Sara and Gerald Murphy: the art of the family
One of the great pleasures I have in researching books—okay, I admit, it’s not quite as much fun as the travel side of research…but a pleasure nonetheless—is getting to know some of the true-life characters of the time and place the book is to be set.
Take Sara and Gerald Murphy. I knew of them, of course, since it’s hard to do much reading on the Paris art scene of the Twenties without repeatedly tripping over them. They even had walk-on parts in Island of the Mad, as house guests in the Grand Canal palazzo hired for the season by Cole and Linda Porter. Sara and Gerald are in a photo I’ve used several times, bracketing Cole Porter and a friend on the Piazza San Marco in Venice—
Their story is so many things: joyous, inspiring, thought-provoking, moving, and sad—but above all, fascinating. Like the Porters, they were born into East-coast wealth, the wife was older than the husband, and the husband was not entirely heterosexual—although in Gerald’s case, it appears to have been a secret struggle rather than an accepted fact. Gerald, born into the family that ran Marc Cross, discovered in Sara a fellow Bohemian, and when their children were small they set off to first to England to train as landscape gardeners, then to Paris where the community of American expatriate artists and writers was exploding in all directions.
It was unthinkable in that time and place, that a person did not produce some kind of art. Writers drank with painters, poets slept with photographers, ceramists argued with print-makers. Friends were pulled in to sew costumes or paint backdrops for the Ballets Russes. In this air of creativity, Gerald started to paint, producing a series of geometric still-lifes that explored the universe of meaning in ordinary objects.
Sara was an artist, too, but in nothing as mundane as oil and canvas. Her medium was people, her music was the timbre of conversation in a room and the taste of foods, unusual or simple, on the tongue. A housewife’s talent, one might argue—but in fact, her collaboration with Gerald on a 13-year series of real-life encounters and episodes made for one of the most influential art works of the century.
From their 1921 arrival in Paris to their 1934 departure for New York, the Murphy apartment in Paris and the Murphy house in Antibes became the home of the art world. Not the drawing room, not the gallery, but the home, the beating heart of the place where you could always find friends, where you could be fed and sheltered and listened to and encouraged, where they would take you back even when you had misbehaved (and oh, did many of them misbehave. Scott Fitzgerald was banned for three whole weeks after one particularly nasty drunken evening.)
The two Murphys made America’s footloose expatriates into a family, miraculously melding a wild mix of adults with their own three small children. There were costume parties on the beach with Pablo Picasso, who traded sketches with little Honoria. There was skiing with Hemingway, dancing with ballerinas, sailing with a Russian nobleman, music on the terrace with everyone who wandered by. There was family.
And as a family it ended. The Murphys’ second child developed tuberculosis. The stock market chewed away their resources. They retreated to America, and when Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night came out, a book they had encouraged him to write over many years, it turned out to be a distressing mix of their lives and troubles with Fitzgerald’s own torments with Zelda. The Murphys’ eldest child died of a complication from measles, and their second son two years later. Gerald ran Marc Cross, and painted no more. They never returned to Villa America.
Gerald painted some 14 canvases in his life, of which 8 survive. But together, Gerald and Sara Murphy lovingly nurtured Twentieth century art and literature through its early years.
Riviera Gold (here) comes out June 9, and is available for pre-order (signed) from Bookshop Santa Cruz or Poisoned Pen—or from your local Independent bookshop, or Barnes & Noble/Nook, or Amazon/Kindle, or CD or audio.