Near the beginning of the last century, 16-year-old Gerald Murphy met beautiful 20-year-old Sara Wiborg at a party in East Hampton. Eleven years later in 1915, they were married. In June of 1921, Gerald and Sara and their three young children, Honoria, Baoth, and Patrick, set off for Europe. They wished to escape the snobbish, elite world into which they were born (which, one must keep in mind, supported them) and the strictures of their parents. Gerald had always been aware, and often troubled, that he was not exactly the typical hearty American male. It turns out they were both looking for the inspiration of a fresh and fertile creative landscape.
They found that inspiration in Paris. The Murphys quickly found themselves embraced by the city and its most talented international residents. They were called the Golden Couple: worldly, artistic, bohemian, glamorous.
Gerald and Sara thrived among this wide and eclectic circle, finding their roles as friends, sponsors, confidantes, muses, and co-creators as modernism in all its forms bloomed around them. They never asked for favors in return, but they actively supported the careers of such “unknowns” at the time as Ernest Hemingway, Fernand Léger, Cole Porter, John Dos Passos, Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Archibald MacLeish, John O'Hara, Jean Cocteau and Robert Benchley.
Gerald developed into quite the dandy...his resort wear even inspired Coco Chanel. He “arranged himself like a work of art,” says curator Deborah Rothschild, in clothes that were varied but “always informed by the highest aesthetic sensibility.” Murphy's looks were distinctive but he definitely wasn't handsome. There are few images of him smiling...he always deprecatingly described his own face as an Irish moon face. Hats played a key role in Murphy’s wardrobe, which his daughter later explained was because of his thinning hair and the chubby appearance of his cheeks.
During a walk soon after they got to Paris, Gerald caught a glimpse of paintings by Picasso, Braque, André Derain, and Juan Gris in a gallery window. “If this is painting,” he announced to Sara, “then this is what I want to do.” Gerald (and Sara as well) began to study modern art under a Russian artist. Between 1924 and 1929, Léger, a major influence, encouraged Murphy's shared enthusiasm for mass-produced objects, advertising, and design. His first works, displayed at the 1923 Salon des Indépendents in Paris, “Turbines” and “Engine Room,” portrayed the dynamism and precision of machinery. The next year, his 18-by-12-foot canvas “Boatdeck” literally overshadowed everything else in Salon. In its depiction of an ocean liner’s towering smokestacks, rigging, and ventilation funnels, the piece reveled in pure geometric forms and flat, poster-like expanses of color. It was a sensation. (Like many of his smaller works, these larger works have been lost.) So 40 years before Andy Warhol, pop art was born. Murphy painted 14 pieces, but only 7 survived. Although this is a small body of work, he has been recognized as a significant artist. I thought you might enjoy a slideshow of his work:
Now I certainly don't want to leave out Sara. She was considered one of the great American beauties of her generation.
She became muse to Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald and a number of others. The Murphy's generous hospitality, spontaneity and extraordinarily adventurous spirit made them the trend-setters of the time. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously quipped about the Murphys saying: “The rich are different from us.” But the Murphys weren’t really filthy rich, just well off and knew how to live with great flair and style.
But before every delightful dinner at Villa America, there were cocktails.
Cocktail hour became quite a performance with Gerald at the bar and he was very mysterious and secretive about his concoctions. When someone would ask what was in this or that drink he would always answer: "Just the juice of a few flowers." Murphy eventually turned this favorite description of "Juice of a few flowers" into a cocktail. It was made of freshly squeezed juices -- one ounce orange, one ounce grapefruit, a half ounce lime, a half ounce lemon -- together with an ounce of gin. Gerald Murphy's instructions:
"The mint should be put in the shaker first. It should be torn up by hand as it steeps better. The gin should be added then and allowed to stand a minute or two. Then add the grapefruit juice and then the lime juice. Stir vigorously with ice and do not allow to dilute too much, but serve very cold, with a sprig of mint in each glass."
