A dazzling biography for readers of The Great Gatsby and other Lost Generation authors
Gifted artist Gerald Murphy and his elegant wife, Sara, were icons of the most enchanting period of our time; handsome, talented, and wealthy expatriate Americans, they were at the very center of the literary scene in Paris in the 1920s. In Everybody Was So Young Amanda Vaill brilliantly portrays both the times in which the Murphys lived and the fascinating friends who flocked around them. Whether summering with Picasso on the French Riviera or watching bullfights with Hemingway in Pamplona, Gerald and Sara inspired kindred creative spirits like Dorothy Parker, Cole Porter, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald even modeled his main characters in Tender is the Night after the couple. Their story is both glittering and tragic, and in this sweeping and richly anecdotal portrait of a marriage and an era, Amanda Vaill "has brought them to life as never before" (Chicago Tribune).
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About the Author
Amanda Vaill is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in numerous national publications. This is her first book. She lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
Prologue: Antibes, May 28, 1926
It was their friend Scott Fitzgerald who described the Murphys best, on the beach at Antibes in the south of France, in the summer sun of the 1920s. There is Sara, her face "hard and lovely and pitiful," her bathing suit "pulled off her shoulders" and her brown back gleaming under her rope of pearls, "making out a list of things from a book open in the sand." And there is Gerald, her husband, tall and lean in his striped maillot and a knitted cap, gravely raking the seaweed from the beach as if performing "some esoteric burlesque," to the delight of the little audience of friends they have gathered around them. On the "bright tan prayer rug of the beach," they and their friends swim, sunbathe, drink sherry and nibble crackers, trade jokes about the people with strange names listed in the "News of Americans" in the Paris Herald: "Mrs. Evelyn Oyster" and "Mr. S. Flesh." Their very presence is "an act of creation"; to be included in their world is, Fitzgerald says, "a remarkable experience."
Fitzgerald wasn't literally portraying the Murphys, of course; he was writing a novel, called Tender Is the Night, about a psychiatrist named Dick Diver and his wife, Nicole. In the novel, the woman with the pearls is recovering from a psychotic break brought on by incest, and the man with the rake ends up losing his wife, his position, everything he most cares about. These things are not known to have happened to Gerald and Sara Murphy. So when Fitzgerald insisted to Sara, after the publication of Tender Is the Night in 1934, that "I "used you again and again in Tender," Sara's reaction was denial and distaste. "I hated the book when I first read it," she told her neighbor, the writer Calvin Tomkins. "I reject categorically any resemblance to ourselves or anyone we knowat any time." But Gerald made the connection at once. "I know . . . that what you said in 'Tender is the Night' is true," he wrote Fitzgerald in 1935. "Only the invented part of our lifethe unreal parthas had any scheme any beauty."
By that time the life the Murphys had invented at their Villa America in Antibes, and in Paris during the 19205, may indeed have seemed unreal. In the intervening years tragedy had famished the Murphys' lives: the death of one child, the mortal illness of another, Gerald's forfeiture of his career as a painter; a whole litany of loss. But on May 28, 1926, those events are in the future, and the invented part of the Murphys' lives is as real, as palpable, as the hot sand under their feet or the throbbing of cicadas or the color of the sea an improbable turquoise in the shallows, and a deep, purplish blue, the color of blueberries, farther out.
The beach, La Garoupe, is literally Gerald's invention: Until a year or so ago, it was covered in seaweed and stones, and deserted except for the fishermen who pull up their little boats there. But Gerald saw its possibilities when the Murphys first stayed in Antibes in the summer of 1922 with Cole Porter and his wife, Linda. Gerald and Cole raked the debris from a comer of the sand, and in the years since Gerald has cleared the entire plage almost single-handed. Now what began as a private Murphy passion has caught on not, it should be noted, with the local inhabitants, who cannot understand why anyone would want to go out in the midday heat and actually lie in the sunbut with fashionable Parisians and increasing numbers of visiting Americans and English from the huge fin de siècle hotel at the end of the Antibes peninsula, which has only recently extended its season into the summer months.
