Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Gerald Murphy, jazz-age dilettante

Gerald and Sara Murphy were handsome and beautiful American expats. Charming, wealthy, and well-connected, they showed the world how to have a royal good time. Amanda Vaill's "Everybody Was So Young: A Lost Generation Love Story" (1998) provides all the details and ambiance.

Gerald, born into the wealthy family that owned Mark Cross luxury leather goods, and Sara Wiborg, his older wife from a "better" family of printing magnates, knew everyone: Cole Porter*, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald (who characterized them in "Tender Is the Night"), Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Dorothy Parker*, John O’Hara and Robert Benchley.

In 1921, primarily to escape their families’ dissatisfaction with their marriage, they moved to Paris, where Gerald took up painting. He started by painting sets for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, then went on to study painting formally. His paintings created a sensation at the 1924 Salon des Indépendants, in Paris. Gerald’s hard-edged still lifes were in a cubist, precisionist style, prefiguring the Pop Art style that produced imagery of mundane objects culled from American commercial products. Today Gerald’s works hang in prestigious museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art and Whitney museums (NYC), and a major retrospective was mounted in 2007.

Gerald Murphy’s painting Boatdeck, installed at the Salon des Indépendants, Grand Palais, Paris, 1924. Unfortunately, the painting, which depicts giant smokestacks of an ocean liner, has since been lost.

Gerald Murphy was a repressed homosexual, which he called his "defect" in a 1931 letter to Archibald MacLeish, saying that his post-adolescent life had been a protracted “process of concealment of the personal realities” of his sexual orientation. Sara had known Gerald for eleven years before they married, and she seemed to take in stride his confessed attraction to men. Archibald MacLeish based the main characters in his play J.B. on Gerald and Sara Murphy. Hemingway characterized them in Garden of Eden.

In 1923, to celebrate the première of Stravinsky’s ballet “Les Noces,” Gerald and Sara threw an all-night party on a barge on the Seine in Paris. The same year, Gerald and Cole Porter collaborated on a riotously successful jazz ballet, “Within the Quota,” a burlesque on American culture.

The Murphys convinced the Hotel du Cap (Antibes) to stay open for the summer of 1923 so that they might entertain their friends, helping to establish the Riviera as a fashionable summer haven. Prior to this time the wealthy flocked there only for the winter season. They also introduced sunbathing on the beach as a fashionable activity. Sara stunned her guests by wearing her pearls to the beach, and Gerald wore his trademark horizontally striped shirt, shorts and sandals.

The Murphys purchased a villa in Cap d'Antibes, midway between Nice and Cannes, and named it Villa America*, where they resided for many years. They impressed Picasso, who painted Sara in several of his 1923 works, and inspired Coco Chanel. More importantly, they introduced American style and taste to their European circle – breezy, informal, jazzy and insouciant. They made art out of their lives. Ultimately, they became myth.

Tragedy struck, in the form of the early deaths of their two young sons (a daughter survived to old age). After the Depression hit, Gerald returned home to take over the family business, Mark Cross leather goods, serving as president of the company from 1934-1956, bringing it back from the brink of bankruptcy. He gave up painting completely, lived in Snedens Landing (on the Hudson north of NYC) and East Hampton, NY, and worked for decades in midtown Manhattan, living out a life of romantic disappointment. Gerald died in 1964 in East Hampton, and Sara died in 1975 in Arlington, Virginia.

A nude Gerald Murphy in 1925, standing against the sail of the Picaflor, photographed by Man Ray. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

Wasp and Pear, 1929. Museum of Modern Art (NYC).

*Cole Porter had been Gerald’s classmate at Yale.

*Dorothy Parker was refused entrance to the Casino in Monte Carlo because she was not wearing stockings. “I went to retrieve my stockings and then came back to lose my shirt.”

*Villa America has since been torn down and replaced by another villa. The address is 112, Chemin des Mougins.

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