“Once upon a time there was a prince and a princess … that’s exactly how a description of the Murphys should begin.”1 Thus wrote Donald Ogden Stewart in his autobiography, some fifty years after first meeting Sara and Gerald Murphy, friends to scores of the twentieth century’s leading artists, writers, and composers. Although there was definitely something special about this couple, no one could quite put a finger on what it was. They were full of wit, originality, and elegance and took great joy in entertaining and making a beautiful life for their family and friends. Of their home in Antibes, the art critic Calvin Tomkins wrote:
The beauty of their fragrant garden, looking out over the water toward Cannes and the mountains beyond; the records from Gerald’s encyclopedic collection (everything from Bach to the latest jazz); the delicious food that always seem to appear—exquisitely prepared and served—at the precise moment and under the precise circumstances needed to bring out its best qualities (Provençal dishes, for the most part, with vegetables and fruits from the Murphys’ garden, though there was often a typically American dish, such as poached eggs on a bed of creamed corn); the passionate attention to every detail of (their) guests’ pleasure that gave (them) such obvious pleasure. …2
Sara Sherman Wiborg (her great-uncle was William Tecumseh Sherman) was born in 1883 in Cincinnati, Ohio, into a wealthy family that had made its money in high-quality lithographer’s ink (Toulouse-Lautrec used Ault and Wiborg inks for his prints). Gerald Murphy, nearly five years Sara’s junior, was born in Boston in 1888. His father had worked his way up in the Mark Cross Company, maker of fine leather goods, and eventually purchased the business. Sara and Gerald met at a party on Long Island, where the Wiborgs had a six-hundred-acre estate. They married in 1915 and produced three children: Honoria, Baoth, and Patrick.
Feeling stifled by the normalcy of their lives, the Murphys soon decided to move abroad, part of the growing wave of Americans who flocked to Paris in the early 1920s. When they first arrived in the fall of 1921, six thousand Americans were living in Paris; within three years there were five times as many.3 Paris, after all, was the place to be. Expats could enjoy Comte Etienne de Beaumont’s extravagant parties, Stravinsky’s groundbreaking ballets, and controversial Dada happenings performed by the likes of Tristan Tzara and André Breton. It was a time of excitement and incredible contemporaneity—quite the opposite of life in the United States at that time.
Gerald Murphy (1888–1964), Cocktail, 1927. Oil on canvas, 29 1/6; × 29 7/8; in.
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from Evelyn and Leonard A Lauder, Thomas H. Lee and the modern painting and sculpture committee (95.188). © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly/licensed by Vaga, New York, NY
The Murphys seem to have known everyone who was anyone: Igor Stravinsky, Jean Cocteau, Serge Diaghilev, Fernand Léger, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, and Archibald MacLeish, among others. They attended performances of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and took art lessons from Natalia Goncharova. Gerald was an accomplished artist in his own right, who exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants beginning in 1923. He painted for only a few years, however, and only seven of his fourteen paintings survive.
In the summer of 1922, Cole Porter, Gerald’s close friend from Yale, and his wife, Linda, invited the Murphys to go south to Antibes. At that time the Côte d’Azur was not the attraction it is today, and no one even considered staying there for the summer. The Murphys were the first to recognize the region’s potential. They convinced the owner of the Hôtel du Cap to remain open during the summer of 1923, and the small beach they frequented, La Garoupe, became a gathering place for friends, including the Picassos, the Hemingways, the Fitzgeralds, the de Beaumonts, and the Philip Barrys. Countless photographs show picnics on the beach with Picasso and what the group called the Mad Beach Party, for which everyone had to wildly embellish their swimsuits.
The Murphys were so fond of Antibes that they renovated a house overlooking the water and mountains, a magical place they called Villa America. The children had their own vegetable gardens where they could plant anything they wanted. Sara wrote to her father’s assistant requesting packets of seed for sweet corn (in France corn was considered fodder for cows). In addition to olive trees that produced an annual harvest, Villa America also had a fragrant citrus orchard.
Gerald Murphy’s recipe for the “Juice of a Few Flowers,” his signature drink, and his recipe for a Manhattan. 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. Photo by Miranda Routh.
Dinners on the flagged terrace beneath the giant linden tree were a regular event. The Murphys preferred intimate dinner parties for eight to ten people, which they called simply Dinner-Flowers-Gala. The night would begin with Gerald’s famous cocktails on the terrace. Ritually prepared, the cocktails consisted of what Gerald called “just the juice of a few flowers.” Philip Barry once told Gerald that when he mixed drinks he looked like a priest saying Mass. Guests were offered two cocktails and no more before dinner. During the cocktail hour the children entertained the guests by dancing and singing. Once they went to bed, dinner would be served under the stars.
