Midcentury Paris frequently serves as the backdrop for stories of American men on the cusp of artistic achievement, whose exploits feature the following: sex with nurses, sex with prostitutes, sex with older housewives, sex with younger schoolgirls, and alcohol—endless supplies of alcohol. The Parisian adventures of soon-to-be-renowned American women are somewhat different. For one thing, there are far fewer nurses. When Jacqueline Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis each traveled to Paris, they weren’t fighting a war or attempting to contract every known STD. They were simply young women with student IDs. The Parisian year was traditionally intended to endow young women with an appreciation of French culture so that they would be able to quote Proust while serving hot dogs to their future children. This plan didn’t work out so well. Even the more conventional Jackie, a daughter of the moneyed elite, went a bit too far in her studies, eventually becoming a first lady who was often criticized for being too cosmopolitan, too cultured, and more specifically, “too French.” Sontag went even further to become the cautionary tale par excellence. Parents beware: if you send your daughter to France, she will enter the country as a young wife and leave a bisexual, Marxist intellectual. Frightening, I know. Both women would return to Paris multiple times throughout their lives, checking in on the city like old lovers. But, unfortunately for them, Paris had already moved on—to Angela Davis. If Kaplan teaches you one thing, it’s that the French LOVE Angela Davis. Like, they’re really, really obsessed with her. Countless French films, songs, and novels feature Davis and her iconic story of 1960s political turmoil. Nevertheless, unlike other notable African Americans—such as Josephine Baker and James Baldwin—Davis didn’t consider Paris a racial utopia. Davis does describe receiving better treatment in Paris than she did in her native Alabama (but, really, is this surprising?), yet she also understood that she was of “symbolic usefulness” to the French. By treating her better than they treated the Algerians, the French could term themselves progressive and tolerant—even if their country’s racist narrative remained unchanged. By studying a country’s racist framework as an outsider, Davis gained a better understanding of the underpinnings of ethnic discrimination, fueling her radical political awakening. Davis may not have particularly loved France, but the country seriously couldn’t get enough of her. There is no Susan Sontag Street or Jacqueline Kennedy Way in Paris, but there’s more than one Rue Angela Davis.
Exploring the lives of those whose primary achievement is the mere accumulation of wealth is usually a task left to Ayn Rand or the blonde bobbleheads over at Fox & Friends. But in the case of Hetty Green, I feel as though we may need to make an exception. Green did evade taxes and stump for lower taxes with the best of them, but she was also a nineteenth-century woman who bailed out all of New York City and amassed a fortune equivalent to two billion dollars today. The “witch of Wall Street” (business writers clearly haven’t changed much) was born into a family of wealthy Quakers, and, like most women of her generation, Green was a disappointment from the moment she took her first breath because of that whole being-a-woman thing. With a mother who suffered as an anxious invalid and a father who ignored her, Green probably would have led a much sadder life had it not been for a grandfather who showed his affection by offering financial lessons. After making her way through the Gilded Age marriage market and landing an attractive though not overly intelligent husband, Green changed course and went straight to the stock market, growing her inheritance until she became the wealthiest woman in the country. Because of her Quaker upbringing, Green refused to speculate or follow market trends, instead making hundreds of millions of dollars using the oh-so-complicated “buy low, sell high” formula—which turned out to be a remarkably effective way to survive and prosper during an age of political corruption and financial panics. Money became the sole driving force in her life. When she discovered that her husband was cheating on her, she looked the other way, but when she found out that he had used her money without asking, she kicked the scrub out. Despite her massive wealth, she lived quite frugally—if not somewhat cheaply—never caring about what money could buy, only worrying about the state of her balance sheets. She rarely lived in any one home for an extended period of time and instead shuffled between rooms in boarding houses in order to evade city taxes—often living in Brooklyn before the consolidation of 1898. Not surprisingly, she kept few close friends—often paranoid that people were trying to murder her for her money—and she wasn’t the most attentive mother. However, her distant parental style wasn’t so different from that of many wealthy women of the time, and Green did attempt to instill sound financial principles in both her son and daughter. She was opposed to women’s suffrage and mostly remained out of politics—except to challenge William Jennings Bryan’s call for higher taxes on the wealthy—but she did champion a woman’s right to understand and control her own finances. It seems somewhat counterintuitive that she supported a woman’s right to open her own bank account but not her right to vote. But perhaps Green understood the sad fact that power in the Gilded Age—and, sadly, also today—is less about the number of ballots cast for a politician and more about the income of those influencing him.
All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen
If a biography is understood as a tome that documents the great deeds of great men at great length, then Lisa Cohen’s three short tales of forgotten women is a bit of a misfit. All modernists, all lesbians, and all on the fringes of fame, the women Cohen follows—Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland—all excelled in ephemeral fields and left almost no mark on history (two of them don’t even have Wikipedia entries). So why dedicate over five hundred pages to a discussion of their lives? Because Cohen wants to write a quintessentially modernist biography that focuses on the modernist desire to capture the flash of the new—an instability that cannot hold. Esther Murphy was a precocious, fact-spouting child who grew into an exceedingly chatty adult. And this incessant talking became her life’s work. Although she secured a few book contracts to document the lives of French royal mistresses, she couldn’t stop talking about them long enough to get any work done. She frightened away one gay husband and various lovers with her endless discussions of the minutia of eighteenth-century France, but her speech was also what attracted admirers who were in awe of her seemingly endless store of facts and opinions—and wit in expressing them. Mercedes de Acosta was similarly both adored and hated for her peculiar talent. Cohen diplomatically refers to de Acosta as a professional fan, but it seems to me that she can be called, more bluntly, a bit of a stalker. Greta Garbo, Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich—she sought out and slept with all of them. She even created a scrapbook called the “Garbo Bible”—which looks like a prop out of a Hitchcock film about erotic obsession. One of the women de Acosta later encountered—and most likely slept with—was Madge Garland. Although Garland was by no means a star, she still stands out in this biography for having—by far—the most intreesting life. After rebelling against her father and taking a position at a magazine, Garland rose to be the fashion editor at British Vogue (where she worked alongside Aldous Huxley), survived the blitz in London, became the first Professor of Fashion at the Royal College of Art, had an affair with pretty much every well-known lesbian in Britain and the United States, and traveled widely into her eighties—without ever failing to appear in public with so much as a curl out of place. Perhaps it’s a failing of Cohen’s project that her most interesting subject is also the most conventionally suited for a biography. But, like Murphy and de Acosta, Garland left little of tangible value behind beyond a few books on fashion that have long been out of print; it’s unlikely any other biographer would have thought to chronicle her life. But Cohen is not merely celebrating the rise and fall of individual careers. She’s attempting to represent the ephemeral spirit of a particular sub-culture: upper-middle-class, artistic lesbians of the first half of the twentieth century. They aren’t exactly a well-documented bunch. Their lives were defined by secrecy, and their words were destroyed in burnt letters and diaries. Permanency, associated with male culture, was not a concept that held a great deal of value for these women. They were content to watch the candle burn at both ends, enjoying the flame.