Murphy’s Law

automotive-ball-400-w.jpgAfter a long interruption, Dandyism.net presents the final installment of Robert Sacheli’s article on Gerald Murphy. For convenience’s sake (and to refresh your memory), we have combined all three parts into this one post. 

Fresh from his assiduous assessment of Lucius Beebe, Sacheli seeks to rescue the reputation of another forgotten 20th-century American dandy for whom life itself was the greatest work of art.

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Murphy’s Law
By Robert Sacheli

“The true dandy was not the most foppishly dressed, the most stylish, the most flash-mannered; he was primarily an artist of talent.” — From a biography of Count D’Orsay, part of Gerald Murphy’s collection of quotes.

If any American dandy in Jazz-Age Paris could look at an automobile part and think “I could wear that,” it was Gerald Murphy.

Photographer Man Ray captured Murphy and his wife, Sara, arrayed for the Comte Étienne de Beaumont’s 1924 Automotive Ball, one of string of fetes that made the nobleman’s name synonymous with up-to-the minute, headline-grabbing party giving.

Here is Sara, bizarre but chic in what looks like a foil dress and oversized driving goggles, accented by the strings of pearls that were her trademark. Gerald, also in goggles, wears tights, gauntlets, and a breastplate into which he has been welded. A fanciful, ziggurat-shaped helmet towers on his head, half metallic wedding cake and half Constructivist chimney.

One element lifts the ensemble from witty party get-up to something approaching art: the side-view mirror attached to his left shoulder. With it, Murphy simultaneously embodies the glamour and power of both master and machine, linking a chivalric nobility to speeding promise of modern life.

That mirror also reflects what made Murphy’s dandyism so potent: his life-long ability to transform the everyday into the extraordinary though an alchemy of imagination, energy, and an innate sense of style. But unlike other dandies over whom history exerted its nostalgic sway, Gerald Murphy’s personal and aesthetic visions were always firmly fixed on the future.

For Gerald and Sara, that future first unfolded in a procession of charmed years whose keynote was a unique kind of grace. Rooted in their love and manifested in their gifts for friendship and for living, it was a grace that nourished some of the most innovative talents of the early 20th century. In the years when their own future darkened, it was a grace that sustained them through the cruelest of losses.

An Independent Style

Gerald Murphy played many, often contradictory, roles in the course of a grandly lived life. He was an aesthete and a businessman. He nurtured a career as painter of distinction, yet abandoned his art. He was an international sophisticate whose charm was rooted in a uniquely American simplicity. At the loving center of a near-perfect family and a coterie of celebrated friends, he hid a core of insecurity and debilitating self doubt. One facet of his complex and compelling personality remained a constant: he was a dandy.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had a close, if complicated, relationship with the Murphys, once asked the elegant Gerald, “Are you what they call a fop?” Murphy later told biographer Calvin Tomkins, “I was a dandy, which is something entirely different….I liked clothes that were smart, without having any interest in fashions or styles, and I dressed just the way I wanted to, always.”

“A dandy exists out of time,” says Deborah Rothschild, curator of “Making It New: The Art and Style of Gerald and Sara Murphy,” a touring exhibition she mounted for the Williams College Museum of Art. “The idea of a dandy is an independent thinker,” she told D.net, “an aesthete not bound by fashion, and that perfectly characterizes Gerald Murphy.”

Independence of thought was at the heart of Gerald and Sara Murphy as individuals and as a couple, although at first glance their backgrounds marked them as the unlikeliest of iconoclasts. Son of the founder of the Mark Cross luxury goods store, Murphy attended Yale, where he befriended Cole Porter and was voted the best-dressed man and “most thorough gentleman” of the class of 1912. His yearbook reported that “Murphy expects to take a position with the foreign factories of Mark Cross.”

Sara Wiborg was a bit higher on the social ladder. Her enterprising father was a partner in the Ault and Wiborg Company, whose inks were supplied to commercial printers and fine artists (Toulouse-Lautrec used the company’s products, and was among the leading artists and illustrators of the day commissioned to create advertisements for the firm). The family’s wealth paid for trips to Europe, Egypt, and India, an ocean-front estate in East Hampton, and the cultivation of a young beauty poised — as the ambitious Mrs. Wiborg prayed — to choose an aristocratic husband.

