Sunday, October 12, 2014

Living Well is the Best Revenge, by Calvin Tomkins

Have you ever known people who did everything well, and in such a new, interesting way that it inspired you to live differently and better?

This short, exquisite biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy serves to extend the enigma that they took with them everywhere they lived. At under 150 pages, it is only a taste of their story, but it was written in 1962 following a series of interviews with them and their friends, so it paints a rather different and more poignant picture than Vaill's extensive biography EVERYBODY WAS SO YOUNG, written long after Gerald and Sara Murphy had died.

If you don't know the Murphys, perhaps you should: if you enjoy F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Picasso, Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, or indeed any of the expatriate writers, artists, musicians and dancers who flourished in 1920s Paris, the Murphys are the common thread who connected them all. About a decade older than their young creative friends, they created a milieu of stability, kindness, and understanding cherished by the younger set, many of whom did not enjoy the support of their families in chasing their creative dreams. The Murphys' excellent taste, style, and indeed their relationship itself inspired novels stories, paintings, dances, and the lives of those around them. In turn, the Murphys truly enjoyed being surrounded by the creative energy of their young friends; their children grew up entertained by the most interesting people of the age.

Without the Murphys' influence, it's hard to imagine how Paris in the 1920s would have had much significance at all. Many of the creative friendships were forged at their Paris atelier or in their home on the Cap d'Antibes, which they made fashionable by attracting the Paris set to the seaside for summers. They lived this idyllic life until tuberculosis struck their youngest, Patrick; they then moved the party to his sanatorium, where all the greats visited and kept up the Murphys' spirits for the long 18 months of treatment. After his release, they enjoyed a few more years of good health; the stock market then crashed, many expats could no longer afford Paris, and little Patrick relapsed and died. Their older son Baoth died shortly after from a brief illness at boarding school, and the Murphys moved home with their daughter to New York. Gerald returned to work at his father's company, making Mark Cross into a successful Park Avenue enterprise through deploying his unique taste and aesthetic; despite his indifference, the business enjoyed unprecedented profit.

The book has a generous inset of family album photos which you are unlikely to see elsewhere. The Murphys' prolific photography reminds one of Facebook with all the candid shots of people having the time of their lives; even in their family album, they are decades ahead of their time. Tellingly, the album ends abruptly with their 1933 return to New York City.

The quote which haunts me most is an exchange between Gerald and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and perhaps explains best why the Murphys resonate with me: "I remember saying to him that for me, only the invented part of life was satisfying, only the unrealistic part. Things happened to you-- sickness, birth, Zelda in Prangins, Patrick in the sanatorium, Father Wiborg's death-- these things were realistic, and you couldn't do anything about them. 'Do you mean you don't accept those things?' Scott asked. I replied that of course I accepted them, but that I didn't feel they were the important things really."

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