A failure, a cipher, a style icon - and a city by the bay.


A few weeks ago, the Flyer's annual summer reading issue offered an overview of some of the season's better books. What that issue didn't include were two of the season's best books — both of them on subjects given a fresh look.

In the case of one, Naples Declared: A Walk Around the Bay (Putnam), Benjamin Taylor considers a city if not off the beaten path then too often a mere stop for travelers making their way south from Rome to Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Amalfi Coast of Italy. In the case of the other, All We Know: Three Lives (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Lisa Cohen reconsiders the private and public lives of three 20th-century women themselves off the beaten path in standard studies of the period. Both books are first-rate.

Who are the women who led the lives of Cohen's subtitle? They are Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland, and, as Cohen writes in her preface, the goal in All We Know is "to make these three women visible again" when, in the 21st century, they run the risk of being forgotten altogether. They were not exactly invisible in their lifetimes.

Daughter of the head of the Mark Cross leather-goods company and sister of the famed expatriate and party animal par excellence Gerald Murphy, Esther Murphy was as prodigious a talker as she was a drinker. She was also, in Cohen's words, "a perfect failure" — a woman whose life of Madame de Maintenon was never finished, but, boy, was it talked about, chiefly by Murphy herself. Equally discussed in certain illustrious circles of the day: Murphy's failed marriages and emotional attachments to the women writers who surrounded her and who did succeed.

Mercedes de Acosta? She was, in Cohen's words, "a tremendously important cipher" — important not for de Acosta's career in Hollywood as a scriptwriter, not for her objects of affection (Eleonora Duse, Isadora Duncan, and Marlene Dietrich, to name a few). The all-important object of desire was Greta Garbo. Were they or were they not lovers? Was de Acosta the first celebrity stalker? And what do de Acosta's private papers say about the nature of devotion? Cohen seeks an answer.

And what has Cohen to say about Madge Garland, who helped bring British Vogue in the 1920s into the modernist vanguard?

"She became a public figure whose organization of her life around self-display was bound up with a need to actively, continually conceal herself," according to the author.

What Cohen writes of here may be only three lives, but she uses those lives to address a multitude of larger themes: the irrational, the trivial, the paradoxical, the profound, and the "seams between public and private."

A seamless performance, bridging matters great and small, is how to describe Lisa Cohen's biographical meditation on modernism, which is All We Know.

Seems every reference to Naples you come across these days is some urban horror story: If it isn't the city's garbage piled high, it's the city's gangs that murderously rule its neighborhoods, with, behind both, Naples' native brand of doing business: the Camorra.

What a relief, then, that the Camorra makes a late appearance — on page 178 out of a total 182 pages — in the handsomely designed pages of Naples Declared. There are other matters on the mind of its author, Benjamin Taylor — matters that begin in Naples Declared with a Naples specialty: a miracle.

The passport that Taylor thought he'd lost inside the city's Duomo was in fact not lost. It was found and in the hands of an elderly gentleman who was using it to fan himself in the shade of the cathedral. He was waiting for Taylor to return, which Taylor did and Taylor has: nearly a dozen times to Naples over the course of 16 years.

He returned to this city (Neapolis, or "New City," founded circa 600 B.C. by the Greeks) whose "eternal paganism" lies just beneath its Christianity; to this city with its long and glorious and inglorious history; and to Naples' unexpected delights.

One such: the Neapolitan woman whom Taylor met one day inside the city's national library. Her knowledge of idiomatic English wasn't so great, but her admiration for one American writer and for one his works in particular was great indeed.

The author in question: William Faulkner. The book: Absalom, Absalom!. And what could Naples, Italy, and Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, possibly have in common?

See Naples Declared for Benjamin Taylor's answer and for his uncommon understanding of the workings of history and of human nature, no matter the time or the place.

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