In fact, the beach has been rather crowded today: Anita Loos, the smart young American screenwriter and author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, is there; the playwright Charles MacArthur; Ada MacLeish, the soprano, with her two children, Mimi and Ken (Ada's husband, the poet Archibald MacLeish, is still in Persia with the League of Nations' Opium Commission); and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who have made a rare sortie from their villa at Juan-les-Pins on the other side of the peninsula, Scott nursing a hangover and Zelda not speaking to him. Absent today, although they are often here, are Comte Etienne de Beaumont, the long-faced French aristocrat who was the model for the eponymous hero of Raymond Radiguet's scandalous roman a clef; Le bal du Comte d'Orgel, and his wife, Édith (who, it's whispered, has an opium habit). As is their custom, the Murphys arrived with their three children and their nanny late in the morning, after Gerald has completed the day's work on one of the precise and unsettling paintings for which he has become famous, and they have been holding a kind of impromptu party ever since, with cold sherry and little biscuits called sablés at noon. Now they are leavingit is lunchtime. And they have arranged to take Hadley Hemingway, wife of the young American writer Ernest Hemingway, to pick up her husband at the Antibes railway station after lunch.
By rights, Hadley should be in Madrid with Ernest, who went there to work on a new novel, and the Hemingways' one-year-old son, John, nicknamed Bumby, should have been staying with the Murphys. But before Hadley could get away, Bumby was diagnosed with whooping cough, and Sara, who swathes the railway compartments that she and her family travel in with sheets washed in Lysol to protect her children from germs, thought it best that the little boy and his mother be quarantined until the disease has run its course. Luckily, the Fitzgeralds were able to lend Hadley their rented house in Juan-les-Pins, the Villa Paquita, which they have vacated in favor of a much grander property nearby. And Gerald and Sara, insisting that Hadley and Bumby are their guests, have been paying Bumby's doctor bills and Hadley's other expenses.
When Ernest steps off the train at the Antibes station this aftemoon he is met by four people: Hadley's friend Pauline Pfeiffer, as small and dark and slender as Hadley is fair and large-boned, is also standing on the platform. Pauline is an editor at Vogue in Paris, and because she has already had whooping cough it holds no terrors for her. She has been staying with Hadley during this quarantine and has become a great favorite with the Murphys, who admire her stylishness and quick wit. She is a great favorite with Ernest, tooin fact, the two of them have been having a secret affair that began last winter. But the Murphys don't know this and Hadley only suspects it; and if the greeting Ernest gives his wife seems a little awkward, everyone puts it down to his exhaustion (he has had to change trains three times on the joumey from Madrid), Hadley's own weariness after weeks of tending a sick child, and the lack of privacy.
In the evening Gerald and Sara stage a more formal welcome for Ernest: a caviar-and-champagne party at the little casino in Juan-les-Pins which the owner, Edouard Baudoin, has recently renovated in the hopes of turning Juan into a French Miami. Fresh caviar has never been a summer dishit spoils too readily on the long train journey from the Caspian Seabut some enterprising importer has recently begun flying it in, and Gerald wants to be the first to take advantage of this development. As with so many things, the Murphys are setting a fashion.
Sara is wearing a long, floating dress with vaguely semiclassical lines, nothing like the beaded chemises beloved by flapper fashion victims; her dark gold hair, recently bobbed into soft waves, frames what Scott Fitzgerald will describe as her "Viking madonna" face; her rope of pearls is wound once around her neck. Gerald, in an impeccable dinner jacket, is circulating among his guests, introducing this one to that one, starting a conversation here, changing a subject therea friend later describes him as "stage manag[ing] his parties down to the last detail, right down to what stories people should tell."
When Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald arrive, Zelda in fuchsia with a peony pinned in her fair hair, Scott is already drunk"you drank all the time," Zelda later tells him, speaking of that summerand Zelda is smoldering. At first he contents himself with throwing ashtrays off the casino terrace and staring at one of the women guests until she becomes discomfited and asks him to stop. But when the Hemingways come in, with Pauline in tow, Fitzgerald starts to get dangerous.
Because he himself is already an enormously successful novelist with an established reputation, he has always thought of Hemingway as a kind of protege: he has recognized the younger writer's talent and praised his work, and he has fixed him up with his publisher, Scribner's, which is going to publish Hemingway's first novel, The Sun Also Rises, this fall. Tonight, though, Fitzgerald feels their roles reversing, and watches with increasing frustration as Ernest, tanned from the Spanish sun, his white teeth flashing, becomes the center of attention.
