ERNEST HEMINGWAY taught her to ski and to clean fish and not to wear high heels while bowling. Dorothy Parker showed her how to tipple tequila and lime. Picasso provided art criticism, Man Ray a girlhood portrait and Monty Woolley a knee to sit on. Cole Porter added the music and F. Scott Fitzgerald the magic.
"My whole childhood was filled with adventure," says Honoria Murphy Donnelly, daughter of Gerald and Sara Murphy, one of the most glamorous, globe-trotting couples ever to grace American life and literature. The Murphys were the models for Dick and Nicole Diver in Fitzgerald's "Tender Is the Night," and the subjects of Calvin Tompkins' "Living Well Is the Best Revenge" and now of Donnelly's new memoir, "Sara & Gerald: Villa America and After."
A silver-haired, sapphire-eyed woman of 65, Honoria Donnelly is living simply but well in McLean with her husband, William, a former speechwriter and aide to Stewart Udall. Together, the Donnellys spent 10 years culling the memories of old friends, rooting through cartons of letters and sepia-toned photographs to produce the biography, which details Gerald and Sara Murphy's lives as American expatriates in France, their friendships with a flotilla of the famous and their eventual return to this country. Already, the work--written with the help of Richard N. Billings--has been praised by Publishers Weekly as "a moving book in every sense" and been selected by PBS for a three-part mini-series to be shown next year.
"I came to realize there was more to be said," Donnelly says, pouring a cranberry juice cocktail into an old-fashioned glass etched with Living Well Is The Best Revenge. "Scottie gave me these," she laughs, holding up the glass. Scottie is her close friend Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, daughter of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
The furniture in the living room is pulled close to the fire. On the walls are portraits, paintings and priceless mementos of the Murphys' quicksilver life between the two wars; on the kitchen counter, paper-thin slices of smoked meats and cheese, thick slabs of chocolate cake and pears that might have been polished with paste wax; underfoot, a black bear rug, its shaggy, tangled fur matted by time. "Hemingway shot that," she says matter-of-factly.
Was it a frightening task to investigate the past?
"I'm still convinced her mother had an affair with Hemingway," Bill Donnelly says.
"I don't think they did," Honoria says.
"Are you kidding?" Bill cries. "Six days on a boat alone with Hemingway? Deep sea fishing? Wasn't it Hemingway who said, 'I can't go to bed alone'?"
Honoria Donnelly wears a tiny frown. "There was really nothing I was afraid of finding out. We really didn't get any surprises."
"What about your grandfather?" Bill Donnelly interjects.
"Oh yes. I did get a surprise," she laughs. "I found out my grandfather was enamored of his secretary."
They also found out that Gerald and Sara Murphy may have spent more money than they had. "They were the worst hedonists in the world," says Bill Donnelly, who has contributed an affectionate forward to the memoir. "All they did was take care of themselves."
Honoria Donnelly agrees. "My father believed in spending money."
Gerald and Sara Murphy married in 1915. She was a strikingly beautiful New York debutante, he was the dapper son of the founder of Mark Cross, the leather goods store. After a year's graduate study in landscape architecture at Harvard, Gerald sailed for Europe in 1921 with Sara and their three children, Honoria, Baoth and Patrick. For the next seven years, they lived in England, and then France. In 1925, they took up residence in their "Villa America" in Antibes, France, and are credited with single-handedly turning the Riviera into a chic summer resort.
During the 1920s, Europe was a magnet for many young bohemian Americans seeking stylish living and artistic freedom. The Murphys, who treated life as one long, elegant buffet, became the centerpiece of a now-legendary salon, entertaining the Ernest Hemingways, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, John and Katy Dos Passos, Pablo Picasso, the Archibald MacLeishes, Cole Porter, Robert Benchley, Dottie Parker and Lillian Hellman, Ellen and Philip Barry, Fernand Le'ger and Rudolph Valentino.
"People were in and out of the house so much. I was never conscious of their being in the limelight," Honoria Donnelly recalls. "Possibly the great thing about all their friends is that they were all interested in having a good time."
They were also taken with the Murphy children. Hemingway called Honoria "Daughter." "He was a father figure in a way to me," she recalls. "And Scott and Zelda were wonderful. They really brought magic into my childhood. You felt as though they really cared. They really liked us. I can remember waiting for the Fitzgeralds to come to dinner. I couldn't wait to see what Zelda was wearing. Her hair was cropped short and she wore salmon pink dresses with pink peonies pinned to the shoulder. Scott was quiet, but he always took time to ask questions."
