How Painter Gerald Murphy Infused the Mark Cross Company With the Spirit of European Modernism

Art is at the core of the luxury brand’s storied legacy, which includes cameos from some of the 20th century’s greatest creative visionaries.

Gerald and Sara Murphy. Image courtesy Mark Cross.
Gerald and Sara Murphy. Image courtesy Mark Cross.

Across three centuries, Mark Cross has stood for luxury—but not the kind that money can buy. Instead, the distinguished leather-goods company—which was created as a hand-stitched saddlemaker in 1845 by the Boston entrepreneur Henry W. Cross, who named it after his baby son—represents the more rarefied luxury of life well lived: of wit, sophistication, effortless cosmopolitanism, and unbounded travel.

Its pedigree is knowingly referenced in classics of American culture. When The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield arrives at the Elkton Hills prep school, his Mark Cross luggage casts him as upper-crust (to his chagrin). When Grace Kelly’s socialite comes to stay the night with Jimmy Stewart’s injured photojournalist in Rear Window, she means her Mark Cross overnight bag to show her skeptical husband-to-be how practical she is (despite the fact that it contains nothing but a silky nightdress).

But the best expression of the Mark Cross esprit may well have been embodied by its legendary onetime president, Gerald Murphy, the American painter, bon vivant, and irrepressible creative catalyst whose life at the center of France’s artistic world in the 1920s suffuses the brand to this day.

Gerald Murphy. Image courtesy Mark Cross.

Gerald Murphy. Image courtesy Mark Cross.

The subject of a biography by Calvin Tomkins entitled Living Well Is the Best Revenge, Murphy was the son of Patrick Murphy, the brilliant businessman who had purchased Mark Cross and transformed it into a transcontinental brand with lavish stores in London and New York. (It was the father who introduced American audiences to English-cut crystal, Scottish golf clubs, Minton China, and Sheffield cutlery.) But business did not come naturally to Gerald Murphy, whose sparkling cultural life kept him from the family firm for several decades. Before he inherited the company, he wanted to change the world.

After rooming with songwriter Cole Porter at Yale, Murphy married Sara Wiborg, a beautiful Cincinnati heiress whose nonconformist spirit made her every inch his match. The couple moved to Paris to evade the gaze of their disapproving parents and instantly fell into the center of the city’s avant-garde. Murphy, a landscape architect by training, took a job helping design sets for the Ballets Russes, then at its creative apogee under the impresario Sergei Diaghilev. At the same time, Murphy’s burgeoning interest in painting was nurtured by the Russian artist Natalia Goncharova, who taught him how to approach the canvas as a Modernist. 

Gerald Murphy, Figure 5. Cocktail (1927). Image courtesy Mark Cross.

Gerald Murphy, Figure 5. Cocktail (1927). Image courtesy Mark Cross.

Amid the swirl of a social milieu that grew to include Picasso (whose wife at the time, Olga Khokhlova, was a ballerina), Léger, Gris, and other groundbreaking artists of the time—some of whom the Murphys once entertained on a notorious floating party in the Seine to celebrate a new Stravinsky ballet—Murphy found the time to paint, and paint beautifully. The canvases he turned out (some now in MoMA and other museums), combined the rigors of hard-edged Cubism with the spatial finesse of set design, with each object precisely placed to evoke a world of ordered refinement. He approached his art with the same offhand lightness he brought to other aspects of his life, eventually losing track of many of his paintings. One of his largest works, the 18-by-12-foot Boatdeck, stunned audiences at the 1924 Salon des Indépendants with its assertive scale, as if the ship were about to crash into the viewer, and was deemed a masterpiece. Tragically, it disappeared. 

The most mythical chapter of the Murphys’ lives unfolded when they bought a seaside house in Antibes, named it Villa America, and hosted an ever-changing influx of artists, filmmakers, and literary luminaries including Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Dorothy Parker, Archibald MacLeish, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. “Person after person—English, French, American, everybody—met them and came away saying that these people really were mastering the art of living,” MacLeish later wrote of the couple. This was particularly true for Fitzgerald, who saw in Gerald and Sara a beautiful—if flawed—ideal, and took them as the inspiration for Dick and Nicole Diver in Tender Is the Night.  

The Murphys and friends in Antibes. Image courtesy Mark Cross.

The Murphys and friends in Antibes. Image courtesy Mark Cross.

The Murphys had a daughter, their firstborn, Honoria, and two sons, Baoth and Patrick. When Patrick developed tuberculosis, the family moved back to New York in 1934. Gerald putting aside his life of painting and bohemianism to take over Mark Cross, which he ran from 1934 to 1956. He moved its headquarters to Fifth Avenue and invested his unusually refined taste into the creation of new signature products. His way of winning illustrious confidants also opened doors for the business. It was through his friendship with Hitchcock, who used Mark Cross desk accessories and luggage exclusively, that the company’s overnight bag ended up in Kelly’s hands in Rear Window. The classic, box-shaped bag was soon called the “Grace bag,” and became a hit among shoppers. It remains one of the brand’s most popular items.  

A company that has always been handed down from one generation of innovators to another, Mark Cross is currently carrying its storied heritage into a new era, where its cultivated, worldly-wise approach to luxury is as relevant as ever. Earlier this year, the brand launched an artist-in-residence program to support young, emerging talents, beginning with Alberte Skronski, a Danish sculptor who recently crafted a series of papier-mâché display models for the Mark Cross Rue Saint-Honoré store in Paris. This fall, in time to anticipate its 175th anniversary, the company also will open its first shop on Madison Avenue, an occasion that will celebrate its history while also turning a fresh page. 

Sara and Gerald Murphy at a costume party in Montparnasse, photographed by Man Ray c.1922. Image courtesy Mark Cross.

Sara and Gerald Murphy at a costume party in Montparnasse, photographed by Man Ray c.1922. Image courtesy Mark Cross.

To honor the moment and pay tribute to the brand’s deep roots in modern art and culture, Mark Cross has partnered with artnet News to present “From One Woman to Another,” a five-part series featuring candid, intimate conversations with 10 of the art world’s most prominent women, from RoseLee Goldberg, the savvy founder of the Performa biennial, to Mariane Ibrahim, the powerhouse dealer behind the eponymous Chicago gallery. Although Gerald and Sara Murphy are long gone, we imagine them being part of the conversation as well, as if carried out one lively night on the terrace of Villa America.


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