One of the most powerful and enduring American legacies is American only in its dramatis personae; the geography is strictly French. As Woody Allen magically illustrated in Midnight in Paris, the legion of Americans in the Paris of the 1920s was also responsible for a surfeit of creative activity, producing works that evoke images of rive gauche cafes and smoky evenings of wine, food, conversation, and music.
The names of those who shared the experience are a litany of the jazz age’s most creative individuals and electrifying personalities: Ernest Hemingway (above), Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter, John Dos Passos, and Gerald and Sara Murphy.
While novels such as Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night romanticize the expatriate movement, biographical works such as Gerald Murphy’s Living Well Is the Best Revenge tell the tale of what Gertrude Stein described as “a lost generation.” Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast also depicts the era in a series of short sketches. Hemingway talks of being entertained in Stein’s famous salon and of the interesting dynamic at work in the home of Stein and her lifelong partner, Alice B. Toklas:
But we liked Miss Stein and her friend, although the friend was frightening. The paintings and the cakes and the eau-de-vie were truly wonderful. They seemed to like us too and treated us as though we were very good, well mannered and promising children and I felt that they forgave us for being in love and being married—time would fix that—and when my wife invited them to tea, they accepted.
Gertrude Stein’s home was the nucleus of the expatriate society, though she also shared her rooms with a number of her famous European friends, James Joyce and Pablo Picasso among them. Stein (above, with Alice B. Toklas) collected art as well as friends. Her life and impact on the art world were recently the themes of the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories.”
The personalities at work and play in this movement were fascinating. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (below) led passionate and frenzied lives fueled dually by a zeal for living and massive amounts of alcohol. Hemingway was a complex man who wrote in simple sentences; his works are at the psychological center of the lost generation’s existential crisis. Individuals such as Gerald and Sara Murphy contributed to the mix by sponsoring artists, throwing parties, and originating the American experience on the Mediterranean; their Cap d’Antibes cottage Villa America was a distinct and quiet refuge from the nightlife and party scene of Paris.
While Americans at home were left empty-glassed by Prohibition, the festival of bubbles poured over in Paris. Food and drink were a large part of the cultural discourse and also central to Hemingway’s themes. Again, from A Moveable Feast, we see Hemingway’s lean verbiage serving to enhance the table in front of him:
The pommes a l’huile were firm and marinated and the olive oil delicious. I ground black pepper over the potatoes and moistened the bread in the olive oil. After the first heavy draft of beer, I drank and ate very slowly. When the pommes a l’huile were gone I ordered another serving and a cervelas. This was a sausage like a heavy, wide frankfurter split in two and covered with a special mustard sauce. I mopped up all the oil and all of the sauce with bread and drank the beer slowly until it began to lose its coldness and then I finished it and ordered a demi and watched it drawn.
In the spare days before his success, Hemingway recorded many, many encounters with food, perhaps because he was hungry. “You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris,” he notes, “because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food.”
The other preoccupation of this period was, of course, art—in all its forms. Painting, writing, theater, and dance were all appreciated facets of the cultural scene. While Fitzgerald and Hemingway were alternately feathering and grinding words onto paper, Murphy and Picasso were splashing paints onto canvases, and Zelda Fitzgerald somehow convinced herself that she should become a ballerina, though her habits and age were somewhat ballet-prohibitive. All of these individuals met with creative success, even Zelda, who danced in staged works and gave herself over manically to ballet.
Their moment seemed to disappear as rapidly as it appeared. The crash of the stock market in 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression flung cold water onto the fire that was the roaring twenties. And while these figures appear to us now as flapping and dandified specters of a lost age—and generation—the freshness of the hope that Scott Fitzgerald called “the green light, the orgiastic future” still lives in their writings and paintings.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
Ernest Miller Hemingway / Waldo Peirce / Ink on paper, 1928 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Jonathan Peirce
Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas / Sir Francis Cyril Rose / Tempera and gouache on cardboard, 1939 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; partial gift of the T. Mellon Evans Foundation
Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald / Harrison Fisher / Conté crayon on paperboard, 1927 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Fitzgerald's daughter, Mrs. Scottie Smith
F. Scott Fitzgerald / Harrison Fisher / Conté crayon and white paint on paperboard, 1927 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Fitzgerald's daughter, Mrs. Scottie Smith