Saturday, December 29, 2007

Gerald and Sara Murphy: Muses of the Roaring Twenties

Gerald Murphy, Ginny Carpenter, Cole Porter, and Sarah Murphy
(reflections on EVERYBODY WAS SO YOUNG, a biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy by Amanda Vaill)

Before I knew that Gerald and Sara Murphy ever existed, I wrote the scenario for a musical play about them. It was to be called "Cafe Americain," set in Paris, mid-20s, and the story would include a pair of arch-wits modeled on Noel Coward and Cole Porter, and a monstrously egotistical American adventure-writer modeled on Ernest Hemingway, and a romantic affair. These characters, like wayward children, would all meet at a fictional cabaret called Cafe Americain, and there would be a maternal figure modeled anachronistically on singer Mabel Mercer. (She was indeed in Paris, 1920s, but was a girlish young woman, decades away from the maternal cabaret singer she would become.) Anyway, my play was to be an evocation of a place and a time when the characters' only concerns would be self-expression -- while they searched for something of substance to express. Of course, at 19, I was in that boat, myself, and the project came to nothing.

I'm reminded of this long-abandoned project because it turns out that all the real-life versions of those artists, and more, really did gather at one place, and it was called Villa Americain. The Great War had ended wars forever, the American dollar was strong, Americans and their culture were idolized, the avant - gardists in music and the other arts were having fun and occasionally producing works of lasting value. Their hosts really did fulfill the roles of the grown-ups among the bunch.

I've now read about them in Amanda Vaill's bittersweet biography, EVERYBODY WAS SO YOUNG, the biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy. Checking up on them in Google, I find a consensus that this is the couple everyone means when they talk about making one's life a work of art. The first biography of them, in 1971, was called LIVING WELL IS THE BEST REVENGE.

Gerald had been a socializing bon-vivant at boarding school and at Yale, always a couple of percentage points away from failing. He rejected outright the life that was expected of him, to follow into the family business, a fashionable retail outfit called the Mark Cross Company. His later letters suggest that he was also homosexual, but he wouldn't admit this to anyone in clear terms, not even to himself. Despite that, his marriage to childhood friend Sara seems to have been happy on many levels: they adored their three children, they were partners in important decisions, they enjoyed each other, they developed their tastes at a time when "anything went," and they enjoyed what they could do for others with their money.

Gerald took time out to enroll in the army for the Great War, though he saw no combat. He emerged with a stronger sense of himself, and he applied himself (for the first time) when he began to study drafting and architecture. One of his art teachers discouraged any kind of representational art, focused entirely on abstract shape and design.

During the 20s, Murphy made a splash as an American painter (or "Amurrican" as Picasso called him, approvingly). Vaill has interesting things to say about Murphy's paintings, and how they apply his draftsmanship and penchant for abstraction to objects that had personal significance for him: his father's watch, his martini mixing paraphernalia (he reportedly mixed drinks "like a priest saying Mass"), and objects in his library that represented his father's regimented world and disapproval. Here's what Ken Johnson of the Boston Globe wrote in a review of Williams College Museum of Art's ( retrospective of the Murphy's memorabilia and artwork (summer 2007):

Gerald's seven surviving paintings are the heart and soul of the exhibition. "Razor" (1924), a still-life picture of a safety razor and a fountain pen crossed before a box of safety matches, is like a Jazz Age coat of arms, as coolly controlled and explosively lively as a Fred Astaire dance number. "Watch" (1925) is a dazzlingly complicated, 6-by-6-foot enlargement of the inner works of a pocket watch rendered in an exacting, Precisionist style in 14 shades of gray plus two shades of mustard yellow.

Another critic points out that Murphy's works anticipate Pop Art by forty years.

Johnson comments on another painting, in light of what Murphy called his heart's "defects":

In this light, "Wasp and Pear" might be revealing. The pear's generous bottom is easily read as a human behind, a luscious, ambiguously gendered object of sexual desire. Yet the desiring subject is a hideous monster - a reflection, maybe, of Murphy's anxiety over the nature of his own passion.

Perhaps Murphy realized more or less unconsciously that he was approaching a fateful juncture: to continue painting would be to reveal more openly the truth of his secret urges and shame. (He considered "Wasp and Pear" his best work, by the way.) Yet to cover up the truth - by means, say, of an emptied-out formalism - would constitute a kind of creative suicide. Perhaps it was better, all things considered, to just stop painting.
But there were two more clear reasons to stop painting in 1929. Young son Patrick fell ill with TB, and lingered for years before it killed him. In the meantime, his healthy older brother Baoth contracted measles at boarding school, and the treatment led to an infection that became meningitis, and he died suddenly, all in a matter of days. "Lightning striking twice,"said Gerald in forlorn retreat from the life he and Sara had known. Beginning with these deaths, he finally went into the family business, the Mark Cross store in Boston, which he had avoided so long.

The story becomes more and more sad, tainted by the Depression, the rise of Fascism, and the repeated personal betrayals by ungrateful artists who had accepted Gerald and Sara's hospitality, patronage, and huge personal loans. Foremost among these are the obnoxious F. Scott Fitzgerald and back-stabbing Ernest Hemingway. Tender is the Night and A Moveable Feast make clear and unflattering portraits of the Murphys.

The one person I was most interested in before beginning to read this was Cole Porter. I was surprised to discover that Gerald and Sara Murphy appeared prominently as supporting characters in the Porter bio-pic DE-LOVELY that I saw a couple of years ago. Here, I learned about Porter's one orchestral score, WITHIN THE QUOTA, a ballet about immigrants in the US, for which Gerald Murphy conceived and executed a backdrop consisting of a fanciful mock-newspaper ("UNKNOWN MILLIONAIRE BUYS ATLANTIC OCEAN" reads the headline).

In the 1950s, New York became the center of the avant-garde, and they watched "from the sidelines," writes Amanda Vaill. Gerald became anti-communist, though this lost him the company of old friends -- Dorothy Parker took anti-communist to be "anti-Dottie," Murphy said. Gerald died of cancer; Sara began to show signs of alzheimer's in the mid-60s, and lived until 1975.

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