It turned out that neither the family business nor the traditional business of upper-class marriage were part of the futures that Gerald and Sara had in mind for themselves. Both had grown up yearning for the kinds of inspiration and experience that imagination, not simply money, could provide.

Sara had vowed that she and Gerald “will always be able to get the most ecstatic joy out of the simplest, bottomest things….The manmade and artificial — whether it be things, places, laws or people — will always give us a feeling of amused — sometimes perplexed contempt.” Her travels had opened her to contemporary art and music, to which she deeply responded. On the same 1912 London visit on which she probably danced the Castle Walk at a “Vegetable Ball” her mother gave at the Ritz, she saw the groundbreaking Stravinsky–Nijinsky collaboration “Le Sacre du printemps” and fell under the exotic spell of the Ballets Russes.

For his part, Gerald had always been aware, and often troubled, that his sensibilities were out of synch with those of the typical hearty American male. In 1914, the year before their marriage, he wrote to Sara:

Why is it? Any mention of some important exhibition, book, — editorial, —philosophy — is at once allied with an effeminacy of taste…. I long for someone with whom, as I walk the links, I can discuss without conscious effort,— and with unembarrassed security the things that do not smack of the pavement….I maintain that a man can enjoy a poem of Keats, a watercolor of Bakst — and still have red blood in his veins.

Murphy’s desire for that “unembarrassed security” found its source in something deeper than a need for cerebral companionship. From his teenage years onward, he would allude to “a defect” in his personality, one that his sociability and poise were marshaled to disguise. “Self-invention became a way of life for Gerald — something he raised to an art form,” writes Rothschild in her essay in the catalog for “Making It New.” Sexual ambivalence and emotional emptiness, she continues, were most likely at the heart of that defect, and Gerald “would look to Sara on both counts to help him appear to be the man he wished to be rather than the one he really was.”

In the two-part invention that was their marriage, Gerald’s intellectual curiosity, probing attention to detail, and introspection found its complement in Sara’s natural warmth, spontaneity, and confident assurance. Their union, when he was 27 and she 32, also strengthened their resolve to forge a life defined solely on their own terms.

As a couple they went against the grain of convention says Deborah Rothschild. Their years together were an ongoing adventure of equals “following a dream of what a meaningful and beautiful life can be — and they achieved it. It was a new way of thinking for people out of their Whartonian background.”

It was also a way of thinking that led Murphy to reject joining his father at Mark Cross. After a short stint as a flyer in the waning months of World War I, he enrolled in Harvard’s School of Landscape Architecture. To his disappointment, two years of study were ultimately stymied by his lack of mathematical aptitude (“I happen to have a blind-spot for mathematics of even the simplest type”). In June 1921, Gerald and Sara and their three young children, Honoria, Baoth, and Patrick, set off for Europe. Their future demanded the inspiration of a fresh and fertile creative landscape.

“Every Day Was Different”

They found that inspiration in Paris. “The activity [there] in the modern movement was so constant,” Murphy recalled for Calvin Tomkins. “There was either an exhibition or two, or there was a remarkable concert of new music, or the Dadaists were having a manifestation, or there was a costume ball over in Montparnasse — there was always something and every day was different.”

To Paris, in turn, the Murphys symbolized all that was alluringly up to date. The couple embodied the magnetism and energy of post-WWI America, and they quickly found themselves embraced by the city and its most talented international residents. Cocteau, Diaghilev, Pound, Stravinsky, and Satie were captivated as they unveiled the newest American music, dances, cocktails, and inventions, among which was reportedly the first waffle iron seen in France.

