Friday, May 27, 2011

Revisiting "The Lost Generation"

Ernest and Hadley Hemingway at a cafe with Lady Duff Twysden and others 

In Woody Allen's new movie "Midnight in Paris," the main character played by Owen Wilson wistfully  yearns for a distant past, specifically the Paris of the 1920's when Hemingway, Picasso and the Fitzgeralds were there.  He craves the intellectual and artistic excitement that was going in Paris at the time.  As a screenwriter, he wants to stretch himself and write a novel.  And his impending marriage to a shallow and materialistic American girl has filled him with wanderlust and the desire for a French romance.  Obviously all this nostalgia is fueled by his dissatisfaction with his life.  But in my opinion nostalgia is not such a bad thing and I decided recently to take a little journey of my own.

After watching Allen's funny and nostalgic film "Midnight in Paris," which has some wonderful scenes that occur in the Paris of the 1920's and feature Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and others,  I was inspired to pull out a few books on the Lost Generation and revisit this fascinating group of artists.

Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" film

The first book I spotted on my  bookshelves was "Everybody Was So Young," the book about Gerald and Sara Murphy written in 1998 by Amanda Vail.  Fitzgerald said that the Murphys were the inspiration for Dick and Nicole Diver in "Tender is the Night."  Many other writers  in Fitzgerald's social circle were also inspired to write about  the Murphys. The epigram of "Everybody Was So Young" stopped me in my tracks because I realize that this nostalgic sentiment and description of this time in Paris is exactly what Woody Allen was trying to capture and what has always intrigued me about this group of people and our feelings about this period of time in Paris,  something ephemeral and evanescent, impossible to recapture as one gets older and maybe did not really even exist.  But the important thing is this is how it is remembered.

"It wasn't the parties that made it such a gay time.
There was such affection between everybody.  You loved
your friends and wanted to see them every day, and usually
you did see them everyday.  It was like a great fair, 
and everybody was so young."

Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald

Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston as the Fitzgeralds in "Midnight in Paris"
Photo from the New York Times

These writers and artists were American expats and European artists living in Paris during the 1920's.  There were the chic and glamorous Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the legendary Ernest Hemingway, the struggling and groundbreaking artists Picasso and Braque, and the patroness of the arts Gertrude Stein, just to name a few.  (By the way, a similar community of artists and writers existed in England with the Bloomsbury Group which included their own patroness of the arts Ottoline Morell)  The Paris that they write about is a glowing, incandescent place that evokes all kinds of feelings of nostalgia and affection.

Gertrude Stein and her companion Alice B. Toklas

Gertrude Stein painted by Picasso

My goal of pulling out several books on The Lost Generation never materialized, as I became obsessed with "We Were All So Young" and could not put it down.  Gerald and Sara Murphy were a young, glamorous couple who brought together many of these writers and artists at their home in the South of France.  They provided hospitality, glamour, incredible parties, and images and memories that inspired many books, including "Tender is the Night."

Gerald and Sara Murphy in the South of France

In the prologue to "Everybody Was So Young," Amanda Vail writes about the Murphys:

Late in his life their friend Archibald MacLeish tried to put it into words for an interviewer who had asked him what "the special pull of the Murphys" was.  "No one has ever been able quite to define it,' MacLeish said -- but he came as close as anyone:  "Scott tried in 'Tender is the Night.'  Dos tried in more direct terms.  Ernest tried by not trying.  I wrote a 'Sketch for a Portrait of Madame G.M.,' a longish poem.  They escaped us all.  There was a shine to life wherever they were: not a decorative added value but a kind of revelation of inherent loveliness as though custom and habit had been wiped away and the thing itself was, for an instant, seen.  Don't ask me how."

In so many of the memoirs I have read of writers and artists living in London or Paris at this time, there  always seems to be a golden couple like Gerald and Sara Murphy that everyone wants to be with, who have a special talent for bringing people together and have an excitement about life that is contagious.  According to Vail's book many of the guests at the Murphy's house in the South of France remember their generosity and supportiveness, a mixture of inspiration and nurturing that gave a magical glow to their famous parties that lived on in the memories of people like the Fitzgeralds and Hemingway.

Owen Wilson who travels back in time to the Paris of the 1920's with Marion Cotillard who plays Adriana, a fictional mistress of Picasso's in "Midnight in Paris"
Photo from the New York Times

What I love about all of this -- the Murphys in their heyday, the writers who were inspired to create characters based on them, the parties and the atmosphere they created, and the memoirs and letters which delineate all of this and try to capture this time period and these personalities -- is the passion and interest in life which characterizes it all.  It's not so much about being young, though there is a different passion that comes with youth.  I think it is just a passion about life and the people that make life sparkle.  There is no age limit to this, and I am so grateful to have the memoirs of writers such as Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf and others to give us a glimpse into these times and to inspire us to live life fully.

