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Forever Young

EVERYBODY WAS SO YOUNG: Gerald and Sara Murphy; A Lost Generation Love Story.\o7 By Amanda Vaill (Houghton Mifflin: 470 pp., $30)\f7

June 28, 1998|PAUL ALEXANDER | Paul Alexander is at work on a biography of J.D. Salinger

"At that moment," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in "Tender Is the Night," his 1934 novel about the Lost Generation, "the Drivers represented externally the exact furthermost evolution of a class." That class was the idle rich, and for much of the Drivers' married life, which played itself out in the '20s on the Continent,where they kept a villa in France, Dick and Nicole made one feel that merely being in their presence was "a remarkable experience." They did this by doing, essentially, nothing; their specialness was created with airs, attitude. Indeed their life was little more than one long blur of morning hangovers, empty afternoons and nightly hopes of giving a "really bad party"--the kind at which "there's a brawl and seductions and people going home with their feelings hurt."

As inspiration for the Drivers, Fitzgerald used his friends Gerald and Sara Murphy (to whom he dedicated the novel), a couple so enigmatic in their personalities and colorful in their lifestyle that they became close to--and inspiration for--not only Fitzgerald but also other members of the Lost Generation, among them Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Archibald MacLeish, John Dos Passos, Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker. The Roaring '20s were defined in America by Prohibition, a rise in organized crime, flappers and a robust economy that created great wealth for some. Because Paris was seen as a cultural center and because the dollar was strong throughout the continent, expatriates--as exemplified by Fitzgerald and Hemingway and who became a "lost" generation of artists--fled to Europe. In "Everybody Was So Young," her exhaustively researched and brilliantly rendered biography, Amanda Vaill documents how by doing what they did best--by "living well," as Calvin Tomkins described it in his famous New Yorker profile of the couple, "Living Well Is the Best Revenge"--the Murphys became "godparents" to the Lost Generation.

Sara was one of three daughters born to Frank and Adeline Wiborg. A multimillionaire businessman who in 1895 began buying large parcels of property in East Hampton, Frank Wiborg was a friend of Patrick Murphy, the owner of the Mark Cross Co., the leather goods retailer specializing in luggage and handbags, and whose youngest son was Gerald. Sara and Gerald knew each other for years through family connections before they fell in love and married in 1916. Sara was stunning, sophisticated; among friends, she was known for wearing a simple strand of pearls at all times, even when she was swimming. Gerald was good looking, soft-spoken; at Yale, where he was elected to the exclusive fraternity Skull and Bones, he counted Cole Porter among his friends.

Together, Sara and Gerald made the perfect couple--an ideal pairing from two families in New York's social elite. Making their home in Manhattan, they had one daughter, Honoria, and two sons, Baoth and Patrick. Then, in the autumn of 1921, with their children in tow, the Murphys traveled to Paris--like so many others, they moved there because the cost of living was extremely low--where they remained, excluding trips to London and summers spent on the French Riviera, until 1925. That year, they moved into Villa America, an estate they bought in Antibes near Cannes that would remain their home for the next several years.

During the Murphys' years in France, Gerald dabbled in painting, turning out canvases influenced by Picasso, but mostly he played host to an ever-changing collection of writers and artists with whom he and Sara became friends. Parties, dinners, trips to the country, outings at the beach--all were a part of the tasteful, affluent lifestyle the Murphys maintained for themselves and for their friends.

Sometimes, Sara was more than a host. A subject of Picasso, who depicted her nude, she probably had an affair with the artist, although evidence is not conclusive; clearly, she had the opportunity and, judging from his paintings, Picasso had the desire. Fitzgerald, whom the Murphys had met in New York through friends, was "sentimentally disturbed by Sara," according to Gerald, who believed the author was in love with Sara's "directness and frankness," traits lacking in Zelda; Sara did not reciprocate Fitzgerald's affection since she found his pretty-boy looks off-putting. Hemingway was, to quote his first wife, Hadley, "the kind of man to whom men, women, children and dogs were attracted"--and Sara was no exception; after flirting with each other for years, Sara and Hemingway had a brief but intense affair.

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