"The Charmed Life" Sara and Gerald Murphy
In October 1975 about 50 people were at St Luke’s Episcopal Church in East Hampton to say some prayers for a little old lady who’d lived in a modest house at 1113 Basil Road in McLean, Virginia, but grew up in the fanciest mansion on Long Island.
Sara Murphy had died from pneumonia the week before at the age of 91. The service at St Luke’s took place 11 years to the day of her husband Gerard’s send-off in the same church, and when it was over, Sara’s casket was interred next to his on her family’s estate, once glory-bedecked as The Dunes.
But for the boxes of keepsakes and jottings that the couple’s surviving child would have to sift through, astonishing memories were buried with them, of Hemingway and Cole Porter, Jean Cocteau, Picasso and Léger and John Dos Passos, and of course the bittersweet tang of F Scott Fitzgerald, their very good friend once, who had dedicated to them the novel that he considered his best.
“Tender Is the Night” was inspired by the Murphys, Fitzgerald said, though the caricatures he drew of them, as Dick and Nicole Diver, evolved in the course of the book into a tragically unmistakeable portrait of Scott and Zelda. Sara and Gerald didn’t grasp the psychological transference, though, and were put off.
The 'place' Sara grew up in was in the Hamptons. It was called the Dunes and it had 30 rooms 70 feet long, wallpapered with fine art and cushioned with huge bear rugs.
There were stables, a dairy, flagstone terraces, vast porches and Italianate sunken gardens that Adeline Wiborg and her daughters coaxed along, the girls beginning to blossom as well. The Wiborgs and their equally well-off neighbours played golf and put on stage plays and horse and dog shows and numerous parties, at one of which Sara met Gerald Murphy.
He was 16 and Sara 20, she becoming adept as a student of artist William Merritt Chase, he just learning life’s ropes and venturing further afield from his parents’ place in Southampton. Eventually Cupid let loose an arrow, and they were engaged in 1915, Sara’s image on the cover of Town & Country to commemorate the coupling.
In June 1921, with three kids in tow, they joined the stream of “transatlantiques” who had fun on both sides of the pond and on the way to and fro as well. The original plan was for Gerald to study landscape architecture, but the blast furnace of modern art consumed them whole, and the next thing they knew, Gerald was a cubist painter.
Sara was fluent in French, German and Italian, and her and Gerald’s bonhomie soon had their Paris apartment near the Seine filled with famous artists and artists who w
They chipped in on Natalia Goncharova’s futurist set designs for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and in July 1923 hosted a wild party on a river barge to celebrate the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “Les Noces”. Picasso and Cocteau were among the guests, and in the autumn Les Ballets Suédois commissioned Gerald to create the libretto, scenery and costumes for “Within the Quota”, the first American jazz ballet, and he got his Yale classmate Cole Porter to handle the music.
All of these people were entranced enough by the Murphys to readily join them when they decided to summer on the Riviera. It was Porter and his wife Linda who’d introduced the Murphys to Antibes. The fact that no one summered on the Riviera seemed of little consequence.
They marched into the Hotel du Cap, which was closed for the season, and talked the manager into opening up just for them and their friends. He gave them the run of the first floor and left them to their own devices.
“The hotel and its bright tan prayer rug of a beach were one,” Fitzgerald wrote in “Tender is the Night”, evidently extrapolating on its wide, brown gravel walkway leading down to Eden Roc. The hotel doesn’t have a beach, just a cliff face above the Mediterranean, but Scott had Dick Diver raking up the seaweed off the hotel shore every morning.
Actually, Gerald raked the seaweed off the beach at La Garoupe, seen above. It was just down the peninsula, close to where the Murphys, having tired of being hotel guests, bought a chalet wrapped in an orchard and named it Villa America. It had a black-and-white tiled floor with zebra rugs tossed about, plus screen doors, electric fans and stainless-steel bathroom fixtures, and even Le Corbusier marvelled at the innovative flat-roofed sun deck. From the terrace you could stare at the Golfe Juan.
