Gerald Clery Murphy and Sara Sherman Wiborg were wealthy, expatriate Americans who moved to the French Riviera in the early 20th century and who, with their generous hospitality and flair for parties, created a vibrant social circle, particularly in the 1920s, that included a great number of artists and writers of the Lost Generation. Gerald had a brief but significant career as a painter.
Gerald Clery Murphy (March 25, 1888 – October 17, 1964) was born in
to the family that owned the Mark Cross Company, sellers of fine leather goods.
He was of an Irish American background. Boston
Gerald was an aesthete from his childhood onwards. He was never comfortable in the boardrooms and clubs for which his father was grooming him. He failed the entrance exams at Yale three times before matriculating, although he performed respectably there. He joined DKE and the Skull and Bones society :237 He befriended a young freshman named Cole Porter (Yale class of 1913) and brought him into DKE. Murphy also introduced Porter to his friends, propelling him into writing music for Yale musicals.
Sara Sherman Wiborg (November 7, 1883 – October 10, 1975) was born in
, into the wealthy Wiborg
family. Her father, manufacturing chemist and owner of his own printing ink and
varnish company Frank Bestow Wiborg, was a self-made millionaire by the age of
40, and her mother was a member of the noted Cincinnati,
Ohio family, daughter of Hoyt Sherman, and
niece to Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman. Raised in Sherman Cincinnati,
her family moved to
for several years when she was a teenager, so her father could concentrate on
the European expansion of his company. The Wiborg family was easily accepted
into the high society community of 20th-century Germany Europe.
While in Europe, Sara and her sisters Hoytie
and Olga sang together at high-class assemblies. Upon returning to the United
States, the Wiborgs spent most of their time in New York City and, later, East
Hampton, where they built the 30-room mansion "The Dunes" on 600 acres just west of
the Maidstone Club in 1912. It was the largest estate in East
Hampton up to that time. Wiborg
Beach in East
Hampton is named for the family.
In East Hampton Sara Wiborg and Gerald Murphy met when they were both adolescents. Gerald was five years younger than Sara, and for many years they were more familiar companions than romantically attached; they became engaged in 1915, when Sara was 32 years old. Sara's parents did not approve of their daughter marrying someone "in trade," and Gerald's parents were not much happier with the prospect, seemingly because his father found it difficult to approve anything that Gerald did.
After marrying they lived at
50 West 11th Street
where they had three children. In 1921 they moved to New York City Paris
to escape the strictures of
and their families' mutual dissatisfaction with their marriage. In Paris Gerald
took up painting, and they began to make the acquaintances for which they
became famous. Eventually they moved to the French Riviera, where they became
the center of a large circle of artists and writers of later fame, especially
Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Fernand
Léger, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Archibald MacLeish, John O'Hara, Cole
Porter, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. New York
Prior to their arrival on the French Riviera, the region was experiencing a period when the fashionable only wintered there, abandoning the region during the high summer months. However, the activities of the Murphys fueled the same renaissance in arts and letters as did the excitement of
Later they lived at "The Dunes", once the largest house in
East Hampton. By
1941, the house proved impossible to rent, sell or even maintain; the Murphys
had it demolished, and they themselves moved to the renovated dairy barn.
Gerald died October 17,
1964 in East
Hampton, two days after his friend Cole Porter. Sara died on
October 10, 1975 in
. Arlington, Virginia
Nicole and Dick Diver of Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald are widely recognized as based on the Murphys, based on the marked physical similarities, although many of their friends, as well as the Murphys themselves, saw as much or more of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald's relationship and personalities in the couple than the Murphys. Ernest Hemingway's couple in Garden of Eden is not explicitly based on this pair, but given the similarities of the setting (Nice) and of the type of social group portrayed, there is clearly some basis for such an assumption. Interestingly, guests of the Murphys would often swim at Eden Roc, an event emulated in Hemingway's narrative.
