Latest Readings - Clive James (2015)

Villa America

AMANDA VAIL’S 1988 book about Sara and Gerald Murphy, Everybody Was So Young, is a disarming treatment of a subject that you have to treat disarmingly or get nowhere. The Murphys brought to Antibes in the 1920s a powerful first taste of the modern American international cocktail of artistic sensitivity and wealth. With prominent Europeans like Picasso eating out of their elegant hands, it was no wonder that the American expatriates—Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Hemingway, John Dos Passos, et hoc genus—all turned up to enjoy the facilities. The Murphys put some hard work into the Villa America: there were fourteen rooms and seven acres of garden, and the private beach had to be cleared of seaweed. But basically their little empire was an exercise in purchasing power, with the most famous artistic figures of the day included in the inventory. As a star hostess, Sara had the necessary gift of preparing the perfect scene to make it seem effortless. Later on, the golden couple had their tragedies—two children died in sad circumstances—but the basic rhythm of their story was one of stylish leisure, maintained as easily as breathing. Amanda Vail catches the charm. You can see yourself lounging about on the beach and feeling bound to start writing a masterpiece, if not today then tomorrow. Scott Fitzgerald, resenting the fact that the conditions were too good to favor the act of creation, trashed the furniture instead; and Hemingway, unwilling to yield to Gerald the position of center of the action, soon reestablished a due distance.

Fairyland had its tensions. The story has been told before. Calvin Tomkins’s 1971 book about the Murphys, Living Well Is the Best Revenge, failed to explain its own title (revenge for what? For too big an income?), but it caught the mood. Louis Auchincloss, who knew something about being born to privilege, reviewed Tomkins’s book with approval for the way it caught the theme of Sara’s dislike of the very idea that Scott Fitzgerald might have based Dick and Nicole in Tender Is the Night on her and her husband. Sara resented any suggestion that the ruling couple might have been unhappy. The Murphys had staked their lives on being perfect. Gerald, a painter who gave up painting, probably didn’t want to injure his seigneurial role with too much artistic commitment. In retrospect, that can seem a real pity, if you think, as I do, that his paintings were original, with a modern, clean-cut elegance that lasts like the styling of a Cord automobile.

But he wasn’t going to let art rule him. He had the means to run his own life, up until the point when catastrophe arrived in the form of arbitrary death for the children. He was able to go back to being a businessman and bury himself behind a desk, but Sara never really recovered. Theirs was a short era, and no dynasty. But their little kingdom generated a specific texture of bliss that was remembered by all who touched it, and by now it is being written about by people who were born long after it was over. You can see how facts might arouse the urge to perpetuate them beyond their time, but it is harder to see why that should be true of flavors and tones. There is a kind of writing that wants us to remember a way of life that the writer never saw. It ought to be a doomed enterprise, yet sometimes it is done well.