Gerard and Sara Murphy lived though a period of artistic creation and creativity in 1920s Paris that has become the stuff of myth. Through sheer chance, author Calvin Tomkins met the Murphys decades after this remarkable period and realised what a story they had to tell. Told through their own voices, I picked up Living Well Is the Best Revenge from the National Library of Australia: a special edition published by MOMA in New York, it includes a sizable selection from the Murphy family album as well as a special section on Gerard Murphy’s own paintings.
While not a part of the original story, it feels like the focus on Gerard’s works is important: the life they lead in Paris and the South of France seemed to revolve around their artistic friends. Leaving New York to seek out a life of more meaning in Europe, over a decade the Murphys hosted and fostered writers, composers, dancers and artists. Meanwhile, Gerard painted quietly, believing his own works to be substandard to that of others around him.
I picked this book up because I am fascinated with the art and artists of 1920s Europe, and the Murphys seem to be at the centre of the American exodus to France, particularly forming a close friendship with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. And while it is all an interesting read, this is where the book really comes into the fore. It is troubling to hear how Scott behaved towards the Murphys as well as his own family. Scott provoked and prodded his friends, causing scenes at parties for his own entertainment, and from his selfishness could not see how poorly he was treating his wife and child. From all accounts, he blatantly used the Murphys’ lives as inspiration for Tender is the Night, then bastardised their characters, departing from them halfway through to draw down more on his own relationship with Zelda. Why did the Murphys maintain their friendship with Scott? Why did this behaviour get indulged? All this, of course, is not a review of the book itself but became a significant takeaway for me.
The Murphys’ life through this period seems as if it’s of another world: spending a season in the Antibes, buying a villa near Cannes, composing with Cole Porter, spending time on the beach with Picasso and the Hemmingways, sharing art with Fernand Léger. And of course, being the inspriation for one of F Scott Fitzgerald’s stories. While potentially gossipy and name-dropping, the narrative actually made me wistful for the life the Murphys lead, and the mad period of creation that now characterises the 1920s in Europe. I love the idea of all these artists spending time together: ideas and images bumping together, disagreeing and inspiring. The Murphys seemed to host and foster so much of this: their house opening, bringing in all their friends.
Short, interesting and sometimes insightful, it was a simple and diverting read, but as the chronology progresses their lives and therefore the narrative becomes a little more serious. I enjoyed the Murphys’ story, and I’m glad that Tomkins has preserved their contribution to that mad period of 1920s art.