Picasso adored Sara, as did, it seems, everyone else, and admired Gerald’s idiosyncratic flair. (Catching a glimpse of a top-hatted Murphy at the opera, he declared to Étienne de Beaumont, “There is American elegance.) Americans abroad such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, and playwright Philip Barry found in them kindred spirits, fellow explorers among the pleasures and possibilities that Europe offered to the young and talented. Gerald and Sara thrived among this wide and eclectic circle, finding their roles as friends, sponsors, confidantes, muses, and co-creators as modernism in all its forms bloomed around them.

The sense of creative purpose that Gerald sought in Paris became a reality with speed and surprise in October 1921. During a walk, he caught a glimpse of paintings by Picasso, Braque, André Derain, and Juan Gris in a gallery window and experienced an aesthetic epiphany. He would recall “a shock of recognition that put me into an entirely new orbit.” “If this is painting,” he announced to Sara, “then this is what I want to do.”

His decision led him to Russian painter Natalia Goncharova, who also served as one of Diaghilev’s designers. Sara joined him in lessons at her rue Jacob studio, and soon they found themselves delighted apprentices in the scenic shop of the Ballets Russes. They refreshed worn-out sets and painted drops for new productions, including Goncharova’s designs for Stravinsky’s “Les Noces.” Gerald’s work togs were what Deborah Rothschild describes as “pressed and stylishly fitting overalls.”

Gerald and Sara were absorbed into the extended family of the Ballets Russes. Though intimate dinners were their preferred style of entertaining, the Murphys organized a gala to celebrate the opening night of “Les Noces” in July 1923. The event was notable only not only for its dazzling guest list, which ranged from the Princesse de Polignac to Cole Porter to Tristan Tzara, but for its location, a restaurant barge on the Seine. (The manager of a one-ring circus, their first choice of venue, dismissed them by frostily pronouncing, “Le Cirque Médrano n’est pas encore une colonie américaine.”) When she discovered all of the city’s florists closed on Sunday, Sara scooped up toys from a street bazaar from which she improvised the evening’s centerpieces. Picasso enthusiastically “rearranged them into a giant assemblage that culminated in a stuffed cow atop a fire truck’s ladder,” notes Amanda Vail in her charming dual biography of the Murphys, “Everybody Was So Young.” Stravinsky pronounced it the most memorable night since his first communion.

The party is more than just a high note in the jazzy merriment of what the French call les années folles. Like the small ultramodern apartment in which they lived (with its white walls, black lacquered floors, furniture upholstered in the black satin of waistcoat linings, and an 18-inch ball bearing displayed like a piece of sculpture atop an ebony piano), the evening was a testament to the Murphys’ rightful place among the most inventive of artists. Sara, and especially Gerald, says Deborah Rothschild “were performance or conceptual artists avant la lettre, living every day to make it a work of art, to make it fine.” Their highly personal and highly evolved creativity “made art out of hospitality, style, and friendship”— all of which were gloriously in evidence during that summer night on the Seine.

PART TWO

“To be extremely well-dressed is, I suppose, a form of disguise and a means of self assurance.” — From Gerald Murphy’s collection of quotes.

Gerald Murphy “arranged himself like a work of art,” says curator Deborah Rothschild, in clothes that were varied but “always informed by the highest aesthetic sensibility.” Moreover, “He had a freedom and a confidence in dressing that reflected how he wanted to be perceived by the world,” and a “limitless independent spirit that can be seen as subversive in its unfettered expression.”

Murphy was a modernist in attire as well as philosophy. His suits, tailored in Paris or New York, were as streamlined as the sleekest of motor cars. They were beautifully constructed, Rothschild told D.net, “with crisp, clean lines and no extraneous bulges.” Gerald abhorred the idea of anything in his pockets, preferring instead to carry a small leather envelope bag or wrap a few items in a swatch of richly hued fabric.

“He was a fabulous colorist in his paintings, and that’s reflected in his dress. He might combine beige and mustard and just a touch of red at the pocket for an elegant effect.” If we have to use our imagination to fill in the palettes of the outfits we see in the black-and-white photographs of Murphy during the 1920s, the assurance with which he wears them still attests to their elegance.