A little side note: Have you ever seen the 1940 movie "The Philadelphia Story"? (There was a musical remake in 1957 called "High Society" starring Grace Kelly, which was her last film before her marriage.) The original starred Katherine Hepburn. In one scene, a woozy Tracy Lord, played by Katharine Hepburn, has a hangover and her ex-husband, played by Cary Grant, makes a Stinger for her as a hangover remedy. Hepburn asks what's in it, and Grant replies: "The juice of a few flowers."
It happens that Philip Barry, the author of "The Philadelphia Story," was one of Gerald Murphy's closest friends and had taken particular note of Gerald's way with a cocktail shaker, which Barry described as being "like a priest preparing Mass" and so wrote that famous line into the script. Murphy would later give his painting "Cocktail" to Ellen Barry, Philip Barry's widow. (It now belongs to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.) Murphy arranges the tools of pleasure (a silver shaker, corkscrew, cocktail glass, and five cigars) with a presentational precision that reflects the seriousness with which he approached the ritual of mixing drinks.
Many years later, in 2008, I watched Ina Garten make a drink she called Juice of a Few Flowers and I smiled and knew I had to try it. You're going to love it. It’s a drink with a tart citrus punch and a nice kick of vodka. An ice-cold glass, a sugared rim, a sprig of mint. Pretty darn close to Gerald Murphy's description.
Juice of a Few Flowers
1/2 cup (125 mL) freshly squeezed orange juice (2 oranges)
1/2 cup (125 mL) freshly squeezed pink grapefruit juice (1 grapefruit)
1/4 cup (50 mL) freshly squeezed lemon juice (1 lemon)
1/4 cup (50 mL) freshly squeezed lime juice (2 limes)
1 cup (250 mL) vodka
extra lemon juice
fresh mint sprigs
Combine the orange juice, grapefruit juice, lemon juice, lime juice and vodka in a pitcher.
Dip the rims of 4 martini glasses first in a dish of lemon juice and then in a dish with sugar. Set aside to dry.
Pour the cocktail mix into the glasses, garnish with mint and serve.
And just in case you'd like to read the end of the Murphy story:
The Murphy's were the inspiration for Nicole and Dick Diver in Fitzgerald’s masterpiece “Tender Is the Night” , which caused a rift between Fitzgerald and the Murphys, although they remained supportive of Fitzgerald for many years, through all his drunken episodes.
Another old friend, Ernest Hemingway, in his posthumous memoir, ''A Moveable Feast,'' called them rich ''bastards.'' (Hemingway’s hunger to bolster his own machismo led him to grow more suspicious of Murphy’s sexuality over the years of their relationship.)
There were some deleted passages never published in which Hemingway unforgivably, considering their generosity to him, commented, ''They were bad luck to people but they were worse luck to themselves and they lived to have all that bad luck finally.''
Gerald Murphy reacted by saying: ''What a strange kind of bitterness -- or rather accusitoriness . . . . What shocking ethics! How well written, of course.''
The bad luck Hemingway referred to was the unexpected deaths of their two sons. (As if to bargain his first ill son back into health, Gerald abandoned painting in October 1929.) Which makes the first photo above very poignant. The second piece of bad luck was the near bankruptcy during the Depression of his family's business (Mark Cross) which forced Gerald's grudging return to America to save, and spend the rest of his life preserving, the family business.
So as an elderly man, Gerald lived the life he had fled as a young man, going to an office and lunching every day at Schrafft's. Sara threw herself into volunteer work with children. The hospitality of their home in Snedens Landing, just up the Hudson from New York City, seems to have been a sweet but pale afterimage of their former salon. Five of Murphy’s works were among the “American Genius in Review” exhibit mounted at the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Art in 1960. From then on he found himself the object of serious critical interest. He supposedly announced at a family luncheon, “I’ve been discovered. What does one wear?”
Gerald died October 17, 1964 in East Hampton, courtly to the last; his final words to his wife and daughter were “Smelling salts for the ladies.”
Sara died on October 10, 1975 in Arlington, Virginia.
Additional reading about the Murphys...I loved both these books:
Living Well is the Best Revenge and Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy, a Lost Generation Love Story. And if you haven't already, you certainly should read A Moveable Feast.
Photo and informational credits:
Some photos by Man Ray