Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Gerald and Sara Murpy

Just back from Paris and the Cote d'Azur, and finalementc’est l’été!  Before I report on the trip, I want to happily acknowledge the first day of Summer, which was Saturday, by mentioning Sara and Gerald Murphy.  I assume many of you know of the Murphys, but based on conversations I've had over the years I also assume that at least a few of you are unfamiliar with this dynamic, dazzling American couple. 

Sara and Gerald married and sailed to France in the early 1920s, taking up residence in both Paris and Antibes.  You may have known, as I did, that the characters of Nicole and Dick Diver in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night (still one of my most favorite books, even though many critics believe it is "flawed") were loosely based on Sara and Gerald.  I didn't know how much of the novel was fact, but after reading the two books pictured above -- Living Well is the Best Revenge by Calvin Tomkins (Modern Library edition) and Everybody Was So Young by Amanda Vaill (Vintage) -- I got it all straight.  And I was completely fascinated by their life and times.

I recommend reading both of these if you haven't already.  The Tomkins book is slender, at 172 pages, and is a longer version of a piece he wrote for The New Yorker (he was the magazine's longtime art critic and remains a staff writer, and the painting reproduced on the cover of the book is a work of Gerald's entitled 'Cocktail,' which is in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art).  Coincidentally, the Museum of Modern Art in New York published a paperback
edition in December 2013, featuring a new introduction by Tomkins and a different painting by Gerald on the cover.  Vaill's book is simply more -- more detail, more background, more recent material (there are even a few photos from the '40s and '50s, whereas in the Tomkins book a notation appears after the last photo:  "The Murphys' family albums do not go beyond 1933, the year they came to America"). 

If you crave more about them, as I did, I recommend continuing with these selections:


Letters From the Lost Generation (University Press of Florida, 2002) is edited by Linda Patterson Miller; Sara & Gerald (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982) is by Honoria Murphy Donnelly, Sara and Gerald's only daughter; and Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara & Gerald Murphy (University of California Press) is the catalog that accompanied an exhibit of the same name on view in 2007 and 2008 at the Williams College Museum of Art, Yale University Art Gallery, and the Dallas Museum of Art.  Deborah Rothschild edited this wonderful book, and essays were contributed by Calvin Tomkins, Kenneth Silver, Amanda Vaill, Trevor Winkfield, Linda Patterson Miller, Olivia Mattis, William Jay Smith, Kenneth Wayne, and Dorothy Kosinski.

The Murphys' good friend Archibald MacLeish has referred to Sara and Gerald as "the nexus" of the expatriate idyll.  Among their friends were John Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Cole Porter, Picasso, Lillian Hellman, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Sir Charles Mendl, Elsie de Wolfe, Philip Barry, Stravinsky, Monty Woolley, and Fernand Leger.  In the Foreword to Making it New, Williams College Class of '56 Director Lisa Corrin writes that "when describing Sara and Gerald Murphy, the quality most frequently noted by both friends and biographers is their generosity of spirit.  Their desire to share with the world the talents of the extraordinary circle of individuals whom they embraced seems truly inexhaustible...The Murphys had that rare capacity to recognize the new and to encourage it wholeheartedly and fearlessly.  Being in their company, as the title of this catalogue and the accompanying exhibition suggest, meant being an active agent in making the world anew, that is to say, fully inhabiting the idealism that was all that came to be known as "the modern.""

The lines "Day by day make it new/Yet again make it new!" seem exceptionally fit in any discussion about Sara and Gerald (and by the way, these lines have often been attributed to Ezra Pound, but an Internet search turns up that in fact they are an historical anecdote relating to Ch'eng T'ang, the first king of the Shang dynasty, 1766-1753 B.C.  The full text reads As the sun makes it new / Day by day make it new / yet again make it new, and the slogan reportedly was inscribed in gold on T'ang's washbasin).  If, so far, the Murphy's story seems all sunlight and revelry, it wasn't.  I won't spoil it for those of you who don't know, except to say that part of their tale is quite tragic.  In a letter written by Dorothy Parker to Helen Rothschild Droste in November of 1929, from Montana-Vermala in the Alps, she says "I hate to speak about the Murphys, because truly they would break you heart.  I never saw such gameness in my life.  They try so hard to be gay, to make a little party out of everything.  Sara's birthday was a week or so ago, and everybody gave everybody else presents, and there was a cake and champagne, and those are the things that break your heart.  And when it was your birthday, I told them, and Gerald made a cocktail -- the first drink any of us had had for God knows how long -- and I think the good luck that was wished you surely must come true.  And to-day, before our Thanksgiving veal, we had a cocktail, only -- perhaps it was because of being unaccustomed to liquor -- we all got good expatriate jags and wept slow sentimental tears, and did a good deal of kissing of children and dogs."

So, what does all of this have to do with summer?  Simply this: in the summer of 1922, the Murphys were at Houlgate, on the northwest coast of France in Normandy, where it was a bit chilly.  They decided to go and visit Cole Porter, who had rented the Château de la Garoupe in Antibes, which was, according to Honoria Murphy, "in itself original, for the season there had traditionally ended at the beginning of summer."  Sara and Gerald loved it so much on the Côte d'Azur that Gerald persuaded the manager of the Hôtel du Cap, Antoine Sella, to allow them to spend the next Summer at the hotel.  Before that summer ended, Sara and Gerald bought a place near the Antibes lighthouse that they renovated and named Villa America.  Honoria continues: "My mother and father have since been credited with starting the summer season on the Riviera."          

To Sara and Gerald.
Enjoy the summer of 2014! 

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