The Irish-American who romanced other nonconforming women

Esther Arthur was ‘a visible presence in Sapphic New York and Paris’, according to her biographer

On May 18th, 1937, The Irish Times printed a photograph of a reception held in Dublin to welcome two Irish-American visitors to Ireland. The shot of "Mr and Mrs Chester Arthur" shows people at the home of the Irish journalist Kathleen O'Brennan. The US minister to the Irish Free State, Alvin M Owsley, is in the group. The guests of honour, Chester A Arthur III and his wife, Esther Arthur (nee Murphy), stand close to the painter Jack B Yeats in formal attire. In many ways the photograph is an image of conventionality, yet the story behind the husband and wife who feature in the photograph is radically nonconformist.

The Arthurs were a couple brought together through radical politics and dissident sexuality. Chester A Arthur III, the grandson of the 21st US president, Chester A Arthur, first arrived in Ireland in the early 1920s, intent on linking up the Irish revolution with a mystically infused sexual revolution. While her future husband pursued a total and ultimately unrealised social revolution in radical Dublin, Esther Murphy spent part of the Roaring Twenties socialising in Parisian lesbian circles.

Esther Murphy was much more than the wife of a president's grandson, though she spent her life struggling to fulfil her grand potential

The 1937 Irish Times reference to Murphy as “Mrs Chester Arthur” reduced Murphy’s story to its most difficult chapter: her marriage to Chester. Esther Murphy was much more than the wife of a president’s grandson, though she spent her life struggling to fulfil her grand potential.

Esther Murphy was born in New York in 1897 to a wealthy Irish-American family. Murphy’s biographer Lisa Cohen writes that Esther’s father, Patrick, was part of the first group of Irish Catholics to find acceptance in New York society. Patrick Murphy’s story was the a tale of Irish-American success. Born into a large Boston-Irish family in 1856, Patrick Murphy became a prominent businessman working with the Mark Cross company. The family wealth ensured Esther had a privileged childhood, which Cohen notes was spent “at home and at the watering holes of the wealthy in Europe and the United States”.


Esther and her siblings entered easily into New York's literary bohemia. Not only did they resemble characters in an F Scott FitzGerald novel, but the Murphys also knew FitzGerald personally. The Murphy family connection to the "Lost Generation" American literary world is immortalised on the dedication page of F Scott FitzGerald's 1934 novel Tender Is the Night. "To Gerald and Sara, Many Fêtes", wrote FitzGerald in his dedication, referring to Esther's brother Gerald Murphy and her sister-in-law Sara.

Esther Murphy’s own literary ambitions lay more in the world of fact, specifically biography, rather than fiction. Her first biographical project was the life of Marguerite Gardiner, the Tipperary-born society hostess and friend of Lord Byron. Her chief absorption, however, was the life of Mme de Maintenon, the lover and adviser of King Louis XIV.

At society dinners in Europe and the US, Murphy regaled and romanced other intellectually dynamic and nonconforming women. By the mid-1920s Murphy was 'a visible presence in Sapphic New York and Paris'

The women with whom she surrounded herself would also have made for interesting biographies had Murphy been interested in her own century rather than the 18th. At society dinners in Europe and the US, Murphy regaled and romanced other intellectually dynamic and nonconforming women. By the mid-1920s Murphy was, in Cohen’s words, “a visible presence in Sapphic New York and Paris”. She competed with Dorothy Wilde, niece of Oscar, for the affections of Natalie Clifford Barney in Paris and corresponded with the artist and activist Muriel Draper.

Murphy’s relationship with the English Labour MP John Strachey began after Strachey travelled to the United States in 1928. According to Strachey’s biographer Hugh Thomas, Strachey proposed marriage with Murphy’s money and bohemian connections in mind. With such foundations, it is unsurprising that the marriage eventually collapsed.

Murphy’s relationship with Chester A Arthur III, also known as Gavin Arthur, began in the mid-1930s when the couple met through the political world of Roosevelt’s New Deal. The relationship became a source of distress for Esther Murphy in its early years and the couple separated, eventually divorcing in 1961. Murphy’s requited love for the German writer Sybille Bedford ensured the final chapter of her love life had more romantic fulfilment than that provided by her earlier relationships.

Murphy proved enormously capable of discussing her projects yet poorly equipped to finish them. Her frustrations were, in part, products of her vivid social world and the boozing it facilitated. She died in 1962, with her planned great works left unfinished. In the words of her biographer Cohen, Murphy's life had always "seemed to her friends to hang in mid-air, unfulfilled".

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Dr Maurice J Casey, DFA historian-in-residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, in Dublin's Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world