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Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy, a Lost Generation Love Storyby Amanda Vaill
Prologue: Antibes, May 28, 1926
It was their friend Scott Fitzgerald who described the Murphys best, on the beach at Antibes in the south of France, in the summer sun of the 1920s. There is Sara, her face "hard and lovely and pitiful," her bathing suit "pulled off her shoulders" and her brown back gleaming under her rope of pearls, "making out a list of things from a book open in the sand." And there is Gerald, her husband, tall and lean in his striped maillot and a knitted cap, gravely raking the seaweed from the beach as if performing "some esoteric burlesque," to the delight of the little audience of friends they have gathered around them. On the "bright tan prayer rug of the beach," they and their friends swim, sunbathe, drink sherry and nibble crackers, trade jokes about the people with strange names listed in the "News of Americans" in the Paris Herald: "Mrs. Evelyn Oyster" and "Mr. S. Flesh." Their very presence is "an act of creation"; to be included in their world is, Fitzgerald says, "a remarkable experience."
Fitzgerald wasn't literally portraying the Murphys, of course; he was writing a novel, called Tender Is the Night, about a psychiatrist named Dick Diver and his wife, Nicole. In the novel, the woman with the pearls is recovering from a psychotic break brought on by incest, and the man with the rake ends up losing his wife, his position, everything he most cares about. These things are not known to have happened to Gerald and Sara Murphy. So when Fitzgerald insisted to Sara, after the publication of Tender Is the Night in 1934, that "I "used you again and again in Tender," Sara's reaction was denial and distaste. "I hated the book when I first read it," she told her neighbor, the writer Calvin Tomkins. "I reject categorically any resemblance to ourselves or anyone we know--at any time." But Gerald made the connection at once. "I know . . . that what you said in 'Tender is the Night' is true," he wrote Fitzgerald in 1935. "Only the invented part of our life--the unreal part--has had any scheme any beauty."
By that time the life the Murphys had invented at their Villa America in Antibes, and in Paris during the 19205, may indeed have seemed unreal. In the intervening years tragedy had famished the Murphys' lives: the death of one child, the mortal illness of another, Gerald's forfeiture of his career as a painter; a whole litany of loss. But on May 28, 1926, those events are in the future, and the invented part of the Murphys' lives is as real, as palpable, as the hot sand under their feet or the throbbing of cicadas or the color of the sea-- an improbable turquoise in the shallows, and a deep, purplish blue, the color of blueberries, farther out.
The beach, La Garoupe, is literally Gerald's invention: Until a year or so ago, it was covered in seaweed and stones, and deserted except for the fishermen who pull up their little boats there. But Gerald saw its possibilities when the Murphys first stayed in Antibes in the summer of 1922 with Cole Porter and his wife, Linda. Gerald and Cole raked the debris from a comer of the sand, and in the years since Gerald has cleared the entire plage almost single-handed. Now what began as a private Murphy passion has caught on --not, it should be noted, with the local inhabitants, who cannot understand why anyone would want to go out in the midday heat and actually lie in the sun--but with fashionable Parisians and increasing numbers of visiting Americans and English from the huge fin de siècle hotel at the end of the Antibes peninsula, which has only recently extended its season into the summer months.
In fact, the beach has been rather crowded today: Anita Loos, the smart young American screenwriter and author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, is there; the playwright Charles MacArthur; Ada MacLeish, the soprano, with her two children, Mimi and Ken (Ada's husband, the poet Archibald MacLeish, is still in Persia with the League of Nations' Opium Commission); and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who have made a rare sortie from their villa at Juan-les-Pins on the other side of the peninsula, Scott nursing a hangover and Zelda not speaking to him. Absent today, although they are often here, are Comte Etienne de Beaumont, the long-faced French aristocrat who was the model for the eponymous hero of Raymond Radiguet's scandalous roman a clef; Le bal du Comte d'Orgel, and his wife, Édith (who, it's whispered, has an opium habit). As is their custom, the Murphys arrived with their three children and their nanny late in the morning, after Gerald has completed the day's work on one of the precise and unsettling paintings for which he has become famous, and they have been holding a kind of impromptu party ever since, with cold sherry and little biscuits called sablés at noon. Now they are leaving--it is lunchtime. And they have arranged to take Hadley Hemingway, wife of the young American writer Ernest Hemingway, to pick up her husband at the Antibes railway station after lunch.