Calvin Tomkins's biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy Living Well Is the Best Revenge was published in 1971, and Amanda Vaill documented their lives in the 1995 book Everybody Was So Young. Both accounts are balanced and kind, unlike some of their portrayals in the memoirs and fictitious works by their many friends, including Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
In 1982, Honoria Murphy Donnelly, the Murphys' daughter, with Richard N. Billings, wrote Sara & Gerald: Villa
What a Swell Party It Was
A new study of Gerald and Sara Murphy examines their life with the Lost Generation and their later disappointments.
By BROOKE ALLEN / http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/05/24/reviews/980524.24allent.html
EVERYBODY WAS SO YOUNG
Gerald and Sara Murphy: A Lost Generation Love Story.
By Amanda Vaill.
Illustrated. 470 pp.
Some 50 years after meeting Gerald and Sara Murphy, a still dazzled Donald Ogden Stewart wrote: ''Once upon a time there was a prince and a princess: that's exactly how a description of the Murphys should begin. They were both rich; he was handsome; she was beautiful; they had three golden children. They loved each other, they enjoyed their own company, and they had the gift of making life enchantingly pleasurable for those who were fortunate enough to be their friends.''
Gerald and Sara Murphy were, to many of their contemporaries, the beautiful couple of the 1920's, and they left their mark on many works of art about the period: F. Scott Fitzgerald's ''Tender Is the Night,'' Ernest Hemingway's ''Snows of Kilimanjaro,'' Philip Barry's ''
Holiday,'' Archibald MacLeish's ''J.B.,'' John Dos
Passos' ''Big Money'' and Pablo Picasso's ''Woman in White,'' among others. Yet
the Murphys' life together was no fairy tale; in the end it came very close to
tragedy. Amanda Vaill, a skillful and compassionate writer, gives us their
story in a marvelously readable biography, ''Everybody Was So Young.'' It is
not the first telling of the tale, but it is the most important -- more
comprehensive than Calvin Tomkins's ''Living Well Is the Best Revenge'' (1971)
and more graceful than the telling by Honoria Murphy Donnelly, the Murphys'
daughter, and Richard N. Billings, ''Sara & Gerald: Villa and
After'' (1982). America
Sara Sherman Wiborg and Gerald Clery Murphy became friends as adolescents in the hothouse social world of
in the first decade of the 20th
century. Gerald's father was proprietor of the Mark Cross Company, purveyor (as
it still is) of luxury leather goods. Sara's father was an exceedingly rich
industrialist, and Sara spent much of her youth at their 30-room East Hampton,
N.Y., mansion, The Dunes, or traveling around Europe with her parents and
sisters, celebrating the coronation of George V in London, hobnobbing with the
English aristocracy, and generally, Vaill writes, ''living life as one of the
matched pieces of her mother's luggage.'' She performed the role with a natural
grace but chafed in it, finding an unexpected outlet for her feelings in a
budding friendship with Gerald Murphy, an awkward prep-school boy five years
her junior. New York
Sara was attracted by Gerald's reflective nature, quiet sense of humor and habit of questioning convention. An esthete from his earliest years, he was uncomfortable in the boardrooms and clubrooms for which he was being groomed. The grooming process was not proceeding smoothly: he flunked the Yale entrance exams three times, although he eventually matriculated there and performed respectably, creating what he later called ''the likeness of popularity and success.''
Gerald and Sara did not become engaged until 1915, when Sara was 32 years old, over the hill in those days. Although Gerald was perfectly well off and eligible, her parents could hardly bring themselves to countenance their daughter marrying someone ''in trade.'' The senior Murphys also greeted the news gloomily, not so much because they had objections to Sara as because they seemed incapable of approving anything Gerald did: he had been, his father said, a ''great disappointment'' to him; Gerald's vision of life was ''unsound and warped.''
