Collective biography is in fact a venerable format. Collections of male and female saints’ legends or hagiography flourished in Christian Europe, collections of brief biographies of women appeared in ancient Rome and China, and by the 16th and 17th centuries printed collections in French, German, and English began to present galleries of female worthies. Notorious women of many eras, too, found their way into such collections, whether as rulers who devoured lovers, like Semiramis or Catherine the Great, or as celebrated beauties and courtesans. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, readers in Britain and the US had a steady supply of collective biographies of women; more than 1,200 books consisting of three or more brief biographies of women were published in English between 1830 and 1950.4 Many of those volumes circulated a form of biographical history of women that defies the domestic limits on women’s lives that prevailed in contemporary novels and advice books.

Kaplan and Cohen join this rich tradition of feminist recovery. Nineteenth-century biographers often presented a varied set of women’s achievements as examples for emulation. Rosa Nouchette Carey presented Twelve Notable Good Women of the XIXth Century (1899) as “diversified” roles “to be read and studied by the women of this generation.” An 1883 collaboration, Our Famous Women, took pride in recording “what a few women have done” in American literature, arts, medicine, science, and social reform before and after the Civil War as “inspiration and incentive” to other women. Harriet Beecher Stowe, included as a subject in Our Famous Women, also contributed to it.

N. C. Mallory, <i>Susan Sontag</i>, Conté and graphite; writing by Susan Sontag (2009). Flickr / NCMallory

N. C. Mallory, Susan Sontag, Conté and graphite; writing by Susan Sontag (2009). Flickr / NCMallory

The purposes and allegiances of such books may seem far removed from Dreaming in French and All We Know. Lesbianism, promiscuity, race, choosing career over children or family—biographies of women began to handle these themes more explicitly after the 1960s movements for gay, feminist, and civil rights. But the themes were not new; each generation of feminist biographers tends to exaggerate how suppressed women and the lives written about them were in previous eras. Virginia Woolf was the 20th-century poet of missing lives. In A Room of One’s Own, she famously declared “biography is too much about great men”; women “are all but absent from history.” Yet many of Woolf’s collected essays originated as reviews of biographies of women, and in the past century, single and collective biographies of women have filled the shelves, their narratives by no means conforming to one template.

Cohen and Kaplan also inherit a biographical tradition of writing about the challenges of narrating lives. As Cohen notes, biography depends on “what we understand to be a biographical fact. Questions of evidence will always also be questions of access, yet there will always be something we cannot read, or see, or hear, even when it is right in front of us or spoken directly to us.” All biographers experience the instability of their reconstructions of the past. Kaplan and Cohen provide an occasion to recall and reconsider how collective biographies and experiments in imaginative life writing loosen the hold of identities and allow us to dream for all we know.

Cohen conjectures that Esther Murphy may have failed to complete her biography of Madame de Maintenon, the courtier and educator who eventually married Louis XIV, because the genre failed her, but Cohen also notes that “every biography is a disappointment of some kind. … Esther’s life seems to both call for a biography and suggest its futility, and to demonstrate the seductiveness of the facts and the necessity of fictions.” Such reflections on the pitfalls of biography are fitting in a volume that experiments with subjects whose biographies might never have been written. I would add that Murphy’s failure to publish her studies of well-documented, powerful women may have had to do with her idiosyncratic habits of garrulous talking and heavy drinking, for she failed to complete her work at a time that was highly productive for all forms of female biography. For centuries, Anglophone readers had turned to France for model lives of celebrated female politicians, writers, women of learning or social influence.5 In the circles that included Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland, many took an interest in experimental biographies about venturesome or deviant women of the past. Janet Flanner thought she would like to write “a book on the women of the seventeenth century … tentatively titled ‘Without Men.’”6 Anachronistic or surreal biography in the spirit of Woolf’s Orlando pervaded the feminist modernism that opened horizons for both Cohen’s and Kaplan’s triumvirates. Natalie Barney hosted a Sapphic salon in Paris; Djuna Barnes wrote a satiric group biography of Natalie Barney’s Parisian circle, the Ladies Almanack (1928), which included a caricature of Esther Murphy as “Bounding Bess.” Cohen notes that Murphy in her turn wrote a fantasia that metamorphoses Barney into a 13th-century abbess also known for “amazing activities during the Crusades.”7

Woman with Wax Tablets and Stylus from Pompeii (c. 50 CE), National Archaeological Museum of Naples (inventory no. 9084). Wikimedia Commons

Woman with Wax Tablets and Stylus from Pompeii (c. 50 CE), National Archaeological Museum of Naples (inventory no. 9084). Wikimedia Commons