By rights, Hadley should be in Madrid with Ernest, who went there to work on a new novel, and the Hemingways' one-year-old son, John, nicknamed Bumby, should have been staying with the Murphys. But before Hadley could get away, Bumby was diagnosed with whooping cough, and Sara, who swathes the railway compartments that she and her family travel in with sheets washed in Lysol to protect her children from germs, thought it best that the little boy and his mother be quarantined until the disease has run its course. Luckily, the Fitzgeralds were able to lend Hadley their rented house in Juan-les-Pins, the Villa Paquita, which they have vacated in favor of a much grander property nearby. And Gerald and Sara, insisting that Hadley and Bumby are their guests, have been paying Bumby's doctor bills and Hadley's other expenses.
When Ernest steps off the train at the Antibes station this aftemoon he is met by four people: Hadley's friend Pauline Pfeiffer, as small and dark and slender as Hadley is fair and large-boned, is also standing on the platform. Pauline is an editor at Vogue in Paris, and because she has already had whooping cough it holds no terrors for her. She has been staying with Hadley during this quarantine and has become a great favorite with the Murphys, who admire her stylishness and quick wit. She is a great favorite with Ernest, too--in fact, the two of them have been having a secret affair that began last winter. But the Murphys don't know this and Hadley only suspects it; and if the greeting Ernest gives his wife seems a little awkward, everyone puts it down to his exhaustion (he has had to change trains three times on the joumey from Madrid), Hadley's own weariness after weeks of tending a sick child, and the lack of privacy.
In the evening Gerald and Sara stage a more formal welcome for Ernest: a caviar-and-champagne party at the little casino in Juan-les-Pins which the owner, Edouard Baudoin, has recently renovated in the hopes of turning Juan into a French Miami. Fresh caviar has never been a summer dish--it spoils too readily on the long train journey from the Caspian Sea--but some enterprising importer has recently begun flying it in, and Gerald wants to be the first to take advantage of this development. As with so many things, the Murphys are setting a fashion.
Sara is wearing a long, floating dress with vaguely semiclassical lines, nothing like the beaded chemises beloved by flapper fashion victims; her dark gold hair, recently bobbed into soft waves, frames what Scott Fitzgerald will describe as her "Viking madonna" face; her rope of pearls is wound once around her neck. Gerald, in an impeccable dinner jacket, is circulating among his guests, introducing this one to that one, starting a conversation here, changing a subject there--a friend later describes him as "stage manag[ing] his parties down to the last detail, right down to what stories people should tell."
When Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald arrive, Zelda in fuchsia with a peony pinned in her fair hair, Scott is already drunk--"you drank all the time," Zelda later tells him, speaking of that summer--and Zelda is smoldering. At first he contents himself with throwing ashtrays off the casino terrace and staring at one of the women guests until she becomes discomfited and asks him to stop. But when the Hemingways come in, with Pauline in tow, Fitzgerald starts to get dangerous.
Because he himself is already an enormously successful novelist with an established reputation, he has always thought of Hemingway as a kind of protege: he has recognized the younger writer's talent and praised his work, and he has fixed him up with his publisher, Scribner's, which is going to publish Hemingway's first novel, The Sun Also Rises, this fall. Tonight, though, Fitzgerald feels their roles reversing, and watches with increasing frustration as Ernest, tanned from the Spanish sun, his white teeth flashing, becomes the center of attention.
