Beyond the Sea

The Americans Who Invented the French Riviera

What did people used to do in France during the summer? Traditionally, crowds would flock to Normandy to enjoy the cooler temperatures in Dieppe, Deauville, Trouville, Cabourg, and Etretat. Alternatively, since Empress Eugénie started the fashion in the mid-19th century, they would sample the pleasures of the Atlantic coast in Biarritz. However, no one would dare brave the burning sun of the Riviera from June through August. At least not until an American couple, Sara and Gerald Murphy, decided otherwise.
The “Mad Beach Party” of the summer of 1923: the Murphys and their friends on the beach in Antibes. © François Biondo/Yale University Library

Gerald Murphy (1888-1964) and Sara Wiborg (1883-1975) were the perfect representatives of the American elite. Gerald’s father had made his fortune in the leather business, while Sara’s father had become a millionaire thanks to his ink manufacturing company. Very early in their lives, the two teenagers stood out from their peers. Gerald was above all interested in literature and art, and turned his nose up at the competitive drive of his contemporaries in stadiums and universities. Compared to her two younger sisters, Sara was a free spirit, if not a rebel. She was even presented to the royal court of England in 1914, but was unimpressed by titles and honors. The two families had been friends since 1904, and the mere idea of following in their parents’ footsteps made the two youngsters think of dreary Sunday afternoons in the fall.

Needless to say, the pair was bound to get on. On December 30, 1915, Sara (32) and Gerald (27) tied the knot in New York. They first moved into a small townhouse in Manhattan, but soon realized that they would have to leave the city if they wanted to live their lives to the full. They settled in Cambridge so Gerald could study landscape architecture at Harvard. Then in 1921, Sara, Gerald, and their three children set off for Europe to start a new life.

Sara and Gerald Murphy with their three children in June 1922 in Houlgate, Normandy, during their first summer in France. © Yale University Library
Sara and Gerald Murphy at a costume ball given by Count Etienne de Beaumont in Paris, 1924. © Yale University Library

The “Only American Painter in Paris”

Deeply fascinated and inspired by the artistic buzz of the City of Light, the Murphys quickly found their place in chic, bohemian circles. They were spotted at performances by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, at art dealers’ showrooms in the eighth arrondissement, and at parties hosted by Count Etienne de Beaumont… But while their compatriots rushed to Paris for the intoxication of jazz, liquor, and passionate flings, the slightly older Murphys preferred to stay away from such hedonism. Their daily lives were focused on personal development and familial fulfillment at a time when children were more of a burden than a joy.

When he first arrived in Paris, Gerald fell in love with the works of Braque, Picasso, and Juan Gris. He took classes with Natalia Gontcharova and spent ten years patiently practicing his painting. His profoundly original, American contribution to modern art was distinct from the School of Paris. His canvases were unique because of their large formats and two-dimensional, incredibly meticulous portrayals of manufactured goods (razors, watches, corkscrews, magnifying glasses, and globes), as well as fruits and insects presented in the style of anatomical charts. Their bright colors conjured up images of advertising boards and prefigured the Pop Art aesthetic. This led his friend Fernand Léger to tell him that he was the “only American painter in Paris.” Unfortunately, other critics did not share Léger’s opinion, and it was not until 1964 that the artist’s painting Wasp and Pear was exhibited at MoMA.

Gerald Murphy, Wasp and Pear, 1929. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York

La Garoupe Beach

As well as staying away from the hubbub of the American enclave of Montparnasse in Paris, the Murphys also blazed their own trail during the summer. In 1923, they traveled down to Antibes, a place they had discovered with Cole Porter the previous year, and persuaded the owner of the Hôtel du Cap (now the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc) to stay open for them. The Riviera of the day was deserted, and the establishment was accustomed to closing its doors on May 1 with the arrival of the hot weather. Gerald, Sara, and their children made the little La Garoupe beach their headquarters, enjoying the sun, the sea, picnics, and tea parties on the sand.

The American family reinvented the summer and imposed their lifestyle of elegance and simple pleasures. They soon acquired a house nestled under the Antibes lighthouse, installed a roof terrace (one of the first in the region), built extra rooms, and arranged the garden so they could eat outside. When it was finally ready, the Villa America became the Murphys’ primary residence and a place to host friends. Picasso and his wife Olga, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Hemingway and his first wife, the Count and Countess de Beaumont, and Rudolph Valentino were all enchanted by this unique experience.

Sara and Gerald Murphy at the Cap d’Antibes, 1923. © Yale University Library
The pool at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes, 1933. © Apic/Getty Images

Tender Is the Night

The arrival of the Fitzgerald couple always saw the peaceful setting take on a more chaotic hue. Zelda tried to commit suicide on several occasions, while Scott – whose literary successes had done little to soothe his anxiety – was often depressed. Despite these episodes, it was impossible to resist this charming couple who embodied the full enthusiasm and fragility of the Lost Generation. Over a number of summers, the Murphys developed an almost paternal affection for the Fitzgeralds, who were ten years their junior. Scott repaid this friendship with ungrateful malice, generally after having too much to drink. He would sometimes take a sadistic joy in sabotaging their parties, even going so far as to humiliate them. Yet the following day, he would look up to them as if he were a child…

The novel Tender Is the Night, published in 1934 after countless different drafts, belies these mixed feelings and tries to use the magic of fiction to depict the two couples as one. The Divers in the book are inspired largely, in terms of their appearance and lifestyle, by the Murphys. However, Nicole’s psychological instability is a clear nod to Zelda, while Dick’s weakness of character is more akin to Scott than Gerald.

The End of the Party

As the Roaring Twenties came to an end with the Great Crash, the Murphys’ lives also stopped shining on the Côte d’Azur in late 1929. Patrick, the youngest child, was diagnosed with tuberculosis in October. Despite unmatched courage and devotion – the family even moved to Switzerland for 18 months before returning to the United States in 1934 – he succumbed to the illness and died in 1937 at the age of 16. Meanwhile, another tragedy had struck the family. Baoth, the oldest son, had died of cerebrospinal meningitis in 1935 at just 15 years old. Gerald stopped painting in 1929, and from that year on, Sara’s bright eyes were forevermore clouded in a veil of sorrow.

Article published in the August 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.