NEW YORK - In the waning days of summer I visited some friends in a house they had rented. In my book-filled bedroom there happened to be an old copy of Living Well is the Best Revenge, by Calvin Tomkins. The 1971 book was based on an earlier profile he had done for The New Yorker of the famous expatriates Gerald and Sara Murphy.
I gobbled it up, with my bedside light burning late into the night. As it happens, DAP and MoMA are reissuing it in November, with a new introduction by Tomkins. It’s been unavailable for a couple of years, which is a shame.
Living Well is the Best Revenge by Calving Tompkins will be reissued by MoMA.
You remember the Murphys – they were the model for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s indelible couple in Tender is the Night, as bon vivants who lived with their three children on the French Riviera in the 1920s, when the living was truly easy. Tomkins’s slim volume is very sympathetic to the couple, who seem to have been misrepresented by Fitzgerald (who himself seems like a nightmare to deal with, not to mention Zelda).
The structure of Living Well is unusual: It’s all about the personal life of the couple, which remains fascinating to this day, since it bears so little relation to our current world. But then, in the coda, Tomkins zeroes in on Gerald’s extraordinary accomplishments as a painter. He painted for about eight years and then abruptly stopped, as various family tragedies required his attention.
Murphy painted just 15 pictures, and only seven survive – but they are doozies. I’m always taken aback by the quality and assurance of Wasp and Pear (1929), in MoMA’s collection and given to the museum by Archibald MacLeish, of all people. Ditto for Cocktail (1927) at the Whitney.
Stuart Davis might be a painter who is stylistically closest to Murphy, since both brought a hard-edged, post-Cubist aesthetic to their work. Murphy’s short-lived career was unique and his pictures leave a lasting and distinct legacy.
Pick up the new edition of Tomkins’ book this fall and see for yourself.