Gerald keeps urging Ernest to talk about Spain, particularly about the fiesta of San Fermin in Pamplona, where the Murphys plan to accompany the Hemingways later this summer. And as if it were not enough for Ernest to have Hadley on one arm and Pauline on the other, soon Sara, too, is hovering over him. This is too much for Fitzgerald, who is more than half in love with her, and jealous of her attention. He finds a small throw rug in one of the anterooms, drapes it over his head and shoulders like a cloak, and crawls from room to room on his hands and knees moaning, "Sara's being mean to me." Gerald is furious, and accuses Fitzgerald of sabotaging the party--at which Fitzgerald, by now hot and disheveled, straightens up and says he doesn't care. He has never heard of anything so silly and affected as a champagne-and-caviar party. Only Gerald would think something so dated would be fun.
Although the next day everyone is civil to everyone else, the aftershocks of that evening, of things said and left unsaid, done and left undone, will be felt in the lives of almost everyone there for years to come. Something else will persist, too, something almost as durable as the reputations of Fitzgerald and Hemingway: the legend of Gerald and Sara Murphy, the "prince and princess" (as one of their friends described them) who were the evening's presiding geniuses.
Elegant, attractive, wealthy, cultured, affectionate, the Murphys had gathered around themselves at their home in France a brilliant group of American writers and artists, among them Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Cole Porter, Dorothy Parker, John Dos Passos, Archibald MacLeish, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, and Philip Barry; in addition, they numbered among their friends some of the most prominent figures of the European modemist movement, such as Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Fermand Leger, and Igor Stravinsky. Of this first manifestation of what we today might call the glitterati, Gertrude Stein is supposed to have remarked: "You are all a lost generation." But they were not lost. As Fitzgerald himself sensed, they had been found, and embraced, by two remarkable people who would enable many of them to unleash their creative powers in ways that transformed the twentieth century artistic landscape.
Early in the novel he was writing that summer--and would work on intermittently for nearly eight more years--Fitzgerald describes an alfresco dinner at his protagonists' villa:
Rosemary . . . had a conviction of homecoming, of a return from the derisive and salacious improvisations of the frontier. There were fireflies riding in the dark air and a dog baying on some low and far-away ledge of the cliff. The table seemed to have risen a little toward the sky like a mechanical dancing platform, giving the people around it a sense of being alone with each other in the dark universe, nourished by its only food, warmed by its only lights.... [T]he two Divers began suddenly to warm and glow and expand.... Just for a moment, they seemed to speak to everyone at the table, singly and together, assuring them of their friendliness, their affection. And for a moment the faces fumed up toward them were like the faces of poor children at a Christmas tree.
His model for that magical moment was a dinner party at the Murphys', one of many that seem to run together in the memories of those who were lucky enough to be there. What was the special quality about Gerald and Sara Murphy--"the golden couple," the actress Marian Seldes called them-- that made this alchemy possible? It wasn't just nurturing, although their generosity and supportiveness were famous. It wasn't only inspiration, although they left their imprint, or their images, in works as diverse as Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," Dos Passos's The Big Money, MacLeish's J.B., or Tender Is the Night. It wasn't simply example--the example of lives lived with grace and, ultimately, courage in the face of personal disaster. It wasn't, even, the transformations they effected on the character and work of those close to them.
Late in his life their friend Archibald MacLeish tried to put it into words for an interviewer who had asked him what "the special pull of the Murphys" was. "No one has ever been able quite to define it," MacLeish said--but he came as close as anyone: "Scott tried in Tender is the Night. Dos tried in more direct terms. Ernest tried by not trying. I wrote a Sketch for a Portrait of Madame G. M., a longish poem. They escaped us all. There was a shine to life wherever they were: not a decorative added value but a kind of revelation of inherent loveliness as though custom and habit had been wiped away and the thing itself was, for an instant, seen. Don't ask me how."
"A revelation of inherent loveliness"--it was a strong charm, indeed, against the confusion and ugliness of so much of their century. It enabled them to survive. More potently, it enabled those to whom they gave it to make art out of life.
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