A Literary Collage, Evoking Scenes Artistic and Literary: A Review of “Living Well is the Best Revenge”


Living Well Is the Best Revenge
by Calvin Tomkins

MoMA Books; 149 p.

It is a particularly strange fate to be best-known for the fictional character you inspired. That is, arguably, the case of the late artist Gerald Murphy, the inspiration for the character Dick Diver in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. While Calvin Tomkins does not shy away from Murphy’s literary afterlife in his recently reissued 1974 book, Living Well Is the Best Revenge, he also makes argues that Murphy’s true influence can be found in his artwork, which anticipates Pop Art and synthesized influences of the 1930s in previously-unknown ways. Living Well is the Best Revenge exists in a taxonomic grey area. It’s a sort of dual biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy, but the final twenty-five pages include reproductions of many of Gerald’s surviving paintings, along with Tomkins’s commentary on them. There’s also a long section of photographs of the Murphys, their children, and numerous guests at their home in France, including Pablo Picasso and John and Katy Dos Passos. (A pair of family portraits, one of Gerald with his sons and one of Sara with all three of their children, are credited to Man Ray.) As such, the book is a kind of collage, venturing into related realms as it makes the case for the relevance of two people whose cultural legacy is more significant than it may first appear.

In an introduction to the Modern Library’s 1998 edition of Living Well is the Best Revenge, reprinted in MoMA’s new edition, Tomkins recounts the history of his book, which had its origins in a profile Tomkins wrote of Gerald and Sara Murphy for The New Yorker in 1962. The initial edition of Living Well is the Best Revenge was released in 1974. Tomkins notes that, by that time, “Gerald had been dead for ten years, and Sara, who died in 1975, was no longer aware of the world around her.” It’s  a sad ending to a life that seemed particularly vibrant, one that consciously avoided the tropes of the lavish lifestyle in which she had been raised for something far more idiosyncratic. It isn’t hard to see why the life of the Murphys, described by Tomkins as “of great originality and considerable beauty,” have captivated biographers and novelists in equal measure.

There have been other books written about the Murphys, including Amanda Vaill’s 1998 Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy: A Lost Generation Love Story. More recently, Gerald played a small role in Lisa Cohen’s staggeringly informative All We  Know. One of the three primary subjects of Cohen’s book was the writer Esther Murphy — Gerald’s older sister, who appears briefly in Tomkins’s book. Like Living Well is the Best Revenge, Cohen’s All We Know defies easy categorization. It is at once a collection of short biographies of three women who lived in the mid-Twentieth century and ran in creative circles, even as their own lives’ work took a more ephemeral form, placing them in relative obscurity.  All We Know also works as a meditation on fame; like Tomkins’s book, it attempts to get at something more ephemeral in its subjects: their potential, and their centrality within certain vital artistic scenes. Writing a biography of an artist or writer is one thing; writing about someone who may have serves as inspiration or patron or benefactor to an artist or writer, as both Tomkins and Cohen do, is more challenging. Which is not to say that books in this vein are problematic; when done well, as both Cohen’s and Tomkins’s are, they can provide a fuller sense of an artistic community. (Geoffrey Wolff’s Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby is another example of a work that does this well.) Living Well is the Best Revenge is not simply a biography of Gerald, nor is it a monograph on his work. It’s as much about a marriage as it is about the two people in that marriage. And it’s through the Murphys’ interactions with one another, and with the writers and artists around them, that their place in the artistic scene of the time was established.

Tomkins, in his introduction, explains how he and his wife first met the Murphys, in what turned out to be the last years of Gerald’s life. The Murphys were reluctant to take part at first, but, in Tomkins’s telling, acceded to it as a kind of boost to his career. It was akin to the support that they had provided artist friends for decades. Tomkins describes first encountering the Murphys as their neighbor in Snedens Landing, New York. His young daughters wandered into their yard; Tomkins and his wife followed, and a conversation began. As Tomkins recalls:

The Murphys were in their sixties then, but the warmth and liveliness of their attention–amused, focused, festive–seemed almost miraculous to me at the time, and still does. I remember how delightful it would be to know these people.

As one might guess from the relative closeness between interviewer and subject, this is not the sort of book in which dark secrets are uncovered. Reading other works that profile the Murphys reveal things that are not touched on in this book — Cohen’s All We Know, for instance, briefly mentions facets of Gerald’s life, including a more complex sexuality,  that did not make their way in here. In her biography, Vaill delves more into Gerald’s inner life in her biography, but her research turns up little that can be called definitive. He did, in letters to certain confidantes, allude to an attraction to men – though the full measure of his sexuality is uncertain. Everybody Was So Young presents more information on Gerald’s inner life, but they lead to no conclusive answers.

