Theirs Was An “Act of Creation”
It is difficult to imagine summer, even this very unsettling one in the year, 2010, without remembering another of long ago when the consummate Golden Couple, Sara and Gerald Murphy, reigned, embracing the very embodiment of the season itself.
While both frolicked in their youth on the shores of the Hamptons, it was their arrival at Antibes, in the south of France, during the Summer of 1923, that christened the dawn of a new era. Their very appearance on the French Riviera that summer, she sunbathing in her signature pearls cascading down to the small of her back (she explained, they wanted sunning), and, he, meticulously clothed and accessorized in sartorial perfection, fueled the same renaissance in arts and letters as did the excitement of Paris, especially among the cafés of Montparnasse.
Gerald and his beloved Sara, considered one of the great American beauties of her generation, were icons of the most enchanted 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. Her magnetic hospitality, along with her spontaneity and adventurous spirit, and his fun-loving antics, humor and warm regard, drew people to them for life.
The Murphys hosted the Picassos and just about everyone else who counted in adventurous art and literature in those heady days of abandon, including Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Man Ray, Fernand Léger, Jean Cocteau, Archibald MacLeish, John O’Hara, Cole Porter, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley.
The Murphys claim on the French Riviera was immediate and, one might conclude, revolutionary. In the 1920’s if one were to walk the sands of that famed stretch of beach in summer, their gaze would have been met with shuttered hotels, boarded residences and empty, desolate beaches as the fashionable and famous thought only to winter there, in the south of France. The mere idea of spending the high summer months along the wind swept sands of the Mediterranean was simply unimaginable.
Enter the Murphys in the summer of 1923. In a stroke of sheer genius and social virtuosity, they convinced the famed Hotel du Cap to do what had never been done — remain open for the summer season so they might sensibly entertain their friends, hence, sparking a new era for the French Riviera as a summer haven. Imagine.
Three years later, the couple purchased a villa in Cap d’Antibes and named it Villa America, residing there with their three children for many memorable years to come, all the while hosting many unforgettable parties to follow. So stylishly de rigueur and trend setting were the pair, they were the first to introduce the outlandish idea of sun bathing, swimming and cavorting on the beach of the Riviera.
The notion of the beach as being a place simply to sun was unthinkable to the highly refined French and the Europeans who vacationed there. The Murphys, with their long forays and picnics at La Garoupe, were so consumed with fun, frivolity and friends, that inhibited spectators on either side of the merrymaking marauders soon took notice, adopting the practice as their very own. In no time, the new art of sunbathing on the previously restricted beach, became the epitome of fashionable chic, making its way into the most prominent of circles.
In those glorious days on the beach at Antibes, it was the Murphys’ friend Scott Fitzgerald who described the couple best:
“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 taking 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.”
As history would, in time, reveal, 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 breakdown brought on by incest, and the man with the rake ends up losing his wife, his position, everything he most cares about. Things not known to have happened to Gerald and Sara Murphy, but to the tragic Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Art imitating life, many would say.
Yet the magic of that golden couple prevails to this day. Just as the Murphys served as symbols of the great theme of the Lost Generation in literature, with Fitzgerald modeling the fictionalized world of Dick and Nicole Diver after them, so, too, did their idealized images sear the imagination in photography with this iconic photograph taken by George Hoyningen-Hueve in 1930, posing his assistant, Horst P. Horst and a model, mistaken by many over the years to be the Murphys themselves.
Fittingly, some may say, the photographer, Hoyningen-Heuve, whimsically entitled the photo, “The Divers.”
Gerald and Sara Murphy on La Garoupe beach, Antibes, 1926.
Gerald and Sara Murphy dancing on the beach of East Hampton, 1915.
Excerpt: Everybody Was So Young, Amanda Vaill, Houghton Mifflin
Divers (Horst with Model, Paris), George Hoyningen-Huene, 1930