Calvin Tomkins, “Living Well Is the Best Revenge”

Living Well Is the Best Revenge was  widely read in my parents’ social circles when it was first published as a book in the early 1970s, so when it turned up on the magical laundry room shelves of course I nabbed it. This is a handsome little hardcover published in 1998 by Modern Library and my copy came from the fifth printing, so people are still reading it.  Are there really that many people out there who are curious about the lives of Gerald and Sara Murphy? Evidently so: I see from Amazon that Amanda Vaill’s highly praised biography of the couple (published in paperback in 1999) is still in print. Jenny of Shelflove reviewed it a couple of years ago and liked it very much.

Just in case you are not familiar with the Murphys, their primary claim to fame is that they were models for Nicole and Dick Diver in Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. They were a wealthy, magnetic American couple who moved to France in the early 1920s and knew Everyone: Hemingway, Dos Passos, Archibald MacLeish, Cocteau, Diaghilev, Picasso, etc. etc. Gerald Murphy was a painter in his own right, though his output is tiny, and their glory years ended in 1929. So why did Calvin Tomkins’ little volume strike such a chord with the reading public?

Tomkins is a prominent writer specializing in art and art criticism. He got to know the Murphys as neighbors in the 1960s, and Living Well… seems to be based largely on a series of interviews with Murphy. Aside from a very compelling coda in which Tomkins discusses Murphy’s paintings, the book is largely an appreciation of a charming couple who knew amazing people during a halcyon period of their lives.

Tomkins himself admits that, “[t]hose closest to the Murphys found it almost impossible to describe the special quality of their life, or the charm it had for their friends.” Anecdotes about parties, descriptions of original clothes (Gerald liked to wear a striped cotton jersey, a novel notion in the 20s), vignettes of the great at play (Picasso on the beach), even menus failed to conjure this world for me. I kept hankering for Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw. Yet Living Well… has had legs.

Here’s my theory. While I found the discussion of the Murphys’ perfect taste and hospitality unsatisfying, they were pioneers in a way, electing to leave their stuffy niche in upper-crust America for a more fluid and interesting life in Europe. Perhaps Living Well… struck a chord with readers in the early 1970s because it was another time of social rebellion, when your choice of clothes and furniture signaled rejection of your own square 1950s past. Jean Cocteau, Marimekko, similar impulse. It was also a Scott Fitzgerald moment (remember Nancy Milford’s hugely popular Zelda?) so the Fitzgerald insights may have loomed large.

Ultimately I found the discussion of Murphy’s paintings the best thing in the book. He made enormous still lifes of everyday objects; the one reproduced on the book jacket above is a detail of the 1927 canvas Cocktail. Tomkins discusses fifteen paintings, only seven of which survive. After 1929 the Murphys returned to the U.S. to run Gerald’s family luxury-goods business, Mark Cross, and Murphy stopped painting.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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8 Responses to Calvin Tomkins, “Living Well Is the Best Revenge”

  1. Annie says:

    I don’t remember this from the 70s at all although I do recall something about the model for the Divers if I dig deep enough into my memory and this book may well be what sparked that. I’m not certain that it’s a book I would seek out, but it’s always interesting to see whether or not cult books have stood the test of time. Does it sit easily with our time of growing austerity?

  2. carolwallace says:

    You know, Annie, it seems pretty separate from that — as well as separate from the previous icky grandiosity. It’s more about a quality of discernment that Tomkins attributes to Murphy but can’t really pin down further than to say that he had good taste. The 20s/60s zeitgeist comparison was the best I could do but I’m not really convinced.

  3. Ursula Lowerre says:

    I loved this book. I bought it at a book store in East Hampton in the early 90’s. I love the title because it is so true! I also loved Amandas book, I thought it was such a great story and so well written. I know Amanda personally. I had the opportunity to meet the daughter of the Murphys at one of Amanadas readings.

    • carolwallace says:

      Good to know, Ursula. I’m reading “Tender Is the Night” now and it’s very interesting to have Tomkins’ take on the Murphys as part of it.

  4. Pingback: F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Tender Is the Night” « Book Group of One

  5. Jenny says:

    I really liked the Vaill biography (and reviewed it on Shelf Love a couple of years ago.) It was fascinating to think about that time when so much was boiling along in Paris, and the Murphys as a sort of nexus where everyone (ballet, art, writing, etc) passed through their living rooms. I think only the Negritude/ Harlem Renaissance authors got left out!

    • carolwallace says:

      Oh, thanks, Jenny. I just linked to your review so people can find that. I have to admit to a sneaking discomfort with Tomkins’ account: something about people who are so aware of their effect on others rubs me the wrong way. Is it all a little bit narcissistic? Clearly I’ll have to read Vaill’s book for better insight!

  6. Pingback: Paula McLain, “The Paris Wife” « Book Group of One

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