--Igor Stravinsky, influential Russian, composer, pianist and conductor ”
Gerald Murphy '07 *
Profession: Artist, owner of Mark Cross Company, influential patron
and friend of artists and composers
Field: Art, Business
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 "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," Philip Barry's "Holiday," Archibald MacLeish '11's "J.B.," John Dos Passos' "The Big Money," and Pablo Picasso's "Woman in White," among others.
The Murphy's story is told in various works, including Amanda Vaill's "Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy: A Lost Generation Love Story," Calvin Tomkins's "Living Well Is the Best Revenge," and Honoria Murphy Donnelly, the Murphys' daughter, co-wrote "Sara & Gerald: Villa America and After."
Gerald Murphy entered Hotchkiss as a prep in September 1903. At the end of four years his classmates bestowed on him two superlatives: "wittiest" and "Social Light." Of Gerald, his classmates recorded in the 1907 Mischianza:
"Murph's favorite song is "In Cincinatti." When he is not singing this song he is making puns. The art of making these puns is one thing in which "Gerald" has become an expert. He has hung in with us for four years, and has always passed his exams. He expects to be at Yale next year."
Sara Sherman Wiborg and Gerald Clery Murphy became friends as adolescents in the hothouse social world of New York 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. Thus, 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, as Amanda 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.
Sara was attracted by Gerald's reflective nature, quiet sense of humor, and habit of questioning convention. An aesthete 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, but he eventually matriculated there and performed respectably.
Gerald and Sara became engaged in 1915. The senior Murphys greeted the news gloomily, not so much because they had objections to Sara but 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 époque was over, and the Murphys enthusiastically entered the modern age.
Much has been written about Paris in the 20's, and certainly more than enough about the Murphys and their circle of friends and acquaintances. Joyce, Miro, Picasso, Man Ray, Stravinsky, Hemingway, Beckett, Brancusi, Leger, Balanchine, Fitzgerald, Isadora Duncaneveryone, 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 United States."
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. 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 Murphysthe older couple's inherited wealth and their unthinking generosity, their glamour, and their air of settled contentment with each other and with their childrenmade Fitzgerald envious and defensive.
Fitzgerald 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 Paris, upon 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 Russes.
Murphy was an infinitely slow and meticulous painter with a small output in his brief career. His surviving works formed the nucleus of a Museum of Modern Art exhibition 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 America magazine, reviewing the posthumous 1974 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, judged him to be "an astonishingly original, witty, and prophetic painter."
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."
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. Gerald died in 1964, Sara 11 years later.
Other writers, even old friends, did not treat the Murphys kindly. Hemingway's posthumous memoir, "A Moveable Feast," called them rich "bastards." Amanda Vaill quotes portions deleted from the published book in which Hemingway 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."