THANKS PRIMARILY to the journalistic efforts of Calvin Tomkins, the story of Gerald and Sara Murphy has acquired in recent years a certain emblematic quality. As portrayed by Tomkins in his affectionate and poignant portrait, Living Well Is the Best Revenge, the Murphys emerge as people whose lives somehow embody the turmoil, excitement and disenchantment that we now associate--whether accurately or not is another matter altogether--with the "lost" generation of the 1920s.
The Murphys were wealthy Americans, though not rich ones, who moved to the Continent in the summer of 1921 in search of "cultural nourishment," a quality they found notably lacking in their native country, where babbittry was coming into full, gaudy flower. They settled in a charming house on the Riviera that they called Villa America--they are in fact widely thought to have "discovered" the Riviera as a summer resort--and there they paid court to a steady succession of houseguests whose names still glitter: Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and his various wives, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Monty Woolley, Archibald MacLeish, Fernand L,eger, John Dos Passos. Although Gerald was a gifted painter, the Murphys were known not for their own works but for their steadfastness as friends; they created a small community in which membership was an honor that all seem to have genuinely treasured.
But there is more to their story than this. Not merely were the Murphys the best of friends and supporters, but in the privacy of their own lives they suffered shattering, irreplaceable losses. Both of their sons died, as teen-agers, from afflictions that would now be routinely cured by antibiotics; only their daughter, Honoria, lived to adulthood. The deaths of Baoth and Patrick Murphy affected their parents' many friends almost as deeply as they did the Murphys themselves, as is demonstrated by the breathtakingly beautiful and judicious letter that Fitzgerald wrote to them upon learning of Patrick's death:
"The telegram came today and the whole afternoon was sad with thoughts of you and the past and the happy times we had once. Another link binding you to life is broken and with such insensate cruelty that it is hard to say which of the two blows was conceived with more malice. I can see the silence in which you hover now after this seven years of struggle and it would take words like Lincoln's in his letter to the mother who had lost four sons in the war to write you anything fitting at the moment. The sympathy you will get will be what you have had from each other already and for a long, long time you will be inconsolable.
"But I can see another generation growing up around Honoria and an eventual peace somewhere, an occasional port of call as we sail deathward. Fate can't have any more sorrows in its quiver that will wound like these. Who was it said that it was astonishing how the deepest of griefs can change in time to a sort of joy? The golden bowl is broken indeed but it was golden; nothing can ever take those boys away from you now."
The essence of the Murphys' story, then, is not that they knew and succored the talented and famous, but that they were brought down from the pedestal of privilege by the vicious caprice of fate. They were handsome, witty, prosperous and well-connected, but none of this could shield them from suffering or loss; this is what makes them appealing to us, what gives a genuine breadth of interest and meaning to lives that might otherwise seem merely those of pampered and purposeless people who never made the acquaintance of reality. The Murphys serve as symbols for a generation that has since come to be regarded, with a certain bittersweet romanticism, as having been granted both the best and the worst that life has to offer.
As written by Calvin Tomkins, their joint biography is a miniature; this is exactly appropriate, for it takes only a few words to describe the sad events around which their small legend has been constructed. It is, to be sure, of some interest that Gerald and Sara Murphy provided the inspiration from which Fitzgerald began to construct the characters of Dick and Nicole Diver in his last complete novel, Tender Is the Night; but this is really nothing more than the raw material of elevated literary gossip and mindless academic busywork. Tomkins said all that really needed to be said, and said it handsomely.
But it is not often in human nature to let well enough alone and so we have Sara and Gerald: Villa America and After. Its co-author, Honoria Donnelly, is the Murphys' daughter and on all the evidence a person of sensitivity and discernment, and for these reasons I found myself rather badly wanting to admire this collaboration; but there is, alas, precious little in it to admire. A considerable part of the problem is of course that virtually all of the valuable material in it has already appeared in Tomkins' book and others, but there are more difficulties than that. One is the book's structure, in which Donnelly's reminiscences alternate, irregularly, with a considerably less interesting narrative by Richard N. Billings that consists primarily of interminable quotations from only marginally interesting letters; another is the shape of that narrative, which in point of fact has absolutely no shape at all; still another is the frequent repetition of material in both Donnelly's and Billings' sections, as though the right hand of the book does not have the foggiest idea what the left hand is up to.
Donnelly's memories are mainly those of someone who was a child when the most interesting events under discussion took place, with the result that some of her stories have the quality of the "negligible literary anecdotes" invented by the editors of Harper's magazine: "Once, while quite tipsy, (Dorothy Parker) insisted on helping me clean my bird cages. When I handed her one, she dropped it. I was afraid all my canaries would escape, but they just fluttered a bit. She apologized, and that was that." Others are somewhat more useful; she tells us more than Tomkins did about the Murphys' finances, she depicts Hemingway in moments of uncharacteristic kindness as he visited young Patrick during his final illness, she recounts an unpleasant but rather fascinating controversy between Sara Murphy and her sister, Hoytie. But any suggestion that any of this has any importance should be stoutly resisted.
There is, however, one brief moment at the end of the book that rewards the labor of reaching it. Honoria Donnelly recalls the birth in 1953 of her own second son and remembers: "The minute I heard he was a boy, I thought to myself, my goodness, we may have replaced what was lost. I remembered what Scott Fitzgerald had written following Patrick's death about 'another generation growing up around Honoria.' " This is true, and apt, and it brings the story of Gerald and Sara Murphy full circle.