Considering their cold and withholding families and what Sara called ''the heavy hand of chaperonage'' that had always weighed firmly upon them, it is no surprise that the young Murphys looked upon their marriage not as a tie but as the beginning of glorious freedom. ''Think of a relationship that not only does not bind, but actually so lets loose the imagination!'' Gerald wrote. The Murphys cherished a Tolstoyan ideal of husband and wife working and living side by side. But this way of life was hard to bring to fruition within their parents' sphere of influence. And so in 1921, after Gerald had served in the Army's air units during World War I and had spent a stint learning landscape architecture at Harvard, the Murphys sailed for Paris with their three small children -- Honoria, Baoth and Patrick -- drawn there by the favorable exchange rate, the distance from their families and the galvanizing new artistic life of the French capital. The belle epoque was over, and the Murphys enthusiastically entered the modern age, which they were to ornament.
Too much, perhaps, has been written about
in the 20's, and
certainly more than enough about the Murphys and their circle; nevertheless,
Vaill's version is elegantly written and well worth perusing. Joyce, Miro,
Picasso, Man Ray, Stravinsky, Hemingway, Beckett, Brancusi, Leger, Balanchine,
Fitzgerald, Isadora Duncan: everyone, it seemed, was in Paris , and the Murphys -- generous, stylish
and hospitable -- knew and entertained them all. ''The Murphys were among the
first Americans I ever met,'' Stravinsky said, ''and they gave me the most
agreeable impression of the Paris .'' United
Their Paris apartment was modern and unconventional, but it was at the Villa America, their house at Cap d'Antibes on the Riviera, that the Murphys came into their own and made their indelible impression on their contemporaries; it was there that they seemed most to embody the period and its esthetic. Until their day the
been strictly a winter resort, practically deserted during the hot summer months.
From 1923 the Murphys almost single-handedly made it fashionable, inviting
exotics like the Fitzgeralds, the Picassos, Hemingway and his first and second
wives and Fernand Leger to their little Cote d'Azur . beach of La Garoupe
Gerald, who, in the words of a friend, ''always became a native of wherever he was,'' adopted a casual wardrobe that in subsequent years would become what amounted to a Cap d'Antibes uniform: striped sailor jersey, espadrilles and knitted fisherman's cap. Sara was very much the striking beauty that Fitzgerald would bring to life as Nicole Diver in ''Tender Is the Night,'' her face ''hard and lovely and pitiful,'' her bathing suit ''pulled off her shoulders,'' her characteristic rope of pearls setting off her deep tan. Around them they created a perpetual aura of luxury, celebration and fun. ''Sara est tres festin,'' Picasso remarked approvingly, as he watched her setting the picnic cloth with flowers and ivy.
Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald became particular friends of the Murphys. ''We four communicate by our presence rather than by any means,'' Gerald told them. ''Currents race between us regardless.'' But it was never a friendship between equals: the Fitzgeralds were younger and far less stable, and the very qualities that attracted them to the Murphys -- the older couple's inherited wealth and their unthinking generosity, their glamour and their air of settled contentment with each another and with their children-- made Fitzgerald envious and defensive.
In spite of the talent and intelligence the Murphys prized, F. Scott Fitzgerald was without a doubt one of the foremost boors of 20th-century American letters. Even the tolerant Gerald admitted that Scott ''really had the most appalling sense of humor, sophomoric and -- well, trashy.'' Murphy himself was all too often the butt of Fitzgerald's drunken venom. Yet never once did he grudge Fitzgerald affection, praise, financial and moral support. It was Murphy who bailed Fitzgerald out in 1939 and kept his daughter in Vassar; he and Sara were among the few to show up at Fitzgerald's funeral the following year. Fitzgerald, however, proved himself an unreliable friend, fostering, as did Hemingway, the image of Gerald Murphy as a spoiled dilettante.
