What is an elegant life for an age of great change?



"Living well is the best revenge" is the title of a book by Calvin Tomkins, an art writer described as "the most entertaining writer on contemporary art" .


It is a biography, based on interviews, of the lives of Gerald Murphy and his wife, Sailor, Americans who lived in France in the 1920s, entertained friends with great hospitality, and developed friendships with artists such as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, Léger, and Cole Porter. 


In this book, author John Dos Passos writes, "Everyone was at their best when they were with the Murphys," and they were loved by all as "masters of the art of living " .

 For example, there was an episode where they held a party in Paris to celebrate the premiere of Stravinsky's "The Marriage" by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

The two men, who had always been supporters of Diaghilev, rented a restaurant in a converted barge on the banks of the Seine to celebrate the opening in a big way for the people involved.


Realizing at the last minute that the party was on a Sunday and they could not buy fresh flowers, they went to the bazaar and bought a lot of toys - fire trucks, cars, animals, dolls, clowns - and piled them up in pyramids on a long table. We piled them up in pyramids on a long table to decorate the dining table. It is said that Picasso was the most elated by this staging.


Tomkins concludes the party by saying, "No one got drunk. No one got drunk, no one left before dawn, and no one forgot the party.


Or the couple's discovery of the Riviera coast (Côte d'Azur).


It's hard to imagine now, but Cape Antibes on the Riviera Coast was a warm winter retreat at the time, and in the hot summer months it was empty and the hotels were closed.


The couple loved the quiet beach, and convinced the owner of a small hotel to allow them to stay open during the summer months to entertain friends.


The couple spent long afternoons picnicking on the beach with family and friends, which was revolutionary at a time when it was not common to spend time on the beach to soak up the sun.





Gerald & Sarah Murphy on the beach at Antibes, 1923
Wikimedia Commons
Gerald was the first person to discover and wear the border shirt.
There's a famous picture of Picasso wearing this shirt.
There is no doubt that he was influenced by Gerald.


Tomkins describes the happy times of a couple who were not afraid to be different, who lived in their own style, and who were passionate about entertaining their friends. What is most impressive, however, is the elegance with which they continued to live, even during the hardest days of their lives.

 In the fall of 1929, Patrick, the youngest of their three children, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The Murphys immediately left their home on the Riviera and moved to a sanatorium village in Switzerland, where they lived with their family for the next 18 months.


During this long ordeal, the Murphys devised all sorts of fun ways to keep themselves and Patrick's spirits up.


They rented out a chalet near the hospital and decorated it according to their own taste, bought and renovated a dance hall in the village, and invited a band from Munich to play there every weekend. Many of their friends stayed with them.


One of them recalled, "Nothing in their lives was better than that fight for Patrick. They were not only the liveliest, most charming, most caring people - they were the bravest when the roof of their dream house came crashing down on their beautiful living room.


The Murphys returned to the U.S. in 1933; their older son, Bayos, died suddenly in 1935, and they lost Patrick in 1937.


Gerald took over the family business and spent 22 years rebuilding it into the leather brand that it is today, Mark Cross. In a letter to a friend, Gerard said that he took on the job out of a sense of responsibility and that he did not like the job.


Tomkins writes: There is a wry Spanish proverb that Gerald Murphy once found. "Living well is the best revenge" . After leaving Europe, the Murphys continued to live as gracefully as their somewhat deteriorating circumstances would allow.


A final twist awaits us.


It is written in passing that Gerald Murphy learned to paint in Paris, exhibited at the Independents, and stopped painting when Patrick became ill, but suddenly, in the last chapter, Gerald's achievements as an important contemporary painter are explained with episodes from each of the 15 works. 


One of his works was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York after being rediscovered by the director of the Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art in 1960, and when Gerald died in 1964, it was displayed alongside paintings by Léger and Picasso. A retrospective of his work was held at the museum in 1974, and his paintings received great acclaim posthumously.


"For Murphy, living well was not revenge enough. As he once told a friend, he was not happy before he started painting, and he was never happy again after he stopped painting," Tomkins concluded.


Gerald wanted to continue painting and complete his work, but he had to give it up due to various reasons, such as the serious illness of his child and the rebuilding of the family business. He was only happy while he was painting (from 1921 to 1929), so he was not completely happy. Although he had to give up painting, a creative act that liberated his true self, the experience certainly gave him a sense of freedom and strengthened his elegant life.


Moreover, because of his elegant life, his work was reevaluated in his later years, and a chance encounter (Tomkins followed his young daughters into the neighbor's garden and found Gerard pruning the roses) led to the writing of his biography, inspiring readers a hundred years later. The result was "revenge enough", wasn't it?


As I close the book, I am left with a long-lasting feeling of a mixture of excitement and relief that their elegant lives were able to avenge their harsh lives.


It has been more than 20 years since I first read this book, but I keep coming back to it and imagining the life and lifestyle of the Murphys and wondering how I could live like them.


It's true that they were wealthy. However, Tomkins wrote, "While Scott and Zelda (Fitzgerald and his wife) lived in poverty with a huge amount of money, Mr. and Mrs. Murphy lived very elegantly with much less money" . I believe that every person has his or her own style of "elegant living ". 


When we think of the term "elegant life," we tend to imagine a life surrounded by luxurious things. However, there are many ways to live well, and I believe that this painting from the Edo period, for example, depicts an elegant life. 




Cooling off by Kusumi Morikage,  Edo Period, 17th century
ColBase (https://colbase.nich.go.jp)


A family sits under the eaves of a gourd trellis on a bed of straw. The sky above the full moon is dim, and the darkness of the night will soon envelop them. However, the relaxed expressions on the faces of the three people convey a sense of contentment.


To be as we are. To know what you really need. To be altruistic. Use your wisdom. Leave room in your heart. I try to manage to live gracefully while learning these things every day. When times are tough, remember that. I believe that the present, lived in such a way, will create the future.


Now that we are living in a time of great change with no clear future, I think it will be a great help for us to tweet and try to say, "Living well is the best revenge.


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