Sometimes an expression just sounds right. It resonates in a way that maybe you just feel, but you can’t quite explain. For me, “A life lived well is the best revenge,” is just that. Despite never considering it completely.
In my mind it’s associated with elegance and intellect, with a dash of je ne sais crois. And maybe that little bit extra of elusive mystery was the lure. But what I never questioned, never even thought about really, was the revenge. Revenge for what?
But whatever, did it matter?
My first memory of the expression was when I was eleven, and my parents and I were living in Paris. It sounds glamorous — and it was — but at eleven, living in one room at a pension with your parents doesn’t feel… glamorous. Meals were provided communal style at a large dining room table on the main floor and served by a man smoking a perpetually lit Gitane, with ash so long it appeared imminently close to falling in the soup. The sideboard prominently featured two poorly taxidermied cats. Presumably former family pets. And access to the bath was extra — with no plug provided for the tub — making for a quick bath.
We weren’t the first Americans to give the expat life a try. I found out through a book my father gave me during our trip. Calvin Tomkins’ Living Well is the Best Revenge, about Gerald and Sara Murphy. And here you might be thinking, “Aha, the book title is the link.” But it’s much more than a title.
The Murphys, two Americans living in France during the 1920s, formed a cultural hub of artists and friends — Picasso, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. They set a standard of living that wasn’t necessarily characterized by wealth, though the Murphys had it, and undeniably represented the elegance and the intellect of the era.
The book piqued, as I’m sure my father meant it to, my 11-year-old interest enough that I became a compliant, non bratty kid living in one room with her parents. Actually, that’s not true — I remained bratty and was pretty unbearable — a minor miracle that we all survived, but only because they sent me back to the States. Despite this, the book and the expression stuck in my head.
Thinking about it now, it’s the equivalent of having all the pieces to a puzzle, but not realizing it fully. But with new experiences, and things remembered, things start to link, and a picture slowly emerges. And I now realize that this expression is our family ethos. Living well through experiences and culture is king.
That time in Paris in a pension — my parents travelled until the money ran out. Years later, a different trip to Munich, the house was sold and much in it to make that trip. These experiences, for me, formed the fabric of my memory and my life. I certainly will never forget those cats or the man with the cigarette.
Later, in my 20s, I had my own version of this — moving around — immersing myself in an equine world that spanned from Hialeah to Dubai. Ethos handed down. But still, never considering that other half of the expression.
Recent reflections concerning a friend, and other thoughts about a silly nonsensical word, really made it matter. And I finally asked, “Revenge? Revenge for what?”
So, I went back to the Tomkins’ book to see about what I’d never asked. Gerald Murphy describes his own view of living.
“Sara is in love with life and skeptical of people,” Gerald once told Fitzgerald. “I’m the other way. I believe you have to do things to life to make it tolerable. I’ve always liked the old Spanish proverb: ‘Living well is the best revenge.’
And when I asked my father, he offered his:
“…life can be hard and full of heartbreak, then you die. There’s nothing you can do about that. So the only thing to do is to have a good time, to live well, while you can. That’s your revenge against a fate that can’t be beaten and always wins.”
You can’t argue with the ultimate fate. It is what it is. Life can change in the blink of an eye, so yes, live well.
And the silly word?
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. It just appeared in my thoughts, and I felt it resonate. A nonsensical word that simply makes sense. I’m not sure what it is — maybe I will ask later — but I feel certain that it’s wonderful and magical.
A profile of Calvin Tomkins’ book appeared for The New Yorker in 1962, Living Well is the Best Revenge.
Other stories about ‘A Life Lived Well’ can be found on Scott Herron’s blog. Scott Herron is my father.