Books: Beautiful dreamers

Euan Cameron meets golden Americans who came to grief

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.

News
Alex Salmond said he accepted 'the democratic verdict of the people'
newsSNP leader says Scotland must move forward as 'one nation'
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
footballToure's lack of defensive work is big problem for City
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

    Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

    Email Designer

    £30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

    Psychology Teacher

    £110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

    Food Technology Teacher

    £85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week