Doing What Ya Gotta Do
The story of Warren McDowell, publisher of The Fire Island Journal, delivering 6,000 copies of his semi-weekly newspaper by boat to the retailers of that summer resort grabbed me.
Fire Island is a quirky barrier island off Long Island’s South Shore, 32 miles long and half a mile wide. Cars are not permitted on the island. The only way to get there is by ferry, private boat or swimming. The wheeled vehicles of choice are kids’ wagons that carry everything—your luggage, groceries, dry cleaning and babies.
Sure, the publisher could get a permit for a delivery truck to drive the beach. But this is a waterfront community, so delivery by boat is correct. Sure, he could hire someone to make the delivery, but for McDowell, whose offices are on the mainland, this is the only way he stays in touch with his customers. In addition, he always picks up some news and gossip for his next edition.
So the publisher becomes a delivery boy. Warren McDowell does what he’s gotta do.
His intensity and drive reminded me of two of the most luminous personalities of the twentieth century, Sara and Gerald Murphy. Gerald, a fine painter, was first turned into a child’s nurse and then, for 22 years, he became a storekeeper.
He did what he had to do.
The Extraordinary Murphys
Two weekends ago, my wife and I drove to Williamstown, Mass., where the Williams College Museum was staging a magnificent exhibition, “MAKING IT NEW: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy.” It was dreamed up and assembled by Deborah Rothschild, senior curator of modern and contemporary art.
Born in 1888 and a Yale classmate of Cole Porter, Gerald Murphy was the son of the owner of Mark Cross, a store that started out selling leather goods and equestriana—saddles, tack and coach supplies. With the advent of the automobile, Patrick Murphy changed the business model and began stocking luxury items such as driving gloves, cocktail shakers, wristwatches, thermoses, safety razors and fountain pens. Son Gerald later described the store as “a monument to the nonessential.”
Gerald fell in love and married Sara Wiborg, whose father made a fortune manufacturing and selling printer’s ink by the barrel and who owned 600 acres in Eastern Long Island’s Hamptons that would be worth billions today. Over the objections of both sets of parents, the wedding took place in 1915 in the Wiborgs’ Manhattan apartment, whereupon Gerald went off to war.
Following World War I, Gerald opted out of the family business and instead took a course in landscape architecture and elementary drafting at Harvard. With three children in tow, the Murphys set sail for France with no clear goal in mind beyond visiting the gardens of Europe and getting out from under the cloying social and financial expectations of their parents.
The Murphys were a golden couple—moneyed, stylish, beautiful to look at and great conversationalists with interests in art, music, ballet, gourmet cuisine and giving great parties. In Paris their circle of friends was a “Who’s Who” of the creative intelligentsia of the 1920s—Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Jean Cocteau, Dorothy Parker, John Dos Passos, Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Stravinsky, Fernand Léger and a legion more. Dick and Nicole Diver, the main characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, “Tender Is the Night,” were the Murphys (much to their irritation).
The Making of a Painter
Until he arrived in Europe in 1921, Gerald Murphy had always assumed that painting was all about realism. In the catalog for the 1974 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, “The Paintings of Gerald Murphy,” William Rubin wrote that Murphy’s pet hate was “Leutze’s ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware,’ which he had been taken to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see as a child.” Rubin wrote:
Shortly after arriving in Paris in 1921, he saw, quite by chance, some paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Braque and Gris in the Paul Rosenberg Gallery on rue La Boétie. His response was intense. “I was astounded,” Murphy recalled. “My reaction to the color and form was immediate. To me there was something in these paintings that was instantly sympathetic and comprehensible.” He remembers telling his wife, Sara, “If that’s painting, that’s what I want to do.”
Gerald took lessons and opened a studio in Paris where he produced a few monumental paintings. The February 18, 1924 issue of TIME proclaimed:
An American has turned the art circles of Paris into triangles and polygons. He is Gerald Murphy, and his canvas, a “composite conception of the steamers Paris and Olympic,” standing 18 feet high, is a picture of the smokestacks and bridge of an Atlantic liner. The Independent Salon at which this gigantic painting was to be shown gives over one gallery to each nation. But when Mr. Murphy’s work of art arrived, it was found there would be almost no wall space left for other American artists. The painting was, therefore, hung over the grand entrance staircase, the most conspicuous position in the building.
Also in Paris, Gerald designed the set, costumes and story for “Within the Quota,” a jazz ballet about immigration to America with music by Cole Porter; it premiered in Paris in 1923 to favorable reviews and has been revived a few times over the years.
In 1925, the Murphys were pioneer settlers on the French Riviera, moving to Antibes where they bought a modest villa on the Mediterranean that they named Villa America. There they led storybook lives, bringing up their beautiful children and hosting a never-ending house party for the incredible coterie of world-renowned artists, writers and musicians who doted on them. Over the next four years, Gerald produced a few paintings; his total lifetime oeuvre is estimated to be just 14 pictures, of which seven survive.
The Murphys’ magic idyll was shattered on October 10, 1929 when their son, Patrick, age 9, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Gerald did what he had to do—closed Villa America and put Patrick into a sanitarium in Swiss Alps village of Montana-Vermala, where the family lived for the next 18 months. Gerald and Sara’s entire energies were devoted to making Patrick well.
In essence, Gerald Murphy, a potentially great painter, became the child’s nurse. The Murphys did what they had to do.