But Murphy, modest about his gifts as he was, was no dilettante. He had unexpectedly taken up painting soon after his arrival in
after seeing an exhibition of work by Picasso, Derain, Gris and Braque. ''There
was a shock of recognition which put me into an entirely new orbit,'' he later
wrote. ''If that's painting,'' he told Sara, ''that's the kind of painting that
I would like to do.'' He began to study with the futurist artist Natalia
Goncharova and, along with Sara, to help paint scenery for Diaghilev's Ballets
Murphy was an infinitely slow and meticulous painter with a small output in his brief career. His surviving works formed the nucleus of a
in 1974 that John Russell, then a New York Times art critic, called ''a
distinct contribution to the history of modern American painting.'' These
works, striking and contemporary, show him to have been a sort of pop artist
before Pop Art; they garnered considerable attention at the Salon des
Independants of the 1920's and had a marked influence upon the better-known
Stuart Davis, among others. Art in Museum
of Modern Art America
magazine, reviewing the posthumous 1974 retrospective at the ,
judged him to be ''an astonishingly original, witty and prophetic painter.'' Museum of Modern Art
The Murphys' seemingly charmed life ended abruptly, and forever, in 1929 when tuberculosis was diagnosed in their youngest son, Patrick. Gerald put away his paintbrushes, never, so far as anyone knows, to touch them again, and for the next seven years he and Sara poured all their energies into their son. They spent much of that time at a Swiss sanitarium, where they gallantly tried to keep life and hope going by creating the festive atmosphere that was their specialty.
Then in 1935, to everyone's shock, their elder son, Baoth, who had always been vigorous and healthy, suddenly developed meningitis and died. A year later Patrick lost his long battle at the age of 16. ''Life itself has stepped in now and blundered, scarred and destroyed,'' Gerald wrote to Fitzgerald. ''In my heart I dreaded the moment when our youth and invention would be attacked in our only vulnerable spot -- the children.'' Fitzgerald responded, ''The golden bowl is broken indeed, but it was golden.''
In 1937 the Murphys returned to
for good. From
this period, their marriage underwent a shift. It seems probable (although
Vaill is very discreet, perhaps too much so) that Gerald's primary orientation
was homosexual; but Sara had always been the most important thing in his life,
their marriage paramount. Now, differences that had always existed between the
two became more clearly defined, and to a certain extent they distanced
themselves from one another. ''You are surprised anew periodically that 'warm
human relationship' should be so necessary to you and less to me,'' Gerald
wrote to Sara. ''Yet nothing is more natural under the circumstances. You
believe in it (as you do in life), you are capable of it, you command it. I am
less of a believer (I don't admire human animals as much).'' New York
The Mark Cross Company was on the verge of bankruptcy and in 1934 Gerald took it over at last, spending the remainder of his working years turning it back into a prosperous concern. As an elderly man he lived the life he had fled as a youth, going to an office and lunching every day at Schrafft's. He never spoke about his painting or about his dead sons. Sara threw herself into volunteer work with children.
They entertained old friends and made new ones, like Edmund Wilson, Dawn Powell and Calvin Tomkins, who wrote a long article for The New Yorker about the Murphys, ''Living Well Is the Best Revenge,'' later published in book form. (Gerald liked the article but not the title: he had never wanted revenge on anyone, he said.) Gerald died in 1964, Sara 11 years later.
Other writers, even old friends, did not treat the Murphys as kindly as Tomkins did. Hemingway's posthumous memoir, ''A Moveable Feast,'' called them rich ''bastards.'' Vaill quotes portions deleted from the published book in which Hemingway nastily -- and unforgivably, considering their generosity to him -- commented, ''They were bad luck to people but they were worse luck to themselves and they lived to have all that bad luck finally.'' Gerald reacted with his odd, characteristic blend of sympathy and resigned detachment: ''What a strange kind of bitterness -- or rather accusitoriness . . . . What shocking ethics! How well written, of course.''
Brooke Allen is a writer and critic who reviews frequently for The New Criterion and The Wall Street Journal
Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy Paperback – August 27, 2007
by Deborah Rothschild (Editor), Calvin Tomkins (Introduction)
Gerald and Sara Murphy at work and at play.