The six women addressed in these two books had ample opportunities to read women’s lives of all sorts. Just as many a famous man read biographies of great men in his youth, Sontag recalled her formative reading of a biography of Marie Curie. In 1925, Mercedes de Acosta helped create a spectacle about Joan of Arc, who enjoyed an early 20th-century revival, especially in feminist pageants;8 years later, de Acosta wrote a screenplay for Greta Garbo as St. Joan. In conversations, letters, published articles, and other writings, Murphy seemed to anticipate feminist social historians, calling attention, for example, to temperance leader Frances Willard as a model for the Left in the 1930s. Madge Garland—fashion editor, journalist, and executive—also published books on women in art and the history of dress, including The Changing Face of Beauty: Four Thousand Years of Beautiful Women. Late in life, Garland planned to write “a series of profiles” of “women adventurers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” and completed an essay featuring the famous traveler Isabella Bird. In the decades in which the six women in these two books flourished or floundered, so did collections of lives of transgressive women. Albert Payson Terhune wrote the lives of twelve Superwomen, six of them French; this 1916 book was reissued as Famous Hussies of History in 1943 and, more recently, has been made newly available by several print-on-demand outfits.


Eight Women


To compare two books, each focused on three women, resembles the experiment in collective life writing in which the works under review themselves engage. The six subjects make for a composition of recurrent motifs, including lesbianism, cosmopolitanism, asexual marriages, divorce, avoidance of motherhood (in all this, Jackie Kennedy’s dramatic life looks the most conventional). These are not the lives of nobodies that Woolf longed for and social historians seek, but of women with resources to become exceptional. The two books share an investment in self-made women who, like Kaplan and Cohen themselves, straddled the academic and public spheres.9 Dreaming in French, published here by the University of Chicago Press and in a French translation by Éditions Gallimard, draws on Kaplan’s observations about study abroad, her own and those of generations of students. In interviews for the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and for the Maison Française at Columbia University, Kaplan says she wanted to explore that common transformative experience through three remarkable women, “these heroes … these icons” of study abroad who in their turn “transformed us.”10

Kaplan retells the postwar history of “les trente glorieuses,” the years between 1945 and 1975 in which France rebounded economically and socially, through three diverse women, “a Catholic debutante, a Jewish intellectual, an African American revolutionary, from the East Coast, the West Coast, and the South … before they became public figures.” Kaplan recreates the atmosphere in Paris: the genteel poverty of Bouvier’s aristocratic host family, in which the mother, the comtesse de Renty, was a member of the Resistance who had survived internment; the Algerian crisis and the fall of the Fourth Republic that Sontag’s Parisian diaries ignored; the international response to the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War that led Davis to be invited on European lecture tours. Kaplan reconstructs these women’s experiences by interviewing roommates and hosts; her subjects remain at a certain distance, approached indirectly through what remains of their social and urban milieu.

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (1951). Photography by Richard Rutledge. Flickr / Christine dovima_is_devine_II

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (1951). Photography by Richard Rutledge. Flickr / Christine dovima_is_devine_II

Some of the best passages in Kaplan’s book recreate the transatlantic ocean voyage of 1949–1950, or show us earnest Smith and Vassar students immersing themselves in French studies in grimy, impoverished postwar Paris. Jackie is irresistible with her entrée to fashionable parties, even more in her shorts and sandals, picnicking on a summer car trip. “Look at her,” as Cohen chants in All We Know about Madge Garland. As First Lady, Jackie Kennedy brought Francophile taste to Washington, and made a galvanizing state visit to France, as if to confirm her supposed descent from French aristocracy.

“If Jacqueline Bouvier’s France is outside her, a kingdom of forms, an aesthetic longing” Kaplan writes, “Susan Sontag’s is all interiors, an exploration of self. … Two tall, dark beauties with thick manes of hair.” Sontag seems to have had the most precarious initiation of Kaplan’s three sojourners in Paris, though she later became the most habituée. Raised in Arizona and Los Angeles, Sontag made her way as fast as possible to the University of Chicago, Oxford, and then Paris in pursuit of her girlfriend, writer Harriet Sohmers: “along with her passion for Harriet, Sontag had fallen hard for French,” and her notebooks include vocabulary lists that conjugate her love life as well as the new language. Within a few years of her return to New York she had established herself as a novelist rivaling Philip Roth and the French New Novelists, and also identified as “a self-Europeanized American” and importer of French philosophy.11

