Calvin Tomkins

Living Well Is the Best Revenge, Calvin TomkinsCalvin Tomkins
Living Well Is the Best Revenge 

Gerald and Sara Murphy are best remembered as the “it” couple of 1920s France, channeling their artistic talents into creating a beautiful, original existence for themselves. According to poet Archibald MacLeish, person after person “met them and came away saying that these people really are masters in the art of living.”

In Paris they hosted a famous dinner on board a rented barge, piling toys on the tables as centerpieces when fresh flowers were unavailable. Members of the Diaghilev Ballet danced; Stravinksy jumped through a laurel wreath; Jean Cocteau put on a captain’s uniform and went from porthole to porthole announcing solemnly, “We’re sinking.”

The Murphys were among the first expatriates to summer on the French Riviera. In elegant, cadenced prose, Tomkins paints us scenes of the glittering blue Mediterranean, languid days spent swimming and sunning, an aura of ease and perpetual festivity. Their villa was the gathering place for a host of friends—Gertrude Stein, the Hemingways, Dorothy Parker, Picasso and his mother, the Cole Porters, Fernand Léger. Candid photographs accompanying the text give a fascinating window on this storied time and place.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, another close friend, immortalized the couple as Dick and Nicole Diver in Tender Is the Night, reproducing whole conversations verbatim. Even tiny incidents involving the children made their way into the manuscript. Fitzgerald was clearly paying attention during those summers on the beach when Sara let her pearls dangle down her brown back—although she remained convinced that he knew nothing of human nature.

Tragedy struck the Murphys in the death of their two sons. A friend later wrote, “They were not only the most alive, the most charming, the most understanding people—they were, when the roof of their dream house crashed into their beautiful living room, the bravest.”

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