On a 1923 visit to Venice he and Sara were snapped in a sunlit piazza linking arms with Cole Porter and another family friend. Gerald wears a full-belted Norfolk suit in what appears to be a light-colored linen. A full-brimmed Panama, walking stick, and spectator shoes add to his unstudied holiday air. Another photo from the trip shows Murphy in the same suit, now carrying a square of striped fabric, enclosing perhaps a small treasure just discovered from an antiquario.

There’s more formality to the ensemble documented in a photo of another traveling quartet, taken on a 1927 trip to Vienna on which poet (and fellow Yalie) Archibald MacLeish and his wife accompanied the Murphys. Gerald is in a dark suit set off by a white pocket square. A boldly patterned tie is framed by a lightly hued shirt. He’s in a natty homburg, and one of his gloved hands holds a soft leather envelope with a fold-over flap. A walking stick and spats add notes of distinction, completing the portrait of a dandy coyly disguised as a prosperous Continental banker.

Hats played a key role in Murphy’s wardrobe. Honoria Murphy Donnelly recalls that “Dow-Dow [his pet name within the family] was quite concerned about his hair, which had thinned considerably by age forty,” and which he had cut every ten days. “In time, he brushed it forward and had it cut in an oval shape to offset the chubby appearance of his cheeks, his ‘Irish moon face,’ as he called it, which partially explains his preference for noticeable hats and for wide, loosely buttoned collars.”

In truth, Murphy’s looks were distinctive, if not quite the matinee-idol ideal of the day (Sara’s affectionately called him “Fat Face”), but his self-consciousness over them has left a odd photographic legacy. For a man who was able to find so much pleasure in life, it’s rare to find images of a smiling Murphy. To her credit, Deborah Rothschild included two in the “Making It New” exhibition and catalog, both of which capture Gerald at key moments of happiness. A snapshot from 1915 freezes Gerald and Sara in the midst of an impromptu dance on an East Hampton beach, she an Art Nouveau swirl in a long, loose coat and a turban-like head wrap, and Gerald ebullient in a dark suit and white shoes. The second from 1920 shows a beaming, bow-tied Gerald holding baby son Baoth. Tellingly, neither image betrays a sign of that Irish moon face.

A Dandy in Disguise

The subversive aspects of Murphy’s wardrobe that Rothschild points out extended beyond details of tailoring or bold colors. Murphy had a love of costumes, disguises that allowed him to slip into another male persona. When the Wiborgs were planning to depart for 1913 trip to India, he sent a signed photo of himself in a fanciful approximation of pukkah gear. Regally posing in a boldly patterned jacket wrapped at the waist by a flowing fringed scarf, white gloves, a towering stiff collar and cravat, and a pith helmet that looks improvised from a Panama with a down-turned brim, he was transformed into “Crispard (the Rajah’s favourite camel).”

Over the years, he’d be photographed in lederhosen and Chinese robes, in the tough-guy outfit of a Parisian apache (complete with dangling cigarette and requisite glare) and in cowboy chaps on a ranch with Hemingway. “What might have seemed self conscious on someone else,” writes Amanda Vail, “looked, on Gerald, exactly right.” Ironically, Murphy was comfortable appearing in the last imaginable outfit a sometimes-insecure dandy might select: nothing but his own skin. There are photos of a nude Murphy sailing and one of him attired in nothing but a strategically placed — and naturally, beautifully arranged — spray of flowers.

Murphy’s wardrobe set him apart from even the best-dressed men of his era. For a man haunted by that self-professed “defect” of personality (most likely bisexual leanings that may never have been acted upon), his distinctive clothing highlighted rather than downplayed the contrast between himself and the prevailing image how a man, particularly an American, should present himself. The artistic milieu in which he and Sara moved generally afforded him that freedom. Some friends though, even close ones, found aspects of his dandyism troubling.

Hemingway’s hunger to bolster his own machismo led him to grow more suspicious of Murphy’s sexuality over the years of their relationship. “I always thought he had a reservation about me,” he told Calvin Tomkins, “and I was never so close to him as Sara.” He could, however, occasionally win the writer’s sartorial approval. On a trip to Pamplona, he told Gerald that his gray gabardine outfit had earned him the name “the man in the silver suit” among the locals. Topping the look with a golf cap of his father’s was the right touch, Hemingway said. “It looks tough.”

