The Lost Generation in Saranac Lake

by Philip Kokotailo | History, June 2021

How one boy brought Hemingway, Dos Passos, MacLeish and Léger to the Adirondacks

lazed off-white bricks
were chosen, 125 years ago, for the interior of the first laboratory devoted to the study of tuberculosis in America, because they were easy to clean. Some of those bricks are now etched with names—in plain, black lettering—just inside the entrance to the Saranac Laboratory Museum, forming a stark memorial to “Patients who Cured in Saranac Lake.” One brick displays a common name, easily overlooked, though it brought to Saranac Lake some of the 20th century’s best-known writers and artists.

Patrick Murphy was the third child of Gerald and Sara Murphy, key figures in the “Lost Generation” of American expatriates who made France their home in the 1920s and ’30s. There the Murphys were so fascinated by modern art that they took daily lessons from Natalia Goncharova, a Russian painter closely associated with the Ballets Russes in Paris. Soon Gerald and Sara were not only painting theater sets but also developing friendships with Pablo Picasso (who designed sets for the Ballets Russes) and with Fernand Léger, the avant-garde painter who became a mentor to Gerald. Later he would become an inspiration to Patrick, too.

Gerald and Sara also developed friendships with American writers who were attracted to France for the same reasons they were: the social freedom it offered and the artistic creation it invited. The most consequential were John Dos Passos, Archibald MacLeish, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, the author who made the phrase “Lost Generation” famous.

For Gerald and Sara’s sake, more specifically for Patrick’s sake, Dos Passos, MacLeish, Léger and Hemingway all visited Saranac Lake between July 1935, when Patrick arrived to cure, and January 1937, when he died of tuberculosis at age 16.

Dos Passos called Patrick “one of those children in whom you already see the lineaments of the firstrate man to come.” MacLeish referred to him as “a child with the grave intelligence of a grown man.” And, in the eyes of Picasso, Patrick at age five was “un monsieur qui est par hasard un enfant” (a man who is by chance a child).

Patrick displayed his boyish maturity in the journal he kept intermittently at Saranac Lake. In precisely drawn block lettering, he expressed himself clearly and correctly, often with the formal syntax and wry tone of an adult. At the same time, he earnestly filled a small telephone book with an alphabetized “to-do” list instead of names and numbers. C, for instance, contained: “Clay Modelling, Camping, Collecting Stamps, Cards (Easter), Casting Flies.”

Patrick came to Saranac Lake, rather than to any other location known for the treatment of tuberculosis, primarily because he could receive expert medical care here. Still, it wasn’t only Patrick who needed care in July 1935. Everyone in the Murphy family was reeling from the sudden death of Patrick’s older brother Baoth, from spinal meningitis. The family was facing financial challenges, too. The death of Gerald’s father in 1931, not long after the onset of the Great Depression, brought a crisis to his Mark Cross Company, which sold luxury and leather goods from its store on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Because it was a primary source of income for the Murphys, Gerald had stepped in to take control. If Patrick went to Saranac Lake, rather than to a more distant location, Gerald could give the company the attention it needed to survive, yet still manage the seven-hour journey by train to visit his wife and son on alternate weekends. In Saranac Lake, Sara and Patrick could follow the pattern established by Edward Livingston Trudeau, living in lakeside camps during the summer and in village homes with cure porches during the winter.

For their first summer, the Murphys rented the five-acre Steel Camp on Lower Saranac Lake, where Patrick occupied a ground-floor bedroom with a screened porch. (Though the camp burned in 1969, its boathouse has survived.) In October, mother and son moved to 29 (now 45) Church Street in town. At both locations, Sara and Patrick struggled to adapt. By August, the 14-year-old had lost seven pounds and weighed only 59. Sara, meanwhile, was battling loneliness. In a September letter to Ernest Hemingway and his wife Pauline, she appealed for them to visit, saying: “Here Patrick & his nurse and I live in solitary state & he P. is off in isolated quarters & on his porch, so I roam the place in desolate grandeur.”

