Al fresco dinners overlooking the ocean towards Cannes, fantastical art soirees in Paris and a true joie de vivre made Gerald and Sara Murphy the hosts with the most in 1920’s France. Their incandescent sensibility as a couple inspired works by the most prolific authors and artists of their time, while their entertaining prowess transformed the way the French Riviera summered. This is a tale of an American expatriate twosome who The New Yorker coined “masters in the art of living.” Welcome to the wonderful world of the Murphys!
GIRL MEETS BOY
Sara Wiborg enjoyed an idyllic upbringing singing classic opera with her sisters, becoming fluent in French, Italian and German and frolicking on the beaches of East Hampton. Her family home, the Dunes, was a 30-room mansion complete with an operating dairy, Italianate gardens, flagstone terraces and stables. The Dunes would set the stage for the meeting of Sara and Gerald, a 16-year-old boy 4 years her junior, at a splashy party in 1904.
Gerald’s father pioneered the first wrist watch, introduced the Thermos bottle to America and turned Mark Cross, a humble leather goods supplier, into an elegant 5th Avenue destination. While Gerald didn’t care to share this business ingenuity with his father, he did inherit his sense of style and was voted best-dressed man in his 1911 class at Yale.
Gerald the clotheshorse would tie the knot with Sara, the warm and very direct socialite, 11 years after their meeting at the Dunes. The Murphy marriage was one of wonderful contentedness, admired by their friends and inspiring the characters of Nicole and Dick Diver in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night.” Their Bohemian bond allowed them to blossom individually and both felt as though Boston was a stifling place for their creative pursuits. In 1921, with their three young children in tow, they set sail for Europe and didn’t look back.
Thanks to a highly favorable exchange rate for Americans, Sara and Gerald arrived in the City of Light and became unpaid apprentices to Serge Diaghilev at the Ballets Russes. Ballet Russes was the epicenter of the modern arts movement and where the duo met most of their European friends, all of whom had favorable impressions of the Murphys.
Their memorable debut as party hosts was a famous 1923 bash to celebrate the première of Stravinsky’s ballet Les Noces. It was held on the Seine in a barge in front of the Chambre des Députés with the who’s who of the modern movement onboard. The party lacked flowers, as they were not sold in Paris on Sundays, so the Murphys purchased a boatload of toys from a local bazaar and arranged them down the middle of the long banquet table. It is said that Picasso was entranced by the décor! The champagne dinner was legendary, filled with music, convivial conversation and performances by ballerinas. While Gerald and Sara were enchanting their new amis, they, in turn, were being influenced by these modern thinkers and artists.
THE ARTIST MOVEMENT
On a winter day in Paris, the couple wandered into the Rosenberg Gallery and Gerald was immediately taken by Picasso and Braque works which he was seeing for the first time. He turned to Sara and remarked “if that’s painting, it’s what I want to do.” Gerald began his only formal training by taking art classes from Natalia Goncharova. Accompanied by Sara, they would go to Natalia’s home and he would learn techniques attributed to the Precisionist, Cubist and Pop Art movements. Gerald Murphy would produce 8 prominent paintings from 1921-29 in the Realism and Abstraction genres. A single painting would take months to complete due to his meticulous attention to detail of objects like a wasp or pear. He exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1923 and 2 of his most notable works are currently in the Dallas Museum’s permanent collection. While Gerald was busy painting, Sara was enjoying being painted.
Mrs. Murphy became a muse for Picasso in 1923 and was the subject of many of his works including Woman in White. She wore pearls over her shoulders at the beach, explaining that it was good for them and Picasso took note. Her signature pearls can be seen in some of his classical representations of women during this time. The Murphys’ sun-splashed life on the French Riviera was also captured by friend and photographer Man Ray.
SWEET SUMMER TIME
Gerald and Sara set up camp in Cap d’Antibes and purchased a humble home they named Villa America. The villa was unpretentious but the garden was exquisite. The previous owner had grown exotic choices such as lemon, date and olive trees that paired nicely with Arabian maples, pepper and fig trees. They would break bread under a large silver linden tree surrounded by camellia, tulip and rose bordered gravel paths. It wasn’t long before their friends like Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker and Cole Porter would come to visit.
The couple is credited for single-handedly making the French Riviera a summer destination. In 1923, they convinced the Hotel du Cap to stay open during the summer months so they could entertain their globe-trotting pals. Sara introduced their set to “sunbathing” and made it an acceptable form of leisure hosting picnics and relaxing on the shore before a late afternoon swim at Eden Roc. Provençal and traditional American fare kept guests satiated while they overlooked the coast from the Villa America garden. The Murphys kept three boats; a small looper dubbed Picaflor, Honoria a larger vessel named after their daughter, and a 100-foot schooner called the Weatherbird after a Louis Armstrong record. I found many pictures of Gerald sailing the seas on the Picaflor in little more than a hat but thought best not to include them here!
The spirit of the U.S.A. was kept alive with the expatriates always reading the latest American books and playing the most current jazz records in the villa. They made sure to have the newest American gadgets, such as the waffle maker, shipped to them much to the delight of their young children and European friends. These little touches were examples of how while guests were not entertained lavishly with big parties, the intimate setting they were welcomed into would charm them greatly. Their daughter Honoria remembered them as “a comfortable unit. Comforting to their friends when they were discouraged. Mother was warm and friendly and direct. Father was reserved and very funny. It was an exchange of minds.” The Murphys’ legacy will always be the original, beautiful life they created for themselves and their friends.
In 1934, one of their sons fell very ill and the Murphys came back to the Hamptons. Shortly after returning Stateside, both of their sons passed away of meningitis and tuberculosis, respectively. Gerald became president of Mark Cross in Manhattan out of necessity and was relieved to retire in 1956. Sara’s family home the Dunes became too expensive and vast to upkeep and they wound up demolishing it in 1941 when they couldn’t find a buyer. Sara and Gerald converted the dairy barn into Swan Cove where they would live for the rest of their days.
Interested in more things Murphy?
Head to Mrs. Blanding’s blog to see the Pink House, the original servants’ quarters of the Dunes property, owned and enjoyed by daughter Honoria’s children until 2010.
Add this book, a portrait of Sara and Gerald’s legendary life written by Honoria Murphy Donnelly, and this volume about their love story penned by family friend Amanda Vaill, to your summer reading list.