Fitzgerald, whose celebrity image of sophistication never quite obscured his inherent Midwesternism, also had doubts about Murphy. As one alternative to putting anything in his suit pockets, Murphy sometimes carried a custom-made pigskin bag based on those used by messengers at the Bourse, the French stock exchange. With two buckled compartments for notes of different denominations, it perfectly suited his needs for practicality and beauty. Meeting him on the street in Paris, Fitzgerald derisively eyed the bag and told him, “I’ve been watching you, and I’ve decided you’re a masochist — you go to all that trouble with buckles and straps and little bags because you’re a masochist.” Gerald calmly set him right: “I like buckles and straps.”

Portraits of a Gentleman

If Gerald Murphy approached dressing as an artist, his paintings also benefited from a dandy’s studied eye. His first works, displayed at the 1923 Salon des Indépendents in Paris, “Turbines” and “Engine Room,” show that Murphy was able to distill a virile graphic beauty from the dynamism and precision of machinery. (Like much of his small output, the works are lost.) The next year, his 18-by-12-foot canvas “Boatdeck” literally overshadowed everything else in Salon. In its depiction of an ocean liner’s towering smokestacks, rigging, and ventilation funnels, the piece reveled in pure geometric forms and flat, poster-like expanses of color. It was a sensation.

Murphy’s next canvases took a startlingly different approach to their subjects and scale. From the massive and mechanical he turned to objects that a man could literally hold in his hand. These talismans of a leisured, refined life were rendered in the same meticulous detail as his engine rooms and smokestacks, and in the same strictly presentational, emotionally neutral mode that prevailed in the modern art of the day.  Taken together, though, this remarkable series of still lives forms a composite portrait of a gentleman refracted through both a Cubist approach to space and time and the details of  Murphy’s own life.

“Razor” from 1924 transforms a box of Three Star matches, a Parker “Big Red” pen, and a safety razor into a piece of bold commercial heraldry. The razor is a model Murphy himself designed in 1915 for Mark Cross (Rothschild notes it was deemed “too slight and dainty” to compete against the heftier Gillette version that dominated the marketplace). The trio of stars on the matchbox, each rendered slightly differently, may stand for the Muphys’ three children, since the shape held a special place in the family’s iconography. (Gerald would paint a sign for their Antibes home, Villa America, that incorporated five stars).

Also from 1924, “Watch” bisects a pocket timepiece and transforms it into an explosion of circular forms and simultaneous perspectives. The model itself was a Mark Cross railroad watch, another Murphy family connection that reaches across time. Deborah Rothschild consulted a contemporary watch expert to vet the painting’s mechanical accuracy, which was judged meticulously correct except for two minor details. “Without these connections,” he wrote her, “the watch could not work.” She points out that Murphy on several occasions used watchmaker’s terms to refer to his heart, including a 1931 confession to Archibald MacLeish that “I awaken to find that I have apparently never had one real relationship….My subsequent life has been a process of concealment of the personal realities….The effect on my heart has been evident. It is now a faulty ‘instrument de précision’.”

The elements of “Cocktail” are seductive. In this glossy, sensual, and inviting work from 1927, Murphy arranges the tools of pleasure (a silver shaker, corkscrew, cocktail glass, and five cigars) with a presentational precision that reflects the seriousness with which he approached the ritual of mixing drinks. (“Gerald,” playwright Philip Barry said as he once watched his host at work over the bar tray, “you look as though you were saying Mass.”) In its rich tones of grays, golds, and taupes, the painting depicts a corner of a clearly masculine world (those perfectos are arrayed in their box like a chorus line framed by a proscenium), but he garnishes the composition with the single lipstick-red note of a cherry. “Cocktail” conjures up the luxurious indulgence we connect with the Jazz Age dandy, and it’s no wonder that reproductions of it are still available.

