The New Yorker arrived yesterday so I got an iced coffee and took it out to the beach. Much to my delight there was an article in it about Sara and Gerald Murphy, the couple who were once the “glitteratie” of Paris at the time of the American ex-patriot movement of the 1920s. After reading Hemingway’s utterly luscious A Moveable Feast I went in search of Calvin Tompkin’s Living Well Is the Best Revenge, his delicious little book about the Murphys.
I don’t know why people become attracted to certain periods and places in history. A lot of people these days seem to be fascinated with 18th and 19th century China, something that I have no interest in. But that between-the-wars period in France and North Africa holds endless fascination for me. I’ve read countless books about that time and also of that time. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, O’Hara, Dos Passos were all writing then. And art — oh, the art that was being made then. And jazz... well, I’ve never been able to get enough of it.
There is a photo of the Murphy’s on the beach at Cap d’Antibes. It is a photo I have seen many times and love. Gerald, tall and tan wearing swimming trunks and a striped jersey leaning poking the sand with a cane and beautiful, etherial Sara with her dimpled smile and frothy hair dressed in floating gauze leaning on her husband’s arm, both looking out to sea.
It was popularly believed at the time that the Murphy’s “discovered” the Riviera. It is still acknowledged that they made sunbathing popular. And picnicking on the beach. They were quite the couple. Of course the picture they presented was a veneer, as most pictures are, for lives that were not so idyllic. Gerald was an aspiring artist who, while talented, lacked discipline and motivation. And he struggled all his adult life with his ambivalence about his homosexuality. Sara liked men — especially men like Hemingway and Picasso.
And there was tragedy. They lost both of their sons too young and that changed the beautiful couple forever. They went back to America and Gerald assumed control of Mark Cross, his father-in-law’s company. They became like anyone else.
But I love to think about them back in those golden years on the Riviera and in Montparnasse where there was no other couple more glamorous or whose company was more coveted. I suppose that is one of the privileges of history, that you can look back and pick what you want to think about.
Gerald Murphy is supposed to have said that living well is the best revenge and it is a sentiment that I have always appreciated. The simple truth is that then, as now, there are people who will do everything they can think of to do to try to make your life miserable but the one thing we always have control over is our own responses to such things. Learning to build a life that is our personal definition of “well” it the key.
The Murphys had all the money and the privileges and the glamour that a couple could ask for but that didn’t stop their children from dying or compensate for their own personal demons. This is a thing I find important to remember. And yet they lived beautifully and they knew how to find joy in friendships and accomplishments. An important lesson to learn.
I loved sitting out at the beach reading about them. The evening was hot but the breeze was lovely and the ocean was gorgeous. I finished the article and went over to my friend’s house and said, “Let’s go get dinner together.” And we did. And it was lovely. Living well is the best revenge.
Thanks for reading.