Gerald Murphy and his elegant wife, Sara, were at the very center of the literary and artistic scene in France between World War I and the Great Depression. Although highly talented in their own right, the Murphy’s are best known for the astounding array of artists and writers who they befriended and entertained at Villa America, their French Riviera home. The list of notable visitors includes Cole Porter, Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Henri Matisse and John Dos Passos. The Murphy’s and their life at Villa America inspired the novel “Tender is the Night” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, another close friend and frequent visitor to their home.
The Murphy’s were decades ahead of their time in the way they designed and executed the renovations at Villa America. They created an open floor plan by removing walls and installing large windows and French doors to connect the exterior and interior living spaces. The villa opened onto a black-and-white-tiled terrace where the Murphy’s and their guests enjoyed alfresco meals. Le Corbusier, the famous modernist architect, designer and artist, was inspired by the Murphy’s imaginative renovation of Villa America praising its simple geometric shapes and new flat roof, which allowed a sun deck to be built on top.
The interior décor combined modern furnishings with a museum-quality art collection. The floors were black throughout accented with zebra rugs and the walls were painted in neutral shades to show off the contemporary paintings that the Murphy’s amassed while living in France, including those by Gerald himself. In many ways, the home that the Murphy’s created in 1925 would still be considered modern and very relevant today, 88 years later.
The 1929 stock market crash and the onslaught of family illness brought an abrupt end to the idyllic existence of the Murphy’s at Villa America. More recently, the publishing of Gerald Murphy’s private letters and diaries in 1991 revealed the sad truth behind the myth of the Murphy’s life together. Gerald Murphy was torn between his love and devotion for Sara and his life-long attraction to men, a trait that he referred to as his “defect.” His conservative Catholic upbringing would not allow him to explore, much less enjoy, a physical relationship with another man even though some of his closest friends were openly gay. Late in his life Gerald admitted that he had “never had a real and honest relationship,” a sad and tragic revelation by a man who seemed to have everything except the one thing that he really wanted. Gerald Murphy’s shame and self-loathing is what the celebration of Gay Pride strives to make a thing of the past.
Dorothy Parker wrote a rather fitting and yet ironic epitaph for Villa America and Gerald Murphy in a letter shortly after the house was closed in 1929.
“I will draw that veil over the last days of shutting up the place in Antibes. Because what is more horrible than dismantling a house where people have once been gay.”