The 1920s were, of course, the era of the cocktail, yet Gerald’s drinks were legendary by any measure. He made all the standards—manhattans (both dry and sweet), side cars, whiskey sours, martinis (dry), white ladies, and others he invented himself. In a letter to Alexander Woollcott, Gerald listed the ingredients for what he called a Bailey, a cocktail that was “invented by me as were a great many other good things.”4 It consisted of gin (Booth’s House of Lords), grapefruit juice, fresh lime juice, fresh mint, and ice (“a great deal”).
In 1927 Gerald painted Cocktail, an appropriate picture for a man who had elevated the art of making drinks to a near-religious experience. Against a grisaille background sits an open box of cigars, a cocktail shaker, a glass with cherry, a cut lemon, and a corkscrew. Rendered in almost photographic detail, the lid of the cigar box alone took Gerald four painstaking months to paint. Although he later said that Cocktail was not a nostalgic recollection of his father’s bar tray, the tray may have been his starting point. “As a boy I was apparently impressed by the assembly of the various objects which were usually standing in evident juxtaposition,” he recalled.5
Gerald kept a notebook in which he recorded ideas for his paintings, including his thoughts about a new still life: “Nature morte cocktail tray shaker glasses stemmed cherries inside lemon knife corkscrew [with a squiggly line underneath—either for emphasis or a visual reminder for how it should look in the finished picture] plate bottle red white black gray (cut by lemon yellow?).” Whenever he finished a picture, he would place a large check over the entry to indicate its completion.
The Murphys’ social life was impressive. Many of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s legendary drunken outbursts occurred in their presence, perhaps the most famous being the time he launched several of Sara’s exquisite Venetian wineglasses over the garden wall before Gerald could stop him. This incident inspired the famous dinner party in Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, where the main characters, Dick and Nicole Diver, were modeled on Gerald and Sara (as well as on Scott and Zelda).
Perhaps the richest stories involve the Hemingways. In Pamplona with Ernest and Pauline, Gerald and Sara “drank the very dry sherry and ate roasted almonds and every time we sat down anywhere we would be surrounded by Spaniards who shot wine into Ernest’s mouth from their wineskins.”6 Skiing with the Hemingways and the Dos Passoses in Schruns, Austria, they ate Forellen blau and drank kirsch.
In 1929 the Murphys were devastated by little Patrick’s diagnosis of tuberculosis. Retreating to a health resort in the Swiss Alps, the family tried to keep a positive attitude, going so far as to renovate a house in the village of Montana-Vermala, which they called Harry’s Bar after the famous bar at the Paris Ritz. It was here that the writer Dorothy Parker and humorist Robert Benchley and other close Murphy friends would gather to listen to music and dance. On a number of occasions, Parker and Benchley sat at the bar late into the night, drinking “hair of the dog” before parading loudly through the streets.
In 1932, back in the States, the Murphys visited the Hemingways at a ranch in Montana. Although Pauline treated them to some of her best nibbles, Gerald balked at the ranch food: the game and fish were floured and fried, then packed in Mason jars to steam for three hours. Not at all a Murphy kind of menu! Pauline did, however, contribute a recipe (Peppers Pauline) to the Murphys’ collection, a collection that also includes recipes from other beloved friends: Liver Lillian (Hellman); Katy Dos Passos’s “Moustache” Sandwiches (“they are peppery and delicious”); and Bob Benchley’s favorite hors d’oeuvre, coleslaw topped with smoked salmon and caviar.
We also have Gerald’s recipes, copied out in his neat handwriting, and Sara’s menu books, which she artfully covered in clippings from magazines. They often wrote out the menus for their meals, as they did for a lunch in honor of the writer Edmund Wilson, which featured a porcelain tile with the menu written on it at each place setting. The Murphys’ recipes offer many clues to the creativity with which they lived. An almost dessert-like “astronaut’s” breakfast consisted of a “dish of orange sherbet, 4 oz syrupy strawberries, 2 sugar cookies, and a pint of skim milk, designed to keep the butterflies out of the stomach and gas out of the intestines.” Sara’s Never Keep a Soufflé Waiting! and Gerald’s Mysterious Noodles (“fettucine con multo burro”) were also family favorites.
Even in their old age, when the Murphys were living in Sneden’s Landing, New York, on the banks of the Hudson, they continued to entertain in style. Calvin Tomkins recalls them saying that you must always look up into the trees when you sip champagne. Through their ability to surround themselves with beautiful things and to entertain with style and grace, the Murphys knew how to turn life into art—or perhaps their true gift was to turn art into life.
Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy, an exhibition devoted to the Murphys and their circle of friends, will open at the Williams College Museum of Art July 8 and run through November 11, 2007. It will then travel to the Yale University Art Gallery February 26 to May 4, 2008, and the Dallas Museum of Art June 8 to September 15, 2008. All of Gerald Murphy’s extant paintings, as well as countless photographs and collateral material, will be exhibited. A fully illustrated catalog will be available from the University of California Press.
I would like to thank Deborah Rothschild for her guidance on this article.