In light of this, reading Tomkins on Gerald’s sometimes-strained friendship with Ernest Hemingway takes on more complex shadings. Hemingway “judged men according to his own rigorous standards of masculinity [….] and Gerald, in spite of his performance on skis and in the bull ring, was perhaps not tough enough to suit him.” Within the context of Living Well is the Best Revenge, this is set up to contrast Gerald’s relationships with Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald; in light of Cohen’s book, it suggests a more veiled (for the 1960s and 70s, at least) interpretation.

Then again, from having read many of Tomkins’s other works, his approach is less about revelations than comprehensiveness. A longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, Tomkins is best-known for his writings on art, and his profiles of artists.  As seen in the likes of Off the Wall, his biography of Robert Rauschenberg, his approach takes the work itself as the end product; personal lives are alluded to but not necessarily uncovered. 2008’s The Lives  of the Artists, collects a number of lengthy profiles of artists, including James Turrell, Matthew Barney, and Cindy Sherman. Here, Tomkins’s meticulous detail concerning his subjects’ work is balanced with thoughts on class and economics, raising a number of questions of chance, privilege, and social mobility as he goes. Reading Living Well is the Best Revenge alongside other works that invoke the Murphys leaves the impression that Tomkins has opted to view the Murphys’ lives through the prism of Gerald’s art.

This is not to say that Tomkins does not tread into the personal with the Murphys, only that he does so gingerly. Vaill, who interviewed Tomkins for her own book on the Murphys, notes that when Tomkins interviewed the Murphys, “[b]y tacit unspoken arrangement…two subjects remained essentially out-of-bounds – the boys’ death and Gerald’s pictures.”

By the time Living Well is the Best Revenge was written, however, both were discussed.  Gerald had stopped painting in 1929, after the onset of their son Patrick’s ultimately fatal illness. Writes Tomkins:

[S]o completely did he turn his back on the work that he refused even to talk about it, and seemed indifferent to the fate of his paintings. (The Galérie Georges Bernheim in Paris had given him a one-man show in 1929; of the nine paintings in that exhibition, four are now lost and presumably destroyed.)

Soon after that, Gerald took control of Mark Cross, the business his family owned. While Tomkins clearly understands Gerald’s reasons for abandoning his life in art, there is an undercurrent of sadness throughout at what might have been. Gerald’s paintings Wasp and Pear  (1929) and Cocktail  (1927) can be seen on the jacket for this new edition, and they do seem to circle  around certain details of their subjects, choosing what to illuminate, and venturing below the surface in a concise, controlled way. (A similar description could be used to describe Tomkins’s methods in constructing this book.) Certain motifs and motifs occur again and again, and the way in which symbols of modern industry and luxury are blown up to titanic size, dissected, or placed in almost grotesque detail (the wasp in Wasp and Pear comes to mind here) lends a discomfiting aspect to the relatively clean lines of Gerald’s work.

Instead, the Murphys are still best-remembered for their role in inspiring the Divers in Tender is the Night. Early in his book, Tomkins explains where this version of them falls short:

The real trouble with the book, as every college English major knows, is that Fitzgerald started out by using a friend of his named Gerald Murphy as the model for Dick Diver and then allowed Dick Diver to change, midway through the narrative, into F. Scott Fitzgerald. To a lesser degree, he did the same thing with his heroine, Nicole Diver, who has some of the physical characteristics of Sara Murphy, Gerald’s wife, but is in most other respects Zelda Fitzgerald.

Reading Tomkins’s book and Fitzgerald’s in close succession, one can easily see where events in each overlap and where they wildly diverge. Both the Divers’ and the Murphys’ lives involved close proximity to some of the most acclaimed artists of their age; however, there is a stability present in the real-world couple that their fictional counterparts lack. Certain other details, however, eerily echo one another: a scene in Tender is the Night in which the Divers’ son bathes in possibly contaminated water seems inspired by an actual incident in which the Fitzgeralds’ son believed himself to have bathed in water previously used by the ailing Patrick Murphy.

At the end of this carefully constructed book, Tomkins leaves us with two endings to choose from: Gerald Murphy pondering his own parallel life in fiction, and in the fictions inspired by it; and his surviving art, which began to regain attention as part of a 1960 show at the Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art. These are, he suggests, the two ways in which the Murphys can be remembered. The details of their lives, and the work of the  artists with whom they conspired, helps explain why their story remains a riveting one.

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