Donnelly recalls Fitzgerald sitting in her room, grilling her on everything. "He'd ask questions like, 'Why do you like the color red so?' "
Sara Murphy often became irritated with Fitzgerald's inquisitive nature, not to mention his habit of smashing wine glasses, but her daughter never did. "I loved it," she says.
She also loved it when Picasso critiqued her earliest drawings. "Once, I drew an outline of a cow. My father said I should close up the head, but Picasso said, 'I adore the way she has left the top of the head open. One must not touch.' "
As a teen-ager, Honoria Donnelly would visit Hemingway at his house in Key West. "We went there to swim every day," she says. "He would come down from his writing room and talk to me by the pool. One day he said, 'Have you read any of my stories?' I felt awful, but I said I hadn't. I suppose I wasn't interested in reading much. He looked so crestfallen, so disappointed. He said, 'Wait here.' He went up to his room and got a copy of 'The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber' and gave it to me to read. He said it was his favorite short story."
A few years later, when the family moved back to New York, she recalls being depressed one evening. "I can't remember why," she says. "But John Dos Passos was visiting us. That night, he stayed up for hours making a card for me, pasting little hearts and angels on paper. Mother said he worked at the dining room table and that there was a lot of 'heavy breathing.' She said it took him two hours. The next morning I found it at my place at the breakfast table. He did it to cheer me up."
Although the Murphys generally were thought to have enormous wealth, their son-in-law disputes this, saying their lifestyle had more to do with imagination than money.
"It was class," Bill Donnelly says. "K-L-A-S."
"Le'ger was broke," Honoria Donnelly says. "So was Hemingway. The only one who had any money was Archibald MacLeish, who had $25,000. He lived on that for five years."
The reason for her parents' popularity was simple. "I think they were a comfortable unit. Comforting to their friends when they were discouraged," Honoria Donnelly says. "Mother was warm and friendly and direct. Father was reserved and very funny. It was an exchange of minds."
Because the Murphys were amateurs--they didn't do anything--Honoria Donnelly is hard pressed to think of a modern-day equivalent of her parents.
"There's no time for reverie anymore," she sighs.
"The Prince and Grace?" Bill offers.
"No, they were royalty," Honoria says.
Oscar and Franc,oise de la Renta would be close, Honoria says, but he's a dress designer.
"Helen Hayes always called my parents 'the chosen few,' " Honoria says.
But the Murphys were not immune to tragedy. In 1929, their youngest child, Patrick, was diagnosed as having tuberculosis, and Gerald Murphy, who had begun a promising career as a painter, suddenly stopped painting. In 1935, at the age of 16, their older son, Baoth, died suddenly of spinal meningitis. Two years later, at the age of 16, Patrick died.
Honoria Donnelly, the oldest of the three, was a teen-ager when her brothers died. It is clear that the family never quite recovered. "I thought to myself, 'Why the two of them?' " Honoria Donnelly says, holding back tears. "I had thoughts that I might be the next."
Honoria eventually went on to boarding school, married and had three children. Her mother died in 1975. Yes, she says, the shadow of Sara Murphy is over her.
"Every once in a while I feel like I'd like to live up to my mother's style of entertaining. It's beginning to be a lot to live up to."
Honoria Donnelly did inherit her mother's fragile beauty and warm sense of humor, if not her grand style of entertaining.
"I'm called 'Understated,' " she laughs. "I have a love of housekeeping. Good food. My husband and children."
Living well is the best revenge, but not the way most people think.
"I think that phrase has been misinterpreted," she says. "He Gerald didn't mean it the way people now interpret it. It was the inventive part. If you live well, getting the best things, then it can make up for bad things that happen to you. It has nothing to do with money. It means warm friendships, good food, music."
Gerald Murphy, who died in 1964, "loved that saying. He liked it when he was his most bitter. He said, 'That's the only way you can stand what's happened to you.' "
Honoria Donnelly takes a scrapbook in her lap and sighs. The pictures are faded, but the personalities are captured forever in a time capsule of her golden childhood. Picasso on the beach, wearing a Stetson. Hemingway holding her hand. The Fitzgeralds. Robert Benchley toweling off after a swim.
"My father always told me to get out, to go to museums, to see plays. 'You'll be a more interesting parent,' he said. But I suppose I had such a saturation. I prefer to be quiet. It's strange. Maybe it's because I had it all. I want to rest now."