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.