BY PETER SCHJELDAHL / http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/08/06/modern-love
Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara & Gerald Murphy,” at the Williams College Museum of Art, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is an immensely satisfying show about fine, complicated people who loved life in exemplary ways, in superb company, and suffered misfortune. It is also an art show that centers on seven paintings by Gerald, all that remain of the fourteen he is known to have made in the nineteen-twenties. (The others were lost, owing largely to his own indifference.) In addition, there is work by Picasso, Léger, Gris, and other modern masters whom the Murphys befriended, supported, and, at times, inspired. Without it, tales of Gerald and Sara, moderately wealthy and irrepressibly sociable Jazz Age American expatriates in
would be mainly deluxe gossip, filtered through their friend F. Scott
Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night,” in which they figure as the charismatic
Dick and Nicole Diver. Their story was vivified by Calvin Tomkins in his 1962
New Yorker Profile and later book, “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” and by
Amanda Vaill in her 1998 biography, “Everybody Was So Young.” Tomkins and Vaill
are among the ten essayists in the show’s catalogue, who, led by the curator
Deborah Rothschild, neglect no aspect of Murphyana, including the long-veiled
sidelight of Gerald’s homosexuality. Usually, I’m unbeguiled by the rich and
glamorous, and I attended “Making It New” in a resisting mood. Then I looked. France
Gerald’s paintings are a gold standard that backs, with creative integrity, the paper money of the couple’s legend. He started by assisting on sets for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with quick lessons from the painter Natalia Goncharova. His work consists of crisply hard-edged, cunningly composed, subtly colored, semi-abstract pictures of machinery, common objects, architectural fragments, and, in a disturbing final image, a wasp battening on a pear. Numerous influences are plain, but Gerald jumped ahead of his time with a laconic style that was prescient of big-scale abstraction and of Pop art. (If one of the lost paintings, “Boatdeck”—a sensation at the 1924 Salon des Indépendants, in
—had survived, it surely would be an
icon of modernism. Eighteen feet high by twelve wide, it billboarded
transatlantic cultural intercourse with a tremendous image of ocean-liner
structures.) “Watch” (1925), depicting clockwork, achieves a spankingly
representational translation of Cubism. “Razor” (1924), which monumentalizes a
safety razor, a fountain pen, and a matchbox, might enable future archeologists
to reimagine the essential theory and practice of modern art, should every
other example perish. It is by a man who wasn’t really an artist. Paris
Gerald’s father owned Mark Cross, the luxury-goods business; Sara’s was a printing magnate. Gerald’s family was Irish Catholic, from
Boston; Sara’s a union of
Norwegian and pedigreed American, from .
They met at a party in Illinois East Hampton, in 1904,
when she was twenty-one and he sixteen. Friendship became romance after his
graduation from Yale, where he was popular but unhappy. She seems to have taken
in stride his confessed attraction to men, which he strove to suppress. They
married in 1915 and soon had a girl and two boys. Gerald volunteered for
military service not quite in time to fight in the First World War. He then
studied landscape architecture at Harvard. William James, Jr., the son of the
philosopher, painted Sara’s portrait—an astonishingly lovely and telling
picture, which is in the show. In June of 1921, the culturally ambitious
Murphys decamped for .
By September, they were in England ,
where they found old friends, notably Cole Porter, and plunged into circles of
the avant-garde, primarily that of the Russians around Diaghilev and
Stravinsky. Picasso, having married the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, was a
frequent presence. To celebrate the première of Stravinsky’s ballet “Les
Noces,” in 1923, Gerald and Sara threw a fabled all-night party on a barge on
the Paris Seine. The same year, Gerald and Porter
collaborated on a riotously successful jazz ballet, “Within the Quota,” a
burlesque on American culture.
