Imagine that you’re at a party. It’s the best sort of party: plentiful food, lots of delicious drinks, and all of your best friends being particularly clever and witty, making music, dancing, drawing on napkins to explain their points. Lights twinkle in the garden, and the breeze is warm in the trees; the children are asleep upstairs, your clothes are comfortable and suit you perfectly. There is nowhere you would rather be.
This is the sort of feeling evoked by the first half of Amanda Vaill’s wonderful biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy, Everybody Was So Young: A Lost Generation Love Story. The Murphys, Americans living chiefly in France during the 1920s and ’30s, were an extraordinary couple. They had a gift for hospitality, for making others welcome, and they more or less invented the now-famous expatriate life at Antibes in France; they also had a gift for beauty, both seeing it and encouraging it in others.
Thus it was that they and their family were the center of a group of friends that included some of the most famous names in any artistic endeavor of that time period. They knew (and by knew, I mean loved, corresponded with, had birthday parties for, sailed with, took care of hangovers for) Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Dawn Powell, Serge Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes, Archibald MacLeish, John Dos Passos, Andre Breton, Tristan Tzara, Alexander Woollcott, Cole Porter, Picasso… an infinite roll call of greatness was drawn to their doors, to Sara’s warmth and generosity and to Gerald’s spirit of fun.
I could hardly imagine what it must have been like to be part of that simmering scene. To be an ordinary Parisian in the 1920s must have been strange enough, with manifestoes and exhibitions and salons, but to be in the thick of it? I couldn’t decide, as I read, if it would have been exciting or exhausting. But the Murphys had a sense of themselves that brought them through without a loss of dignity. Not for them the drugs and alcohol that ruined so many lives, nor the strings of affairs. They never got in too deep; instead, they clung to each other and to the beauty and originality they sought and loved.
But they weren’t a marble couple, either, protected from all harm. As the years passed, the Murphys faced their share, and more, of sorrow. They were buffered by wealth from the Great Depression, and even the war didn’t affect them deeply, except through worry over friends who were trapped in Europe. But two of their three beloved children died, and it left them gutted and speechless; financial crisis left them without a home to be hospitable from; Gerald’s uncertainty about his sexuality imprisoned him and left him unable to communicate to Sara about his very real love for her.
Vaill’s biography is detailed, wonderfully written, and marvelously thorough without ever for one moment being tedious. (It does have the common flaw of having unmarked end notes, but at least she does document her sources!) Her portrait of the Lost Generation is insightful, wise, and fascinating. If there’s a flaw, it’s that Vaill finds her subjects too sympathetic. It’s one thing to explain background that may not be apparent to the casual eye; it’s quite another to scramble to justify harsh words or bad moods so that the subjects appear nicer even than they really were. But that’s minor; overall the work is balanced even while it is tender. Reading it was almost like coming to one of the Murphys’ parties. And while I was reading it, there was nowhere else I’d rather be.