In these circumstances, Patrick naturally developed closer relationships with adults than with children his own age. Sara hoped the Hemingways would bring their own boys for a visit, but she understood the parental fear of a contagious disease. Still, she reassured them from Steel Camp: “Our guests are in a guest-house apart—& all Patrick’s dishes—silver laundry etc etc are separate so there isn’t the slightest danger about that.”

Two adults with whom Patrick developed especially close relationships were Hemingway and Fernand Léger. In late 1935, so that he could attend a major exhibition of his work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Léger turned to Gerald and Sara for help with everything from lodging to money to translation. Léger then accompanied them to 29 Church Street, where he and Patrick decided to draw each other. Though it is closely studied and carefully executed, Léger’s drawing is ironically vague and uncertain. By pushing his subject back and to the side, and by engrossing him in either a book or his drawing pad, Léger makes Patrick seem both physically diminished and psychologically remote. Patrick’s drawing is more traditional—a frontal portrait of Léger from the chest up, wearing an overcoat with half the collar turned up, a thick muffler and a woolen cap. He captured the sadness in Léger’s eyes, the unspoken dismay of seeing any boy, let alone the son of close friends, in the condition he had just drawn.

While Léger treated Patrick as a fellow artist, Hemingway treated him as a fellow outdoorsman. And Patrick “adored” him for it, to quote Sara. It isn’t difficult to see why. As an adult, Hemingway continued to live what the boy Patrick had been denied—“Camping,” for instance, or “Casting flies,” and so many other activities included in his alphabetized to-do list. Even before Patrick and Sara came to Saranac Lake, Hemingway was writing to him about life outdoors, promising: “If you go to the country this summer we will come up to see you wherever you go.”

Hemingway made good on that promise sometime in late September or early October 1935. Patrick and Sara were then living at Steel Camp, to which she enticed the Hemingways with promises of “such a good wine cellar, & a good cook, & lots of new music.” Pauline accompanied Ernest, but little record of what they did has survived. It must have involved a trip to Lake Placid, since Hemingway would joke later, in a letter dated February 11, 1936: “look at the way you kicked us out of Lake Placid.”

For the summer of 1936, Sara purchased the Paul Smith Jr. camp on Lower St. Regis Lake (from the estate of his widow) and renamed it Camp Adeline (for her mother). In his journal, Patrick revealed what made this camp “lovely” for him. It contained not only “about 8 different cottages,” but also a “boat-house and dock, with a launch, row-boat and canoe.” Patrick realized that his nurse here, Frances Daniel, was “apparently devoted to me,” too, for she “got a wheelchair from one of her former patients, in which I can go all over the place, including the dock, where I can fish.”

Surely, though, what also made the camp so lovely was Sara’s desire to make it hopeful, rather than “gloomy,” as Dos Passos once called “those Adirondack lakes.” Her efforts were not lost on her husband, who described the main building in a July 1936 letter to Fitzgerald: “which she has somehow transformed into something outside of New Orleans—gay, light, colored rooms, white rugs, a small jungle of indoor exotic palms and plants,—mexican metalwork [throughout].” Patrick’s room she decorated with “treasures”: “all his fishing paraphernalia,” his guns, and the trophies that Hemingway sent—mounted heads of the “impalla & bushbuck” he had shot in Africa.

None of the treasures or hopeful surroundings, however, could alter the course of Patrick’s illness. An elegiac undertone can be detected even in a letter the ever-optimistic Sara wrote to “My dear Hemingways” at the end of July 1936: “Lately, in an effort to improve his appetite, (which seems to resist everything) we push him all around outdoors in a reclining wheelchair, even down to the dock where he holds a fishline. He is simply ravished, as he catches bullheads, perch, & sometimes little trout. It has made his life over. … He simply loves the camp, which is such a comfort.”

For the winter, Sara and Patrick moved back into town, this time renting an estate built in 1929 for John Rumsey, a New York City literary agent and nightclub owner. Now part of St. Joseph’s rehabilitation center, the 20-room main building was set on four acres of hillside overlooking Lake Kiwassa. Patrick’s bedroom was in a first-floor wing.