Gerald keeps urging Ernest to talk about Spain, particularly about the fiesta of San Fermin in Pamplona, where the Murphys plan to accompany the Hemingways later this summer. And as if it were not enough for Ernest to have Hadley on one arm and Pauline on the other, soon Sara, too, is hovering over him. This is too much for Fitzgerald, who is more than half in love with her, and jealous of her attention. He finds a small throw rug in one of the anterooms, drapes it over his head and shoulders like a cloak, and crawls from room to room on his hands and knees moaning, "Sara's being mean to me." Gerald is furious, and accuses Fitzgerald of sabotaging the partyat which Fitzgerald, by now hot and disheveled, straightens up and says he doesn't care. He has never heard of anything so silly and affected as a champagne-and-caviar party. Only Gerald would think something so dated would be fun.
Although the next day everyone is civil to everyone else, the aftershocks of that evening, of things said and left unsaid, done and left undone, will be felt in the lives of almost everyone there for years to come. Something else will persist, too, something almost as durable as the reputations of Fitzgerald and Hemingway: the legend of Gerald and Sara Murphy, the "prince and princess" (as one of their friends described them) who were the evening's presiding geniuses.
Elegant, attractive, wealthy, cultured, affectionate, the Murphys had gathered around themselves at their home in France a brilliant group of American writers and artists, among them Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Cole Porter, Dorothy Parker, John Dos Passos, Archibald MacLeish, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, and Philip Barry; in addition, they numbered among their friends some of the most prominent figures of the European modemist movement, such as Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Fermand Leger, and Igor Stravinsky. Of this first manifestation of what we today might call the glitterati, Gertrude Stein is supposed to have remarked: "You are all a lost generation." But they were not lost. As Fitzgerald himself sensed, they had been found, and embraced, by two remarkable people who would enable many of them to unleash their creative powers in ways that transformed the twentieth century artistic landscape.
Early in the novel he was writing that summerand would work on intermittently for nearly eight more yearsFitzgerald describes an alfresco dinner at his protagonists' villa:
Rosemary . . . had a conviction of homecoming, of a return from the derisive and salacious improvisations of the frontier. There were fireflies riding in the dark air and a dog baying on some low and far-away ledge of the cliff. The table seemed to have risen a little toward the sky like a mechanical dancing platform, giving the people around it a sense of being alone with each other in the dark universe, nourished by its only food, warmed by its only lights.... [T]he two Divers began suddenly to warm and glow and expand.... Just for a moment, they seemed to speak to everyone at the table, singly and together, assuring them of their friendliness, their affection. And for a moment the faces fumed up toward them were like the faces of poor children at a Christmas tree.
His model for that magical moment was a dinner party at the Murphys', one of many that seem to run together in the memories of those who were lucky enough to be there. What was the special quality about Gerald and Sara Murphy"the golden couple," the actress Marian Seldes called them that made this alchemy possible? It wasn't just nurturing, although their generosity and supportiveness were famous. It wasn't only inspiration, although they left their imprint, or their images, in works as diverse as Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," Dos Passos's The Big Money, MacLeish's J.B., or Tender Is the Night. It wasn't simply examplethe example of lives lived with grace and, ultimately, courage in the face of personal disaster. It wasn't, even, the transformations they effected on the character and work of those close to them.
Late in his life their friend Archibald MacLeish tried to put it into words for an interviewer who had asked him what "the special pull of the Murphys" was. "No one has ever been able quite to define it," MacLeish saidbut he came as close as anyone: "Scott tried in Tender is the Night. Dos tried in more direct terms. Ernest tried by not trying. I wrote a Sketch for a Portrait of Madame G. M., a longish poem. They escaped us all. There was a shine to life wherever they were: not a decorative added value but a kind of revelation of inherent loveliness as though custom and habit had been wiped away and the thing itself was, for an instant, seen. Don't ask me how."
"A revelation of inherent loveliness"it was a strong charm, indeed, against the confusion and ugliness of so much of their century. It enabled them to survive. More potently, it enabled those to whom they gave it to make art out of life.
What People are Saying About This
"I never dreamed I'd find someone whom the same things and words delight. You are in my inmost heart and mind and soul....We are each other."
From Everybody Was So Young
Reading Group Guide
Reader's Companion to Everybody Was So Young© 1999 by Broadway Books.