Gerald painted a sign for the entrance, splitting up the letters of “Villa America” so that it might be read “vil ame”, meaning “villa soul” in French, and “la rica”, meaning “the rich one” in Spanish. Years later, Léger created the double-sided screen for the chalet shown below. As a work of art, it eventually earned the title “Large Comet Tails on Black Background”.
Mad parties ensued, and from them Fitzgerald concocted a line that he put in the mouth of Dick Diver in “Tender is the Night”: “I want to give a really bad party. I mean it. I want to give a party where there’s a brawl and seductions and people going home with their feelings hurt and women passing out in the cabinette de toilette. You wait and see.”
Léger patted away at watercolours, and Picasso sketched everyone for what would become historic (and very expensive) paintings, among them “The Pipes of Pan”
Man Ray came to see what was happening, as did Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, Scott and Zelda, Ernest and Hadley. Their hosts obliged with all kinds of fun, not all of it alcoholic, and at the same time invented fashion styles, Gerald in espadrilles, a striped sailor’s shirt and knitted fisherman’s cap — gear that Coco Chanel would put to good use on the catwalk — and Sara sunbathing with pearls draped down her back.
Léger’s 1934 watercolours “Portrait of Gerald Murphy” and “Portrait of Sara Murphy”
There were gymnastics and yoga, lots of dancing, of course, and cruises on the Murphys’ schooner, the Weatherbird.
Life was so much fun that the Ballets Russes turned the Murphy summer into a musical satire called “Le Train Bleu”, named after the primary transport from Paris to the Cote d’Azur. Cocteau did the scenario, Chanel the costumes and Picasso the backdrop, with women scuttling along a beach.
Picasso must have had a ball. In 1946 he gladly accepted an invitation to set up his studio in the 12th-century Château Grimaldi in Antibes.
But fate conspired against Gerald, and equally against Sara.
In 1929 their youngest child, Patrick, contracted tuberculosis and Gerald set aside his brushes for good to usher the boy among various sanatoriums in New York and Switzerland. In 1935 their son Baoth came down with meningitis and died at 16, and then two years later Patrick left them too.
“Life itself has stepped in now and blundered, scarred and destroyed,” Gerald wrote to Scott Fitzgerald. “In my heart I dreaded the moment when our youth and invention would be attacked in our only vulnerable spot — the children.”
Fitzgerald replied, “The golden bowl is broken indeed, but it was golden.”
On another occasion, referring to “Tender is the Night”, Gerald told Scott, “Only the invented parts of our life had any meaning.”
The Murphys, with their daughter Honoria, were soon permanently back in New York, and Gerald was called upon to revive his family’s leather-goods company, Mark Cross.
They began to sell off parcels of the Dunes estate, then tried to unload the mansion itself. No one had that kind of money in those days, so in 1941 they had it torn down. Sara and Gerald moved into the dairy barn, renovated it and dubbed it Swan Cove. Dos Passos and Robert Benchley used to come to visit. Léger and his companion, Lucia Christofanetti, stayed for a time in one of the guest cottages on the estate.
In 1959 the Murphys built a house they called the Little Hut next to the Dunes’ old servants’ quarters and garage. That’s where Gerald died in in 1964.
Sara and Gerald had other residences. Into the 1960s they lived in a house called Cheer Hall in Sneden’s Landing, New York, by the Hudson River. Their neighbour, Calvin Tomkins, discovered who they were and wrote a profile for the New Yorker entitled “Living well is the best revenge”.
Shortly before he died Archibald MacLeish donated “Wasp and Pear”, Gerald’s final painting, to the Met.
MacLeish, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning play “JB” was based on the Murphys’ grief at their sons’ deaths, came up with the inscription for Gerald’s gravestone, a quote from “King Lear” — “Ripeness is all.” The words on Sara’s stone are from Thomas Campion: “And she made all of light.”
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