Kaplan’s chapter on Angela Davis, the third of her striking beauties, is avowedly more about Davis’s impact on France than France’s influence on her. Davis, backed by her prominent family and an excellent knowledge of French, like Bouvier took a college year abroad. Kaplan vividly brings Davis to Paris, into “the same décor, the same endless walkup, the same mansard roofs that Susan Sontag had known.” After her junior year, Davis changed her major to philosophy, studied with Adorno in Frankfurt, and followed her Brandeis mentor Herbert Marcuse to UC San Diego to complete her PhD on Kant’s theory of violence. While Sontag’s sexual life circa 1957 is central to Dreaming in French, Davis’s story is an international political drama. Davis may have taken her year abroad in France in 1963–1964 to be near her German fiancé, but in 1980, outside the book’s purview, she married Hilton Braithwaite, and in 1997 she came out as a lesbian. Although Davis is still alive, Kaplan was not able to interview her, and Davis herself seems to have a policy against the personal. In the preface to her Autobiography (1975), she wrote of not wanting “to contribute to the already widespread tendency to personalize and individualize history.”

Remembering the images of Angela Davis with raised fist that abounded in the late 1960s, I was fascinated to read about her as a Brandeis University French major enrolled in the Hamilton College Paris program, and to picture her in an elegant dress and bouffant hairdo, picking up the Herald Tribune on September 16, 1963, and reading about the four teenage girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in her home town. One of the girls was Angela’s sister’s close friend, another a near neighbor. In November came the news of President Kennedy’s assassination. In 1969, as a lecturer at UCLA, Davis toured Cuba and returned to find herself fired for being a communist; she continued to lecture and the California Supreme Court overruled the regents’ firing. Collaborating with the Black Panther party, she served as translator for Jean Genet when he lectured at UCLA in their support. Davis’s correspondence with Soledad Prison inmate George Jackson implicated her when his younger brother, Jonathan Jackson, raided a courtroom and took hostages; more incriminatingly, guns belonging to Angela Davis were fired in the fatal shootout. Davis had always owned guns; Black people needed household arms in segregated Birmingham when she was growing up, she explained. Davis became a fugitive, and her subsequent imprisonment and trial became a cause célèbre in France; 60,000 demonstrated in March 1971 for her release.

What links Kaplan’s subjects is that all three were Americans who immersed themselves in French culture; what Cohen’s trio share is the elusiveness of both their individual lives and their connections to one another. Cohen, like Kaplan, constructs a biographical triptych, but initially set out to tell one woman’s story. In an interview for a Wesleyan University magazine, she says that she initially undertook “a book about Madge Garland,” but found her life and career “hard to pin down.” Cohen chose to include the others because she “had written a magazine profile of Mercedes de Acosta and was hearing about Esther Murphy from the writer Sybille Bedford,” whom she interviewed while researching Garland.12

Cohen shares Woolf’s affinity for the marginal and ephemeral, as well as her fascination with glamour. Murphy performed herself to the hilt. Friend of Edmund Wilson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mary McCarthy, and Dorothy Parker, she grew up in New York, her father the wealthy owner of Mark Cross fine leather goods. Unlike the other women discussed in both of these books, Murphy was not conventionally attractive. She identified with Edith Wharton and Margaret Fuller. A member of the Sapphic set in New York, London, and Paris, she made two catastrophic marriages, the first with Evelyn John St. Loe Strachey (second cousin of Lytton), a rising Labour politician, and the second with Chester A. Arthur III, grandson of the US President. Cohen identifies Murphy’s biographical subjects—Lady Blessington, Madame de Pompadour, and Madame de Maintenon—as women “whose reputation was not secure.” Murphy’s “interest in biography was not in making the forgotten or the trivialized great, but in making them live again, fail again. … a gesture of transmission. … Lost and found and lost again.” One senses that biographers tend to look in the mirror.

Esther Murphy Arthur (1920)

Esther Murphy Arthur (1920)

Mercedes de Acosta, like Murphy, grew up a wealthy Catholic in New York, but in a Spanish rather than Irish family. She had glamorous older sisters, but her mother dressed her as a boy. As an adult, Mercedes, a published poet, was always to be met at the usual parties in New York, London, or Paris. Madge Garland called her “one of the women I have loved most in my life”; Esther Murphy deemed her “intelligent and subtle,” in spite of her “trashy” ideas. De Acosta became close to a series of beloved stars, gaining debatable degrees of intimacy with Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Cohen focuses her portrait on the unsealing of de Acosta’s collection of Garbo materials: would it reveal what really happened with the beloved star? Not at all; there was no confirming evidence either way, to the relief of some and the disappointment of others, who hoped the affair had not been solely in de Acosta’s imagination.

Throughout her life, Mercedes invented romances, including a fantasy of rescuing Maude Adams, famous for playing Peter Pan, from a fire. But Cohen helps us recognize de Acosta’s gift for affective attachment, along with her enthusiasms for the more fringe spiritual speculations of that day. Cohen portrays her as a sensitive collector of the relics of celebrity. “Keeping the important with the inconsequential is one version of what it means to be a dedicated collector—the other being a relentless connoisseurship.” A reviewer wrote about de Acosta’s autobiography: “it reads like a book of many, many biographies woven through the life of Miss de Acosta.”