Porter and his wife, Linda, had introduced the Murphys to
a resort where, at the time, few people stayed in the summer. In 1923, they
bought a seaside chalet, dubbed Villa Antibes , and helped to change that.
They hosted the Picassos and close to everybody else who counted in adventurous
art and literature. American visitors included Man Ray, Archibald MacLeish,
Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and, of most consequence, Scott and Zelda
Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. (For the atmospherics of Villa America ,
consult the incandescent opening pages of “Tender Is the Night.”) Anecdotes
abound. Questions linger. Did Picasso bed Sara? That sturdy rumor is probably
untrue, though the artist was smitten, as were many other men. Sara’s features
are suggested in certain of his “neoclassical” paintings—“Woman Seated in an
Armchair” (1923) gives dazzling evidence in the show—but Picasso was on a
break, at the time, from being obsessed with particular women. His masterpiece
involving the Murphys, “The Pipes of Pan” (1923), was based on a photograph of
himself clowning on the beach with a stiffly posing Gerald. America
Two things intrigue me in accounts of the Murphys’ conduct. One is how effectively Gerald concealed his sexual ambivalence. Even his sophisticated intimates Fitzgerald and Hemingway seem uncertain, though Hemingway had occasion to deplore a shifty unreliability, compounded of guilt and fear, at Gerald’s core. (His gradual disaffection became outright cruelty in “A Moveable Feast,” where he sneered at “the understanding rich.”) Also striking is the fact that Gerald and Sara collected only American folk art. The abnegation bespeaks a will to remain participants in, rather than patrons of, the creative life. Their expressive means included decorative flair (white walls and black satin in the villa) and wit (Sara wore her pearls to the beach because, she explained, they wanted sunning). Rothschild writes that Gerald “meticulously planned, intellectualized, and expended great effort in order to make each moment a beautiful event.”
The idyll disintegrated in 1929, owing to financial setbacks and, most gravely, the onset of their younger son Patrick’s fatal tuberculosis. Amid years of frantic efforts to save Patrick, their other son, Baoth, died suddenly, of meningitis; both boys were gone by 1937. The family had returned to
where Gerald took over Mark Cross, then on the brink of bankruptcy, and,
grudgingly, spent the rest of his working life preserving it. The hospitality
of their home in Snedens Landing, just up the America Hudson
seems to have been a sweet but pale afterimage of their former salon. (Sara
instructed Calvin Tomkins in the right way to drink champagne—with eyes raised
to the trees above.) Gerald had all but closed an iron door on the memory of
his meteoric painting career when, in 1960, the New York City
for Contemporary Arts mounted a revival. He later remarked, “I’ve been
discovered. What does one wear?” The seven paintings and the odd minor work on
paper, seen together, really do project a career, which was strongest at the
start. The grotesquerie of “Wasp and Pear” (1929), with its hints of psychic
turmoil, may have been a gambit to check a slide into overly exquisite effects.
At any rate, it’s unlikely that Gerald, had he continued, would have improved.
What he used in his art, he used up. Dallas Museum
The Murphys served Fitzgerald as symbols of the great theme of the Lost Generation: romantic disappointment, given intensity by the majesty of the dreams at stake. Gerald seemed to concur in a letter to Fitzgerald in 1935, praising “Tender Is the Night.” (Sara hated the book.) He wrote, “Only the invented part of our life—the unreal part—has had any scheme, any beauty.” But this came amid the trauma of Baoth’s death. (“Life itself has stepped in now and blundered, scarred, and destroyed.”) In fact, Gerald and Sara lived well, with dignity, from start to finish. The most revelatory and moving item in the show for me is a letter from Zelda Fitzgerald, following Scott’s death, in 1940. She writes that Scott’s love of the Murphys reflected a “devotion to those that he felt were contributing to the aesthetic and spiritual purposes of life.” There is a world of excitement and woe in that conflation of the aesthetic and the spiritual. It’s a madness, which life will punish. ♦