1. Gerald and Sara Murphy were surrounded by artists and writersfrom Cocteau to Dorothy Parkerwho epitomized the modernist spirit of the 1920s. Was this accidental, or purposeful?
2. "The very rich are different from you and me," Scott Fitzgerald supposedly told Ernest Hemingway, to which Hemingway (who told this anecdote) replied, "Yes, they have more money." How well does each man's statement apply to the Murphys?
3. "Only the invented part of our livesthe unreal parthas had any scheme, any beauty," wrote Gerald to Scott Fitzgerald in 1935. What parts of their lives did they "invent," and what parts were "the unrealistic things?" Do you agree with Gerald?
4. "Paris is bound to make a man either more or less American," Gerald Murphy told a newspaper interviewer in 1923. How was this statement true of Murphy, and of Cole Porter, Hemingway, MacLeish, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, and the other expatriate artists of the period? What was it about Paris that made it happen?
5. To the Murphys, their children were "the real foundation of our future happiness." How would you evaluate the Murphys' role as parents? Were they attentive and caring or narcissistic and irresponsible? In what ways did both Gerald and Sara act as surrogate parents for their own contemporaries?
6. The Murphys' marriage was severely tested by five decades, but it endured. Why? What were the pressures on it? And was their relationship truly "a love story"?
7. Sara Murphy had close relationships with at least three men besides her husband: Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Pablo Picasso. Do you believe that these relationships were sexual or platonic? On what do you base your opinion?
8. "I was never happy until I started painting," said Gerald Murphy in 1956, "and I have never been thoroughly so since I was obliged to give it up." Why was he "obliged" to give up something he loved so passionately and which he did so well? Or was his statement misleading? Also, what hidden references to events or people in his life can you find in his pictures?
9. In A Moveable Feast, his posthumous memoir of 1920s Paris, Ernest Hemingway paints a cruel picture of the Murphys as the unnamed "rich" who seduced him into superficiality and infidelity. Why would he describe them in this way?
10. Are the Murphys just a footnote, or did they contribute something substantial to twentieth-century cultural history?
11. The media have often compared the 1990s to the 1920s. Judging from the social circles described in Everybody Was So Young, do you find many similarities between these decades? Are there any contemporary couples who have the Murphys' role today?
12. Referring to Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, Sara Murphy said, "I hated the book when I first read it. I reject categorically any resemblance to ourselves or anyone we knowat any time." What differences and similarities do you see between the Murphys and Dick and Nicole Driver? Discuss the perceptions of the Murphys portrayed in Fitzgerald's short story "Babylon Revisited," Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and "Snows of Kilimanjaro," Archibald MacLeish's poem "Portrait of Mme G___M___" and his play J.B., and Pablo Picasso's "Woman in White."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Fitzgerald and Hemingway were just the tip of the Lost Generation iceberg. Sara and Gerald Murphy lived fascinating lives and were connected with the most important writers and artists of their time. This book reads like a novel without skimping on the stranger-than-fiction details.
I re-read this book after first reading The Paris Wife (about Hemingway's first marriage) and while re-reading A Moveable Feast (Hemingway's memoir about Paris in the 1920s). Everybody Was So Young is the portrait of the marriage of Sara and Gerald Murphy focusing on their life living as American expatriots in Paris in the 1920s. The Murphys were wealthy and beautiful and attracted to the artistic set living abroad. They befriended Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, and Leger to name just a few. Paris was not only less expensive but more permissive socially than the US during the 1920s and was a destination for young artists who wanted to practice their craft and live a good life. While Gerald dabbled in painting and creating theatrical backdrops, he and Sara were great and generous entertainers who set up house at Villa America in Antibes.
I loved this book enough to go have lunch with the author (who is a delight). This is a wonderful view into the lives of the expat writers during the 1920s. If you are a fan of Fitzgerald or Hemingway, this book will give you some unusual insight into their friendship, inspiration, and writing.
This book was so good. Just read it you will not be disappointed.
A valuable and enlightening picture of America expats in France at the beginning of the century. The Murphys story reads like a good novel.
Era of dysfunctional "lost generation" and then moan about unhappy endings watch the roosevelt saga on pbs t.v. and see another one but where both uncle and niece manage to raise families and contribute despite depression heredity and no great beauty