Some of the writers and artist associated with the Bloomsbury Group in England including Virginia and Leonard Woolf and Vanessa and Clive Bell

Some of the younger generation of artists and writers associated with The Bloomsbury Group

As Woody Allen's alter ego played by Owen Wilson in the movie says, nostalgia is an interesting phenomenon.  He realizes that the yearning for a time past is often a consequence of ennui and dissatisfaction.  But I think reading about this romantic time and place is good for us and revisiting it in a movie such as "Midnight in Paris" makes us wonder about and strive to add a dose of glamour and romance to our own lives.  Often just the effort alone makes it happen as we undergo a subtle attitude change and new way of looking at our world.  I for one am always being inspired.


  1. Inspiration post. I read the Amanda Vaill many years ago and really enjoyed it. I believe Nicole and Dick Diver in Tender is the Night were directly based on Gerald and Sara Murphy - Nicole wearing her pearls on the beach and Gerald raking the seaweed - I want to re-read it now! I wasn't aware of the Woody Allen film, thank you for letting us know because I'd like to see it.

  2. I cannot wait to see this movie! Love the inspiring post :)


  3. Your description of the continuing attractiveness of this "lost generation", the ephemeral, the evanescent, the inability to recapture something that may not even have existed, except in our memory, if at all,really hit me as a profound truth about all of our lives. Today, as much as then.
    We were all so young. And now...

  4. ...we are all "a la recherche du temps perdue."

  5. Tender is the Night is one of my all time favorite books. I've never read Everybody Was So Young, but have been meaning to, and now will, for sure.
    I love what you took away from the movie, and how you wove it into our own presence, as I thought the movie was a bit thin, on it's own. Great post.

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  7. Great post Sunday! The movie has not come out in London yet. I am looking forward to it. I have been a long time fan of Woody Allen. Funny you should mention about revisiting the classics. I have been visiting used books shops recently to pick up Fitzgerald and Hemingway classics. I found Green Hills of Africa by Hemingway last week and can't wait to get back into it.

    Thanks again for your comment..always lovely to hear from you :)

    Jeanne xx

    PS..I posted this post onto my Facebook page. Sorry about previous comment...that was me :)

  8. Jeanne, I have not read "Green Hills of Africa" and would love to know how you liked it. I am an ardent fan of Woody Allen, especially his older films. This one I think is quite good. I wrote about how much I am enjoying your blog on my Facebook page.

    David and Kathy, thank you both for your thoughtful comments. I always enjoy hearing from you. David, your blog on the arts is excellent and I just put it on my blog roll.

    Nicola, I love your memory of "Tender is the Night" with Nicole in her pearls on the beach. I cannot to wait to reread this incredible book! Thanks for reminding me.

  9. I absolutely cannot wait to see this movie. This beautiful post only makes me more impatient for it to open here!

  10. I'll toss in Calvin Tomkins' book "Living Well is the Best Revenge" and Nancy Mitford's "Zelda." This period always tugged at my heart for its lush literary and art and life as art masterpieces in the full throttle of change.

  11. this is my first time checking out your blog and after this post-- on one of my favorite topics!-- i will definitely been checking it out again. i'd heard of "everybody was so young," but had forgotten i wanted to read it until now. thanks!

  12. What a wonderful post!! I was almost afraid to read it as I am just dying to see the film and didn't want any hints but you gave away only enough to put it in context of one of my favorite eras. Such an evocative time full of inspiration and artistic creativity. I have never read "Everybody Was So Young" and shouldn't be allowed one more book in my house as I have the literary Tower of Pisa bedside but I'm afraid I may just have to give in to this one - thank you!!

  13. Such a gorgeous post, and now cannot wait to read 'Everybody . . .', it sounds like the perfect thing for early-bohemian Summer inspiration!

  14. Dying to see this now! And, have always thought that Tender is the Night was Fitzgerald's best! Can't wait to read this. There is another piece of fiction out right now about Hemingway's first wife, Hadley. I believe it is called The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. That might be worthy of checking out this summer as well!

  15. Yes, you have! Love this lesson in expats. I have a million more books to recommend/ questions to ask. My biggest: have you seen the Stein exhibits in San Francisco yet? You MUST!

  16. Can't wait to read this book, especially after reading this post. MacLeish's comments on defining the pull of the Murphys gave me a chuckle.... "Hemingway tried by not trying"

  17. Wonderful post! This is one of my favourite movies. It features some of my favourite artists and authors... I'm fascinated with life in Paris during the 1020's.
    I saw this movie when it came to the theatres and received it as a Christmas gift. I now share it with family and friends.

    Wishing you a most beutiful weekend! xoxo, B