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|Written by Brendan Blom|
|Wednesday, 31 October 2007 19:00|
“The measure of a man is the way he bears up under misfortune.”
In 1923, in Paris, shortly after 7 pm on a warm Sunday in June, forty people boarded a barge moored along the Seine. Entering the main room, there was a large table, set out for a multiple-course champagne dinner. Instead of flowers, there were mounds of brightly coloured children’s toys interspersed among the place settings. The meal went long into the night, and, in between courses, the various guests displayed their talents.
Several of them played music of their own composition on the piano. Others, professional dancers, performed entrancing routines by the world’s most renowned choreographer at the time, who was also in attendance. Another guest, a famous artist, gathered up all the decorative toys and created a whimsical work of art out of them -- a large, carefully-constructed pyramid, with a plastic cow atop a fireman’s ladder at the pinnacle.
A famous composer whose work had sparked riots in the city less than a decade before, ran the length of the room to leap through a giant celebratory wreath held up for him by two friends. And, at various moments, an odd little man dressed in the barge captain’s dress uniform, wandered around on the deck with a lantern, periodically poking his head in through the portholes to announce, “We’re sinking.”
Sound like a dream? It was – a living dream. It happened at the instigation of a young American couple, Gerald and Sara Murphy, who, in the brief time since their arrival from the Prohibition-era United States, had situated themselves at the hub of a vibrant artistic crowd. Their friends included: Pablo Picasso – the artist who created the toy pyramid; various members of Serge Diaghilev’s revolutionary Ballet Russe dance troupe, whose premiere performance of Igor Stravinsky’s work Les Noces was the official reason for the barge party; Stravinsky himself, the Russian-born modernist composer whose Rite of Spring had led audiences to charge out of the theatre and demonstrate violently in the streets of Paris in 1913; Jean Cocteau, the Surrealist poet/novelist/playwright/film-maker/designer/boxing manager, was the one with the lantern (he was addicted to opium at the time, which may explain his behaviour to some extent); and a number of others whose names have not stood the test of time as well as the others’.
The Murphys spent the next few years enhancing their reputation as social connectors for the growing number of writers, artists, musicians and other creative individuals who were converging in Paris for the sheer adventure of living in such a stimulating era. Introduced to the French Riviera by Cole Porter, before it became a fashionable resort locale, the Murphys set up a little Yankee paradise at a place they bought and named “Villa America,” on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean near Cannes. Here, they invited their friends for quiet dinner parties in their exotically-planted garden.
Picasso showed up with his first wife, a high-spirited dancer in the Ballet Russe (after their break-up, she wandered for several days around Paris with a gun looking for him); Ernest Hemingway brought his young family; Gertrude Stein stayed a short while, having intense, hilarious conversations with Picasso; the young actor Rudolph Valentino; writer and humorist Dorothy Parker; groundbreaking photographer Man Ray; and, perhaps most importantly for the purposes of posterity, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, became frequent guests and developed an intimate, though often strained, friendship with the Murphys.
Notably, the Murphys became the model for the principal characters in Fitzgerald’s novel Tender is the Night, Dick and Nicole Diver. The Divers are portrayed as people of preternatural charm, casually drawing people into their social world – a world that was small and comfortable and relaxed, but also vivacious and exciting. Their conversations were often about the newest developments in art and politics, but were never pedantic and always light in tone. Early on in Tender is the Night, a young actress, holidaying in the Antibes, encounters the Divers and their entourage of assorted American and European expatriates on the beach.
During the course of an afternoon with them, she notes of Dick the same qualities that were often noted of Gerald Murphy: “He seemed kind and charming – his voice promised that he would take care of her, and that a little later he would open up whole new worlds for her, unroll an endless succession of magnificent possibilities.” This is similar to the feature a friend of the Murphys observed about Gerald, that “he meticulously planned, intellectualized, and expended great effort in order to make each moment a beautiful event.”
Fitzgerald pulls off an odd trick in his book, though. The Divers, at first very obviously based on the Murphys, with their villa in the Antibes, and their sherry on the beach in the morning, develop into the Fitzgeralds themselves – a tortured, willfully self-destructive couple, engaging in increasingly melodramatic episodes involving ill-considered romantic affairs and bad behaviour at parties. Their antics gradually siphon off the reserves of goodwill held by so many people towards them. Eventually, it is revealed that Nicole was actually a psychiatric patient in a hospital in Switzerland where Dick was a doctor. (One would think that would be a pretty strict rule for any man, let alone a psychiatrist, to live by: never marry a teenager you meet in an insane asylum.)
