Sara and Gerald Murphy, a wealthy American couple that moved to the French Riviera in the early 1900s, are best known for being the models for Nicole and Dick Diver in their friend F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel, Tender is the Night. But before that, they were simply privately legendary, and one of the reasons was their knack for throwing creative and vibrant parties. One of their most famous soirées was given in honor of Stravinsky’s Les Noces, a ballet that premiered at the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1923. Held on June 17, the weekend after the ballet’s premiere, the party featured an expertly culled guest list of 40-odd members of Sara and Gerald’s social circle, including Tristan Tzara, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Jean Cocteau, and Stravinsky himself.
Held on a large river barge on the Seine, the party had personal import to the couple: Gerald, who would become a renowned painter, had restored the sets created by Picasso, Braque, and Derain after his mentor, modernist painter Natalia Goncharova, had recommended his artistry to dance-company impresario Sergei Diaghilev.
A scene from Les Noces ballet. Photo via the Russian Ballet History Collection.
The ballet performance itself was beautiful, but one might be forgiven for saying the party was even better. Sara made lemonade out of the sour news that florists were closed on the Sunday of the event, instead creating pyramid-like centerpieces out of toy tin cars, fire engines, dolls, and plush animals that she’d picked up at a bazaar in Montparnasse. No big deal—until Picasso arrived and took their artful organization into his own hands, literally, rearranging them into a single brilliant “traffic pileup” topped with a cow on a fireman’s ladder. Guest of honor Stravinsky got into the spirit too, skipping cocktails on the canopied upper deck and heading straight for the downstairs dining room, where he rearranged the place cards, although he was pleased with his spot—to the right of Princess de Polignac, who had commissioned “Les Noces.”
Once the meal began, champagne flowed, French pianist Marcelle Meyer played Scarletti sonatas, and the theater’s principal dancers pirouetted. Afterward, Goncharova read guests’ palms, and Cocteau, terrified of seasickness for the first hours, finally got on board. After stealing one of the captain’s uniforms, he grabbed a lantern and scampered across the deck in full regalia, peeking into portholes to inform guests, “On coule!” (“We’re sinking!”). At dawn, two enterprising guests removed the giant laurel wreath Sara had used to decorate the saloon wall and beckoned Stravinsky to do a running leap through it. He speedily and gracefully obliged.
Everybody Was So Young is a biography that captures the fascinating lives of the Murphys.
To this day, Sara and Gerald’s Les Noces party is considered one of the wildest soirées of all time. Stravinsky characterized it as the best night of his life, Picasso praised it as a welcome relief from the stuffiness of other parties of the time, and Cocteau said, “Depuis le jour de ma première communion, c’est le plus beau soir de ma vie.” (“Since the day of my first communion, it is the most beautiful evening of my life.”)
Hôtel du Cap, Antibes, where the Murphys spent their summers.
Though there are few photos to bring the evening back to visual life, Sara and Gerald’s ever-growing legend seems to do the job just fine. Soon afterward, the couple headed to Cap d’Antibes for the summer and continued la belle vie.
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