One more portrait, this one clearly titled as such, found a place among Murphy’s canvases. “Portrait” incorporates the artist’s own features into a collage in which elements of scale and natural relationship are cast aside in favor of a mysterious sense of disconnection. A huge left eye dominates the composition. Amanda Vail likens to one of the haunted eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckelburg’s roadside advertisement in “The Great Gatsby.” Below, Murphy’s thumbprint is rendered three times, each distinctive whorl painstakingly reproduced, as his daughter remembers, using a brush of just two bristles. Gerald’s right footprint is stamped across the upper right quadrant. Overlapping vertical rulers (the magic number five appears on one of the two) lead to a pair of lips. A “conglomerate standard facial profile of a Caucasian Man,” stares off the picture plane from the lower left corner, providing an anthropological norm against which the artist might be measuring himself.

“There is irony in the painting,” says Deborah Rothschild,  “in that the profile and eye are completely generic images that reveal nothing about a specific physiognomy, personality, or character.  And though the inclusion of finger and foot prints are as specific and individual as one can get, they also reveal little. That is so Gerald. He seemed totally open and charming, yet he hid his true self from everyone.”

A closer look at his ironic artistry can,  though, reveal at least one tantalizing clue to that truth. As both a painter and a dandy, style was indeed Murphy’s most powerful form of disguise.

PART THREE

Gerald Murphy was a sorcerer in espadrilles. Villa America, the Cap d’Antibes home into which he and Sara moved in the summer of 1925, was a domain over which he reigned as host and benevolent magician, a place where enchantments large and small were conjured daily.

It’s no wonder that the Murphys’ close friend Philip Barry used Villa America as the model for the setting of “Hotel Universe,” his 1930 play in which elements of fantasy echo through the action. The opening stage directions provide a detail-specific description of the house’s terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, capturing its flagstone tiles, low walls, and cypress trees. The final lines hint at something beyond the physical: “Over and beyond the wall, nothing is visible; sea meets sky without a line to mark the meeting. There, the angle of the terrace is like a wedge into space.”

Barry’s theatrical version of Villa America is a private world in which the extraordinary happens. For the Murphys and their friends, it was a realm of real-life magic, animated by Gerald and Sara’s powers of hospitality and friendship and what curator Deborah Rothschild told D.net was the “lavishness of effort that Gerald put into making people feel special at Villa America.”

Celebrities and Sailor’s Stripes

The trendsetting Murphys transformed the French Riviera in summer into a chic, if not mandatory, destination. Equal parts artistic salon and lavish family picnic, Villa America embraced everyone for whom Gerald and Sara cared. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Archibald MacLeish were among the writers who were regular visitors. Picasso sketched in swim trunks and a homburg. Cole Porter and Rudolph Valentino added to the glamour and Dorothy Parker to the wisecracks.

Gerald, true to form, was the avid organizer. He led yoga sessions on the beach and excursions to local attractions, and entertained the children with elaborate treasure hunts. Pearls cascading down her back, Sara played hostess for sunbathing and once threw a fancy-dress “Mad Beach Party.”

Sailing played a central role in life at Villa America. The Murphys owned three increasingly larger craft during their years on the Riviera, culminating a 27-meter schooner, the Weatherbird. Gerald, always on the lookout for another costume, enthusiastically incorporated elements of nautical style into his wardrobe and scooped up authentic gear in St.-Tropez.

Murphy, says Rothschild, “liked looking at and taking on…what people found useful for living in a particular place,” so sailors’ jerseys, linen pants, knit caps, and espadrilles became part of his Riviera uniform. Ellen Barry, the playwright’s wife, recalled him buying lots of the striped tops and handing them out to guests. It was a chance for Gerald to merge two pursuits at which he was a master: taking care of friends and fashion.

Enchanting Evenings

Though casual gatherings were the norm at Villa America, the couple would regularly summon friends for what Sara called “Dinner-Flowers-Gala,” her shorthand for an evening of more organized entertaining with the distinctive Murphy touch.