About the time of his 16th birthday, however (on October 18th), Patrick was “set back terribly,” as he recorded in his journal: “by toothache, not eating, and taking drugs. Thus don’t feel well.” As his symptoms worsened, he had to be increasingly isolated, too. By January 1st, his previously exact, draftsman-like handwriting had begun to waver, and the tone of his journal turned pessimistic: “New Year’s Day was one of the dreariest that I ever spent. Muggy, cloudy, no snow to be seen anywhere in Saranac Lake! I woke up in a wretched mood, took hours for my nourishment, and I listened gloomily to the merrymaking of my family and their guests.” Still, Patrick continued to work at his etching. The last he did was of Hemingway, though he cannot be recognized. All we see is the lone figure of a hunter—rifle slung over his shoulder, head bent forward—walking through a mountainous landscape.

Gerald wrote to Hemingway on January 8, “am now here indefinitely,” and friends began to gather, as Patrick’s death loomed. Hemingway responded by driving up from New York City with Sidney Franklin, the “noted and only American bullfighter,” wrote Patrick, though he could no longer handle his journal. He now wrote on small squares of paper that were then taped into it. “Ernest,” he recorded on January 16th, “came in to see me for a few minutes before I went to bed. He is giving me a bear-skin for a Christmas present but it is not ready yet.” It is probably these “few minutes” that Patrick’s older sister Honoria recounted in detail: “They talked about fishing, but it was soon obvious that Ernest was having difficulty controlling his emotions. It was terribly sad to see this big, robust man about to break down as he faced the fact that a young boy he loved was soon to die.” Hemingway stayed for several more days, concluded Honoria, “but his anger mixed with sorrow did not subside.”

For the next two weeks Patrick’s health declined, wrote Gerald, “in periodic drops from one level of vitality to a lower … each time he seems to withdraw a little … his mind is clearer and more detached … his horizon larger.” Visitors were required to wear surgical masks, since tuberculosis becomes more contagious at the end of life. “We told Patrick,” said Honoria, “we were wearing the masks so that he would not be exposed to our germs.” She recounted his death on January 30th in detail, too: “He had lapsed into a coma that morning, and the doctor told us there was nothing more that could be done. We were standing around his bed as his breathing became fainter and finally stopped. Mother and Dow-Dow [a family nickname for Gerald] each was holding one of his hands and saying to him, ‘You’re just fine, Patrick. We’re right here with you.’” The next day, wrote Honoria, John Dos Passos arrived unannounced, embraced Sara, and said, “I just wanted to be with you.”

Across the street from the Saranac
Laboratory Museum stands the Church of St. Luke, the Beloved Physician, completed in 1878 under the auspices of Edward Livingston Trudeau. About the services held there for Patrick on February 1, 1937, Archibald MacLeish later wrote: “There was a bleak, blank memorial service in an empty New York church.” Sara decided not to sell Camp Adeline, but to donate it to the Kips Bay Boys Club of New York, hoping it would become a camp for inner-city youth. A year later, Gerald wrote about Sara to Hale Walker and Harold Heller, the architects who designed Villa America, the Murphys’ treasured home on the French Riviera: “We have both felt that our life was definitely stopped before it was finished and that nothing we do further has much meaning except as it can possibly be of service to Honoria and our friends.”

While those friends included names that made the Lost Generation famous, there were other friends, too—lesser known names. One was Helen Trudeau, the wife of Dr. Francis Trudeau, who continued his father’s medical practice and succeeded him as president of the Trudeau Sanatorium. To Helen, Sara would send Christmas gifts, and expressions of gratitude, for years to come.

The lesser-known friends from Saranac Lake appear to have known little about the celebrated friends from Paris and Villa America. Only in 1962, when The New Yorker published an article by Calvin Tomkins that would evolve into his book Living Well Is the Best Revenge, did Helen Trudeau learn of the Murphys’ place in the Lost Generation. Helen then wrote to Sara, saying she was “so proud to be able to say I knew you very well. What a lovely tribute it was to your friendship, and what a fascinating time of life it was for you! such memories! I loved reading about it—how did you ever adjust to life in Saranac Lake after such glamor?” 

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