In 1935, their son Baoth, age 15, suddenly died of meningitis and four years later Patrick succumbed to tuberculosis. As Calvin Tompkins wrote in “Living Well Is the Best Revenge:”
One of the things that kept Murphy going during these years was the necessity of coping with a family economic crisis. The Mark Cross company, from which he had escaped so happily years before, had gone precipitously downhill since the death of Patrick Francis Murphy, in 1931, and it was now about a million dollars in debt and under pressure to declare itself bankrupt. Murphy was obliged to assume responsibility for the firm. Taking over the management, he retained full control for the next twenty-two years, during which time he cleared the debts, moved the store to Fifth Avenue and Fifty-second Street, and applied his imagination and taste to a variety of new items, which proved reasonably profitable. But the work, he said, was never congenial and often seemed like sleepwalking. “There is something about being struck twice by lightning in the same place,” he once wrote to a friend. “The ship foundered, was refloated, set sail again, but not on the same course, nor for the same port.”
Life was never again fun for Gerald Murphy. But this was the Great Depression and many people depended upon Mark Cross for their lives and livelihoods.
Again, Gerald Murphy did what he had to do, although sans joy. For 22 years he was an ordinary commuter-businessman to New York City.
Following his son’s diagnosis of TB, Murphy never again picked up a paintbrush. He told his biographer, Calvin Tomkins, that he realized his work was not first-rate and that “the world is filled with second-rate painting.” More likely the illness and deaths of his two sons sucked the artistic creativity out of him and he turned all his energy into running Mark Cross.
A couple of the paintings were framed and hung in private collections. But over the ensuing 30 years from the diagnosis of Patrick’s illness, Murphy dismissed his art career from his mind. Those paintings that were not lost were rolled up and forgotten in the attic and cellar of the Murphys’ home in Sneden’s Landing, New York. Out of the blue in 1960 Douglas MacAgy, director of the Dallas Museum of Contemporary Arts, wrote and asked to exhibit Murphy’s work—as many of the paintings as he could rustle up. When Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art and René d’Harnoncourt of the Met evinced interest in his paintings, Murphy said, “I’ve been discovered. What does one wear?”
Far from being second-rate, the few canvases that survive show him to be a superb painter and the progenitor of Pop Art, the school made famous by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist, to name a few.
Gerald Murphy—a potentially major painter who was kept from painting because he did what he had to do—died in 1964, remarkably, just two days after the death of his long-time friend, collaborator and Yale classmate, Cole Porter. Sara passed on 11 years later in 1975 at age 91.
Doing What You Have to Do: Running a War
Periodically I need a “Patton” fix—a viewing of the George C. Scott film written by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund North and co-starring Karl Malden. Two scenes are etched in my brain:
* Patton’s advancing Army is stalled on a bridge, blocked by a mule. Patton arrives on the scene and exclaims, “It’s a goddamn mule blocking the way?” He pulls out a revolver, shoots the animal and orders it thrown off the bridge. He did what had to be done. The Army starts to move.
* Elsewhere in the film, two mechanized units stretching for miles are stalled at a crossroads, when Patton wheels up, jumps out of his jeep and starts directing traffic. The idea of a three-star general doing the work normally performed by a Military Police corporal seems preposterous. If a tank or deuce-and-a-half were stuck in the mud, Patton would get out of his jeep and help push. He did not stand on ceremony. Whatever it took to win the war, Patton would do it.
Doing What You Have to Do: Being an S.O.B.
In my archive of news stories, I have a file titled, “Downsizing,” which contains some 70 stories describing buyouts, layoffs and firings totaling more than 300,000 people in every conceivable industry—auto, media, appliances, retail, electronics, financial services and more. The most recent: the early August announcements that Johnson & Johnson will be axing 4,280 employees and Unilever will get rid of 20,000.
For an executive or manager, downsizing means doing what you have to do, no matter how unpleasant, for the survival of the organization. It takes great courage to do this. Personally, I would rather flip hamburgers or brew coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts than be responsible for the decision to lay off 20,000 employees, turning their careers and lives inside out. Chances are my own mismanagement would have been responsible for the need to fire them.
I am a lousy manager and terrible at delegating. When I was working for a living, if I saw something that needed to be done, I would jump in and do it, rather than spending time coaching the people and helping them grow professionally. I would take the easy way.
Sometimes what you have to do is stand aside to let others do it—and show them how.
About the Exhibit in Williamstown
I found “MAKING IT NEW: The Art and Style of Sara & Gerald Murphy” to be a fascinating experience. For years I have wanted to see Gerald Murphy’s work. The seven extant pictures are on display, along with works by cubist masters that influenced him, plus myriad photographs of the Murphy’s family and life as ex-pats—candid shots of the incredible galaxy of artists, composers and writers who were their friends. Included is a fascinating documentary film and, amazingly, a video of the Gerald Murphy-Cole Porter ballet, “Within the Quota” in its entirety. The exhibit schedule:
Williams College Museum of Art, July 8 - November 11, 2001
Yale University Art Gallery, February 26 - May 4, 2008
Dallas Museum of Art, June 8, 2008 - September 14, 2008
Except for a bunch of psychobabble about Gerald Murphy’s possible repressed homosexuality, the 238-page exhibition catalog by Deborah Rothschild contains 10 grand essays and a slew of marvelous photographs. It will put you squarely into the center of the “Lost Generation” in Europe following World War I and bring you face-to-face with many creative geniuses of the 20th century.
If you make the trek to Williamstown, a second great exhibit awaits you, “The Unknown Monet,” at the Clark just down the road, June 1 through October 31.