In her memoir “Sara & Gerald,” Honoria Murphy Donnelly writes of women in long dresses and men in coats and ties assembling on the terrace at sunset. Her father handed out cocktails he described as “just the juices of a few flowers,” a quip that Philip Barry later appropriated for a character in “Holiday.” She and her brothers might dance a Charleston or offer a song before bidding the guests goodnight with a kiss.

Then dinner prepared by Louise, the Toulousain cook, appeared. The menu reflected the Murphys’ taste for elegant simplicity, with many of the ingredients harvested from Sara’s vegetable garden. Later, the terrace’s gray and white tiles became a dance floor as a phonograph sent Irving Berlin ballads and hot jazz drifting over the mimosa-scented air.

Guests would describe these evenings by the sea as enchanted, and thanks to Gerald and Sara they were. But when their youngest son, Patrick, was diagnosed with tuberculosis in late 1929, even the Murphys’ own potent brand of magic was powerless.

Though they would return to Antibes intermittently, the ensuing years became a grim pilgrimage from the Adirondacks to Austria to Switzerland in search of a climate and treatment that might strengthen their son. The sun-drenched spell of Villa America had been broken.

A Return From Paradise

Patrick’s illness took its toll on the whole family, but Gerald felt it particularly acutely. “He did not have confidence as an artist, and never thought of himself as first-rate,” according to Rothschild. That conviction, magnified by what Archibald MacLeish called “his very Irish nature,” led him to a startling decision. As if to bargain his son back into health, Gerald abandoned painting in October 1929. His lifetime output was limited to 14 canvases, half of which would be lost.

Though shadowed by his son’s precarious health, glimpses of Gerald the convivial host could still be found. When Patrick entered a Swiss sanatorium in the summer of 1930, he opened and decorated a small nightspot in the neighboring village. He called it Harry’s Bar and hoped it would be an enticement for friends to visit. Ever the magician, he circled the club’s walls with painted stars, the icon he used for his loved ones.

The Depression also played a role in realigning the family’s way of life. The market for luxury goods had grown smaller, and in 1934 Gerald took over the presidency of a foundering Mark Cross Company two years after his father’s death.

His dandy’s instincts would serve him well in that post, allowing him to introduce handsome new European goods and his own designs into the firm’s stock. Despite the contributions he made to the company’s resurrection, Gerald was neither content nor comfortable during his years as a New York businessman. It was, at heart, another of his disguises.

Betrayal and Losses

Murphy found discomfort of a different kind in 1934 with the publication of “Tender Is the Night,” whose beautiful and damned Nick and Nicole Diver were clearly modeled on himself and Sara. (The cover illustration even resembled the view from Villa America’s terrace.) The couple felt alternately puzzled and betrayed by Fitzgerald’s appropriation of the outlines of their marriage as a framework for exploring his own troubled union.

Though Fitzgerald would contend “the last part of it is Zelda and me, because you and Sara are the same people as Zelda and me,” Gerald would have none of it. He wrote friend and biographer Calvin Tomkins in 1961 that “when you come to think of it, we never shared with [Fitzgerald] our most passionate interests. They didn’t appeal to him, even the simplest of them: bathing, sunning, cruising, enjoyment of interesting food and wine in a redolent garden to nightingale accompaniment…. He was fascinated by the way we lived, but he really didn’t understand it at all.”

In the 1930s, Patrick’s condition took mother and son wherever hopes of improvement might be found, and the extended separations from Sara weighed on Gerald. A deeper sorrow was to hit with sudden and ironic force. The family’s elder son, Baoth, developed measles at boarding school. Mastoiditis followed, then meningitis. He died on Saint Patrick’s Day 1935, two months shy of his 16th birthday.

On the last day of that year, Gerald wrote to Scott Fitzgerald, “I know what you said in ‘Tender is the Night’ was true. Only the invented part of our life — the unreal part — has had any scheme, any beauty…. In my heart I dreaded the moment when our youth and invention would be attacked in only vulnerable spot — the children, their growth, their health, their future.”

