STILL THE BEST REVENGE
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The great modern painter Fernand Leger liked to say, "Either a good life and lousy work, or good work and a lousy life."
"Making it New: The Art and Style of Sara & Gerald Murphy," now through Nov. 11 at the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Mass., offers a fascinating illustration of Leger's dictum.
The show's title comes from a poem by Ezra Pound: "Day by day make it new/Yet again make it new!"
Making "it" - life - new was not only a possibility but a necessity when Gerald, heir to the Mark Cross luxury accessories business, and his lovely wife Sara, also from a wealthy family, took their three young children to live in France in 1921.
It was a good time for new things. Europe was recovering from the vast devastation of a brutal war. Not only great cities but an entire generation of young people had been destroyed, and with them, most of the Old World's ideals and values. At the same time, stuffy and conventional America was drying up because of Prohibition.
France was the perfect place to try living in a new and modern way: "Our new life is but one thing: your ideals and principles and character organized and put into actuality by me," Gerald wrote to Sara before their wedding. Well ahead of his time, he was proposing a marriage of equals.
The Murphys have always been high on the cultural radar screen because of their elegant, witty and sophisticated lives - their motto was "Living well is the best revenge," which became the title of a 1962 New Yorker story and then a book about them - and because they were artists who applied the act of artistic creation to their daily lives, devoting as much energy to conversation, home design, clothing, parties, good food and friends as to their painting and drawing.
And what friends! And what parties!
Writers? The Murphys were the models for F. Scott Fitzgerald's Dick and Nicole Diver in "Tender is the Night." A good case has recently been made that Ernest Hemingway used them as models in "For Whom the Bell Tolls." Both these writers were sustained during hard times by the Murphy money - Hemingway early in his career (he bites the hands that feed him in his posthumous "A Moveable Feast"), and Fitzgerald later on, as he and his career disintegrate. Archibald MacLeish, another friend, wrote the play "J.B." about them. Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley were also close to the Murphys.
Music? Cole Porter was a great friend. So was Igor Stravinsky.
Art? Pablo Picasso and his family lived with the Murphys in Antibes on the Riviera. (Before the Murphys, no one summered there; the Murphys are credited with making the Riviera fashionable). Picasso called Gerald the best American painter in Paris, and he sketched them often. Sara is widely considered to be the model for his 1922 "Mother and Child" and the 1923 "Woman in White," while Gerald is the man without the pipes in the 1923 "The Pipes of Pan." Leger was an early friend, teacher and supporter.
Dance? How about Diaghalev and the Ballet Russe circle? Gerald wrote and designed a ballet while the couple was living in Paris. Porter, then still unknown, wrote the music.
"The Murphys, with their zest for living and their determination to remain brave in the face of life's capricious cruelties, were the stuff of myth," writes Linda Patterson Miller.
Those "capricious cruelties" Miller is talking about were truly capricious and cruel. Gerald suffered all his life from what he called his "defect": he was a homosexual at a time when it was shameful to be one. He hated himself for his attraction to men, and seems to have spent a large part of his life repressing his feelings.
Then there was the unbearable tragedy of losing both their teenage sons within two years of each other, one from meningitis and the other from tuberculosis. According to MacLeish, at one memorial service Sara ran out into the street raising her fist and cursing God. Gerald's reaction was simpler and more painful: he gave up painting and devoted the rest of his life to the family business.
Together, the couple quietly lived out their lives in and around New York, Gerald died in 1964 at the age of 76, and Sara died eleven years later, in 1975, at the age of 91.
"Gerald had selected the epithet on her tombstone: 'And She Made All of Light,'" writes Rothschild, summing up the Murphys and the show as well as answering Leger. "He and Sara managed to survive not only the bumps, but also the crushing blows life threw at them. In the end, they achieved their dream of inventing a life that mattered - one that inspired some of the last century's finest writers and artists. Further, that life itself became a seminal work of art, prefiguring modernists... who have viewed the artist as a vehicle for expanding our awareness of life - someone whose role is to redefine the terms and conventions of artistic practice without necessarily leaving a single object behind."
In this case, the Murphys left a lot behind. The show contains Gerald and Sara's work on paper and canvas - including seven of his stunning modernistic oils (all that remain) - along with a vast collection of ephemera including letters to and from friends, Sara's couture wedding dress, feathers from her hats, decades worth of photographs, videos of Gerald's modern ballets, and a host of other things that allow us now, almost a century later, to relive the excitement and creativity of a magical time when living well was certainly the best revenge.
A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.