The character flaws that bring down the Divers are clearly related to those of the Fitzgeralds: Fitzgerald was a life-long alcoholic, and Zelda developed schizophrenia in 1930, four years before Tender is the Night was published. (She spent most of her remaining years in an institution, and died in 1948 in a fire at the Highland Mental Hospital in North Carolina -- seven years after Scott died of a heart attack while living in Hollywood.) The novel turns into an elegy, not only for the Divers, but for the entire “Lost Generation” of young Americans living so exuberantly in the post-World War I carnival of reconstruction, art and alcohol in continental Europe. Calvin Tomkins, in his book on the Murphys and their friends, “Living Well is the Best Revenge,” writes that Fitzgerald implanted in Dick Diver his own greatest weakness: “wanting to be good, to be brave and wise,” and wanting “’even more than that, to be loved.’” Tomkins further notes that “Fitzgerald recognized his self-indulgence and yet never quite gave up the struggle to be an artist.”
The Murphys did not collapse as the Divers -- or the Fitzgeralds -- did. They did, however, suffer a severe decline in their fortunes. In 1929, the Murphy’s nine-year-old son, Patrick, developed tuberculosis. The whole family moved to a sanatorium in Switzerland to try to effect a recovery. They tried to maintain their exuberant lifestyle, setting themselves up in a nearby chalet, and buying a small bar where they again invited their friends for parties with music and dancing. After eighteen months, Patrick recovered, and the family moved back to the Villa America for two years. Many of their friends had returned to the United States in the meantime, but they stayed and spent much of their time sailing around the Mediterranean on their yacht. Things seemed to be back to normal.
Starting in 1933, though, the Murphys suffered a devastating string of misfortunes that finally forced them to return to the United States. Patrick’s tuberculosis returned aggressively; the Murphy family business, the Mark Cross company of leather goods, had gone nearly bankrupt since the death of Gerald’s father in 1931; and the growing rise of fascism in Europe made Americans an unpopular presence in many quarters. Already, Gerald had pulled the eldest son, Baoth, out of boarding school in Germany, because he had been forced to practice military drills in the schoolyard and perform the Nazi salute; and once, while setting into port in a small Italian town, the family had been surrounded by local men swimming in the harbour, shouting “Mare nostrum” (our sea). Setting ashore, they found posters of Mussolini prominently displayed. The Murphys sold the Villa America and sailed to New York.
Then, in 1935, Patrick contracted measles while at boarding school. The measles turned into spinal meningitis, and Patrick died before Gerald and Sara could even arrange a trip to visit him.
Baoth died in January 1937 in a sanatorium in upstate New York.
It is possible to see both the Fitzgerald’s and the Murphy’s as tragic emblems of the entire 1920s modernist Parisian society. Certainly, Tomkins notes, Scott Fitzgerald saw his friends in this light: as “symbols of the great theme of the Lost Generation: romantic disappointment.” Gerald Murphy, to a certain extent, agreed. In the midst of the most turbulent years, Gerald once said to Fitzgerald, “Only the invented part of our life – the unreal part – has had any scheme, any beauty. Life itself has stepped in now and blundered, scarred and destroyed.” Nevertheless, the stricken couple soldiered on.
There is currently a minor resurgence in interest in the Murphys. Gerald had studied painting briefly, in Paris, with the main set designer for the Ballet Russe, and spent the next few years slowly producing fourteen large modernist canvases. He stopped painting when Patrick became sick and, over the next few decades, his work was forgotten, and several of the paintings lost. Apart from one exhibit of them in Dallas in 1960, they were largely forgotten. Now, though, Murphy’s paintings are recognized as significant examples of an American response to French Abstractionism and Cubism, and precursors to the Pop Art movement of the mid-twentieth century. This past year, all the remaining canvases, and several other artworks of friends and followers, were displayed in an exhibit titled “Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara & Gerald Murphy,” at the Williams College Museum of Art, in Williamstown, Massachusetts. There have been several reviews and reminiscences of the Murphy’s lives and work, most notably in The New Yorker, by Peter Schjeldahl, and on popmatters.com, by John Davidson.
Although it is true that the Murphys would not be nearly so well-known today if it were not for the friends they made, they were not simply 1920s versions of Paris Hilton, rich party-goers. They were people of moderate wealth, better than average artistic taste, and boundless curiosity and sociability. They are models for all of us who, while acknowledging we are not geniuses ourselves, still like to enjoy the creations of others and want to leave the world both an aesthetically and morally improved place when we are finished with it.