One more attack lay ahead. In January 1937, 16-year-old Patrick died after his battle with tuberculosis. Gerald was devastated, and Sara, as he wrote to friends, “is — and will always be — inconsolable.” Their lost sons haunted their marriage, but Gerald and Sara drew on their deep and complicated devotion to sustain each other through the immediate tragedy and beyond. Archibald MacLeish would tell them, “You’ve shown us what humanity can be like.”

How Different a Dawn

In the years after Patrick’s death, life for Gerald and Sara life resumed at least a few of its earlier contours. Houses and apartments were acquired and decorated. Artists and writers continued to be taken under wing. Old friends and new gardens softened lingering griefs.

In time, Honoria’s family grew into an image of her parents’ once-complete version. When a second grandson joined his brother and sister in 1953, Gerald wrote to Sara, “How different a dawn than the one we saw in a hospital eighteen years ago. I guess that’s how it is. Two boys went out from out family and now two other boys have come into it.”

One of those boys remembers his grandfather toasting Rice Krispies and serving them with ice-cold milk and strawberries. Shells filled with seed would be arranged on the lawn and grandchildren gathered to watch the birds flock. Gerald’s everyday magic, rooted in transforming the mundane into the incredible, continued to enchant.

Gradually, Murphy’s achievements as a painter began to gain new attention. Rudi Blesh included him in his 1956 book, “Modern Art USA,” praising canvases “that strike an original note of their own, particularly in their complex design and in their wit.” He also lamented their creator’s abrupt departure from the art world. “So the work of Gerald Murphy remains unknown,” he concluded. “Nevertheless, the paintings exist. And a painting is autobiography.”

Five of Murphy’s works were among the “American Genius in Review” exhibit mounted at the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Art in 1960. From then on he found himself the object of serious critical interest, to which he reacted with what Calvin Tomkins felt was “ironic distance.” He supposedly announced at a family luncheon, “I’ve been discovered. What does one wear?”

An Artful Legacy

The Murphy legend was burnished in a 1962 New Yorker profile of the couple by Tomkins, “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” which was later expanded into a book. Its poignant final image finds a 74-year-old Gerald the sole audience member of a Long Island theater watching the mediocre film of “Tender Is the Night” in which Jason Robards played a version of himself refracted through Fitzgerald’s literary hall of mirrors. Two years later, he died of intestinal cancer.

“I don’t think I hoped to beat life,” Murphy once wrote in an introspective letter to Archibald MacLeish. “Possibly I thought that mine was one way of living it, among many thousand ways.”

He underestimated his achievement. His way of living was a unique, creative, and ultimately brave one. Deborah Rothschild recalls a graduate-school professor discussing Baudelaire’s idea of the dandy as a heroic figure, and for her Murphy is a prime exemplar. Gerald’s “grace, independence, style, and how he tried to rise above tragedies really fit into dandyism.”

His gift for “fashioning from the imagination” made the invented part of the years that he and Sara shared into something as significant as any of his canvases. It was proof, says Rothschild, that “art can be how you live your life.”

No dandy —or magician — could ask for stronger powers.

Photo credit: Sara and Gerald at Comte Etienne de Beaumont’s Automotive Ball, photographed by Man Ray, 1924; Gerald and Sara Murphy Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. 2007 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society, New York — ADAGP, Paris. 

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5 Responses to “Murphy’s Law”

  1. jackoliver Says:

    I like to read this kind of thing.

  2. Andy Says:

    Profound words from jackoliver ladies and gentlemen.

  3. scott Says:

    Thank you for another fine installment, Robert.

  4. Graham Says:

    I’ve been looking on wikipedia for this information but it’s very limited. Wow, I’m blown away by how in depth you have gone and looking at your other postings it’s obvious you certainly research your subjects well. Robert Sacheli, my friend, I now consider you to be an authority on Gerald Murphy and look forward to your other fine works. Thank you!

  5. Lost & Found: The Newly Relaunched Mark Cross Brand » Quest Says:

    [...] that was bought in 1875 by the Murphy family (and later run by Lost Generation glamor couple Gerald and Sara Murphy has been relaunched by new owners. The first collection, exclusively available at Barney’s, [...]

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