Books: Beautiful dreamers

Euan Cameron meets golden Americans who came to grief
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Everybody Was So Young

by Amanda Vaill

Little, Brown, pounds 22.50

Just when you might think that there could be nothing further to be said about the "lost generation" - Gertrude Stein's mot for that once glittering world of American expatriate writers and artists who made Paris and the Midi their own in the 1920s - along comes a biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy to revive our interest. They were the models for Dick and Nicole Diver in Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, around whom so many of the golden boys and girls clustered.

Sara, with her "Viking Madonna face", in Fitzgerald's epithet, came from a family of 19th-century Cincinnati social climbers who went on to acquire wealth and property in New York and East Hampton. Gerald, a dilettante artist with a disturbing taste for dressing up, and "a very brilliant and complicated man", according to Lillian Hellman, was of Bostonian Irish immigrant stock. At Yale, he was a stickler for social protocol and good form, a dandy who was socially at ease with mothers while being attentive to their daughters.

After an agonisingly slow courtship, Gerald and Sara were married, and in 1921 they escaped from their stifling and restricted social background to the vibrant Paris of the 1920s, the city of Cocteau, Stravinsky and "Les Six", of Andre Breton, Surrealism and the Dadaists. Cosmopolitan, wealthy and ultra-sophisticated, they lost little time in making their way among the artistic beau monde. Before long they were helping Natalia Goncharova paint sets for the Ballets Russes, executing designs by Picasso, Braque and Derain, and Gerald was exhibiting at the Salon des Independents. Their life had begun.

That summer, the Murphys moved south to Cap d'Antibes, where they lazed and frolicked with Picasso and his current wife, Olga. Gerald was fascinated by Picasso's "sense of the grotesque"; the artist was even more intrigued by Sara's beauty and her unconventional attitudes. He painted her (she was the model for his The Woman in White), sketched her naked with her "rope of pearls", and may have had an affair with her.

In the winter of 1923/24, the new wave of dollar-rich Americans that flocked to France included Ernest Hemingway, Archibald MacLeish, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, all of whom came to the Villa America, the home the Murphys had redesigned for themselves in seven acres of the hills above Golfe-Juan. There they created their charmed world. On the terrace their guests dined by candlelight beneath the linden tree, their cares dispelled, "the women in their beaded dresses and the men in their dinner jackets, with everyone so young and merry and clever". "No one ever makes things in America with that vast, magnificent, cynical disillusion with which Gerald and Sara make things like their parties," wrote Scott Fitzgerald in 1925.

A somewhat coarser element was introduced by Ernest Hemingway, who arrived with his wife, Hadley, and who, like Fitzgerald, soon became attracted to Sara. Gerald's exotic and ambivalent sexual nature puzzled a man like Hemingway, obsessed with his own maleness, and the novelist's resentment of his host and benefactor is expressed in his portrayal of Gerald as Robert Cohn in The Sun also Rises. Years later, Hemingway would treat the Murphys shabbily and dishonourably in his allusions to them in A Moveable Feast.

The Murphys inhabited two worlds: the real one, from which they had fled, and an imaginary one amid the gaiety and elegance of the Villa America. In the South of France they were the perfect hosts: affectionate, witty, hospitable and generous to a degree. They offered hospitality, money and encouragement not just to the troublesome Hemingways and Fitzgeralds, but to friends as various as Fernand Leger and Mrs Patrick Campbell. Above all, they were life-enhancers. They had the rare gift of helping those they befriended develop an elevated sense of their own worth; they made them feel special.

But such paradises have their reverse sides. When Nemesis struck, she did so with cruel vengeance: the Murphys' son, Patrick, was diagnosed as having tuberculosis and Gerald and Sara were obliged to move to Switzerland for the boy's health. In 1929 came the Wall Street crash and the Murphys moved back to America. When their other son, Baoth, died of spinal meningitis even their own devotion to each other seemed to cool, and with Patrick's death in 1937 their fortunes reached a nadir. "The golden bowl is broken indeed," wrote Scott Fitzgerald to the inconsolable Sara, "but it was golden: nothing can ever take those boys away from you now."

Amanda Vaill draws a convincing picture of this minor American tragedy and the world of urbane sophistication in which it was enacted. It could be argued that the Murphys do not quite merit such elaborate treatment; but she is psychologically acute and sensitive in her reconstruction of the age, and she writes beautifully.