Mercedes de Acosta (1919). Wikimedia Commons

Mercedes de Acosta (1919). Wikimedia Commons

Madge Garland was born Madge Alma McHarg in Melbourne and moved to London at the age of two; her father was a businessman in textiles and ladies’ accessories, but the family never became English insiders, and their wealth seeped away. Like Esther Murphy, Madge “was an awkward, willful, sickly girl” who disappointed her mother and longed for a more substantial education. It was Gertrude Stein who told Madge to change her name from McHarg to her first husband’s name, Garland. While her many friends were mostly too wealthy to have to work, Garland supported herself through a long life in fashion journalism and industry. Like Mercedes, Madge “was one of those people one always saw at these mad bacchanals,” said Vernon Duke; at one such gathering de Acosta called Garland’s partner Dody Todd “the bucket in the well of loneliness,” and described Madge as a tough “kitten” in blue ribbons. It delighted Garland to administer the first fashion institute in postwar Britain and to become Lady Ashland, though her lordly second husband became a miserable alcoholic.

Collective biographies of women can make fabulous fashion statements and hand out free tickets for time travel. We recognize young Sontag’s awful patchwork print dress as she poses before a typewriter in Paris circa 1965. We experience déjà vu seeing an elderly Garland in a maxi dress with large cuffs and loose sleeves, a long looped “tie” and tiers of beads draped around a winged collar, circa 1975. At moments, it’s as if it can all be shared, and we don’t have to say goodbye to all that. And then, closing the books, I’m reminded that these women’s struggles and lies were sufficient to their day. Collective biographies of the 21st century will have different narratives to relate. icon

  1. Both books have been well received, especially Cohen’s—All We Know was a finalist in biography for the National Book Critics Circle award.
  2. Alice Kaplan, French Lessons: A Memoir (University of Chicago Press, 1994).
  3. Juliette Atkinson points out the Victorian interest in tragic biography, including the hero-worshipping Thomas Carlyle’s biography of his friend’s unfulfilled life, Life of Sterling. See Atkinson, Victorian Biography Reconsidered: A Study of Nineteenth-Century “Hidden” Lives (Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 112–26.
  4. See Alison Booth, How to Make It as a Woman (University of Chicago Press, 2004) and the online annotated bibliography and database project (in progress), Collective Biographies of Women.
  5. Madame de Staël, for example, receives 42 brief biographies in the CBW database; Madame de Maintenon, 23; Madame de Pompadour, 11—sometimes in books by writers and publishers, in New York or London, who would have mattered in the elite circles of Cohen’s and Kaplan’s subjects. The titles of more than 50 all-female collective biographies indicate a focus on Frenchwomen.
  6. Quoted in Cohen, p. 91.
  7. For a later generation, the roman à clef about this same coterie, Barnes’s Nightwood, served as well as a collective biography of cosmopolitan lesbians; according to Kaplan, Sontag read Nightwood, wrote an academic paper on it, and lived out its plot in her escape to Paris.
  8. Of the 67 short biographies of Joan collected in books in the CBW database, 8 were published in 1917, for instance.
  9. Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Madge Garland worked as editors (book and magazine, respectively); Sontag and Davis were philosophical writers. Kaplan, already a prize-winning memoirist, biographer, and cultural historian, chairs the French department at Yale University, where she earned her PhD. Cohen, a Yale PhD of more recent vintage, serves on the English faculty at Wesleyan University. All We Know is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, frequent publisher of Sontag. Its back cover includes a blurb from Hilton Als, who praised the book in the New Yorker and is himself the author of a comparable collective biography, The Women (1998).
  10. “Dreaming in French with Alice Kaplan,” YouTube video, 44:58, from an interview conducted by Caroline Weber at the Columbia University Maison Française on April 12, 2012, posted by “columbiauniversity,” April 24, 2012.
  11. Kaplan occasionally links these lives, as when she notes Sontag’s protest of the Vietnam War and defense of the Black Panthers, or relates Sontag’s rude refusal of editor Jackie Onassis’s personal request for a blurb for Diana Vreeland’s collection of fashion photographs.
  12. David Low, “5 Questions with … Lisa Cohen on Teaching and Writing,” Wesleyan Connection, August 30, 2012. The book presents two novella-length biographies with a briefer centerpiece on de Acosta.
Featured image: Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova (right) meeting with Angela Davis at Sheremetyevo Airport (1972). RIA Novosti archive, image #36716 / Yuriy Ivanov / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / Wikipedia Commons