The Murphys: American trendsetters on the Riviera

If you visit the French Riviera in July or August, you might have trouble finding an open space on the beach to put your towel. It’s hard to imagine that up until the 1920s there were no summer tourists here, no hotels were open, and there was certainly no one swimming in the sea.

The French Riviera was “discovered” in the 1800s by the European nobility who spent their winters here. But when springtime rolled around these wealthy holiday-makers went home and left the summer heat to the locals. Then in the 1920s, an American couple played a big part in the Riviera’s “rediscovery”.

Beach in NiceThe beach in Nice, France in the summer
Photo: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images

The Murphys


The MurphysGerald and Sara Murphy
Photo © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly/ Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Gerald and Sara Murphy were one of the first American couples to move to the Riviera. They both came from families that had worked their way up from nothing and made their fortunes in the United States. But in the early 1920s, the Murphys, along with many other artistic souls, left the US. One reason for this was that the post war atmosphere there had become stifling. The 18th amendment to the constitution was passed and Prohibition made it illegal to produce, transport or sell alcoholic beverages. Some states went even further, making it illegal to drink alcohol. Overnight, thousands of law abiding citizens where reclassified as outlaws. Crime rose and criminal organisations gained strength.

Paris and the Crazy Years


The Murphys took advantage of the strong US dollar and went to live in Europe where the atmosphere was very different. When they arrived in Paris with their three young children, they were captivated by the creative energy there. In Europe, where every home had lost someone to the war, the young people wanted to forget about death and destruction. They just wanted to live and celebrate. This was the beginning of Les Années Folles, or the “Crazy Years”, in which creativity boomed. Modernism was born and Paris became the centre of all things artistic. There, you could find painters, writers, and musicians from around the world forging new forms of their art.

Murphys Wasp and PearWasp and Pear – Painting by Gerald Murphy
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When Gerald first saw a modern art painting, it had a profound effect on him and he decided then and there to start painting. He and Sara started taking lessons and while Sara eventually quit, Gerald became a somewhat admired painter. Even though his career was short, he produced some impressive works.

Meeting the movers and shakers of the art world


While in Paris, the Murphys donated their time to help restore the backdrops for the Russian ballet which had been destroyed in a fire. There they met other artists, including Picasso, and found their niche in the artistic community. While many of the modern artists living in Paris were young and had wild lifestyles, Gerald and Sara were a bit older and had three children. They enjoyed the creative synergy of the art scene but led a settled life and perfected the art of living well.

Discovering the Riviera


In the summer of 1922 the Murphys went to the South of France to visit one of Gerald’s friends from Yale, Cole Porter, who had a reputation for finding charming and unusual places for his holidays. The Murphys fell in love with the Riviera and knew immediately it was where they wanted to be.

Sarah Murphy by PicassoPortrait de Sara Murphy by Picasso
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The next summer, Cole wasn’t there but the Murphys returned. At that time, there were no tourists in the summer and the Riviera hotels closed the first of May. Gerald and Sara convinced the owner of the Hotel du Cap in Antibes to stay open for them and that summer they entertained the first of their many visitors from Paris: Pablo Picasso and his family. Picasso also fell in love with the area and rented a villa in Antibes.

Villa America


The Murphys decided to make the Riviera their home and they bought a villa just below the Antibes lighthouse. It had a magnificent garden but the house required two years of renovation. Always trendsetters, Gerald and Sara added features to their home that were unheard of at the time, such as a flat roof that could be used as a terrace. The interior was very modern with black floors, white walls, mirrors and stainless steel. They moved in with their three children in the summer of 1924 and called their new home Villa America.

Strange behaviour


The Murphys made monthly visits to Paris to stay in touch with the artistic community there and many of their Paris friends came to visit them on the Riviera. They entertained a constant stream of guests and they shocked the locals by their “unusual” activities. Gerald cleared off the 4 ft. (1.20 metres) thick layer of seaweed from the beach to make a place for swimming. These strange Americans and their friends lay in the sun, swam in the sea, and picnicked in the sand while listening to Jazz on a portable phonograph.

They loved to entertain and their friends enjoyed sharing their idyllic Riviera lifestyle. Some, like Picasso and Fitzgerald, followed in the Murphys’ footsteps and took up residence in the South of France. Others from the Paris art scene started spending summer holidays on the Riviera. Hotels began to stay open in summer to accommodate these guests and beaches were cleared of seaweed and filled with sunbathers.

Cole PorterBoth Sara and Gerald were very stylish. Sara wore her pearls to the beach and Gerald made the striped jersey, shorts and knit cap fashionable beachwear for men.
In this photo Cole Porter has a bit of fun in Sara’s pearls and Gerald’s cap.
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Their friends

Book: Tender is the NightOriginal cover of Tender is the Night by Fitzgerald. It was dedicated to the Murphys and partially based on their Riviera lifestyle.A list of Gerald and Sara’s friends reads like a Who’s Who of the 1920s. They rubbed shoulders with Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Pablo Picasso, Rudolph Valentino, Jean Cocteau, Ezra Pound, Igor Stravinsky, and Fernand Léger among others. Many of them were introduced to the Riviera through the Murphys.

All good things must end

Les Années Folles, “the crazy years”, ended abruptly in 1929 when the stock market crashed. The same year, one of the Murphys’ sons was diagnosed with tuberculosis and they left the Riviera for good in 1933 to go back to America. But they had left their mark on the French Riviera and it would never be the same.

It’s reported that as Picasso sat looking out over a beach that had been abandoned when the Murphys arrived and was now filled with sun-bathers, he remarked that he and the Murphys had a lot to answer for. I wonder what he would think today.

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