The Good Life

If anyone could be said to have lived a charmed life, it would be Gerald and Sara Murphy. They were wealthy, artistic and talented, with three beautiful, loving children and a circle of friends who became famous and accomplished in their own right. They gave wonderful parties that are still remembered a half-century later, were generous to those in need, and best of all, Gerald and Sara loved each other deeply, with an affection that grew as they lived their lives to the inevitable, bitter end.

Anyone who has read into the lives of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso and the other expatirot residents of Paris in the 1920s will recognize Gerald and Sara, perhaps unfavorably as hanger-ons who supplied the money the others lived on. That unfair assessment is turned on its head in Amanda Vaill’s dual biography of the couple.

The Murphys were more than a bank account who gave parties; celebrity bottom feeders more interested in status than in accomplishments. They were something of an oddity. Both were from wealthy families, yet both wanted more than the family life they craved. Gerald had an eye for art, music and decorating; it was amazing to learn he was first to boost many artists who later became famous; “Grandchildren,” he said as he showed them a copy of “Meet the Beatles.” “Pay attention. These young men are going to be very, very important.”

From their village in the Antibes, which was a backwater when they discovered it, they befriended people like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Archibald Macleish, Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett as well, while Gerald became famous in his own right for his finely detailed studies of mechanical devices: a watch, a machine, of a boat deck and smokestacks.

But if there’s anything experience teaches us, it’s that no one really leads a charmed life. It’s all filled with day-to-day worries, irritations, tragedies and, with luck, some glory. But Gerald and Sara came close — the 20s were their time — and it’s a fine thing to finish a biography of someone and find that you like them even more than before.