Murray, William 1926-2005
MURRAY, William 1926–2005
PERSONAL: Born in 1926, in New York, NY; died of a heart attack, March 9, 2005, in New York, NY; son of William (manager of William Morris talent agency) and Natalia Danesi (in publishing, broadcasting, and film) Murray; married Doris Rogers; children: a daughter. Education: Attended Harvard University and Manhattan Conservatory.
ADDRESSES: Home—San Diego, CA. Office—New Yorker, 25 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.
CAREER: New Yorker magazine, New York, NY, staff writer, columnist, editor of fiction department. Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company, guest baritone.
AWARDS, HONORS: American Library Association Notable Book of 1982, for The Fatal Gift.
The Fugitive Romans, Vanguard Press (New York, NY), 1955, published as Friends and Romans, Allen (London, England).
Best Seller, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1957.
The Self-Starting Wheel, Dutton (New York, NY), 1960.
The Sweet Ride, New American Library (New York, NY), 1967.
The Americano, New American Library (New York, NY), 1968.
The Dream Girls, Dutton (New York, NY), 1972.
The Killing Touch, Dutton (New York, NY), 1974.
The Mouth of the Wolf, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1977.
Malibu, Coward, McCann, and Geoghegan (New York, NY), 1980.
(With Chuck Scarborough) The Myrmidon Project, Coward, McCann and Geoghegan (New York, NY), 1981.
"SHIFTY LOU ANDERSON MYSTERY" SERIES
Tip on a Dead Crab, Viking (New York, NY), 1984.
The Hard Knocker's Luck, Viking (New York, NY), 1985.
When the Fat Man Sings, Bantam Books (New York, NY), 1987.
The King of the Nightcap, Bantam Books (New York, NY), 1989.
The Getaway Blues, Bantam Books (New York, NY), 1990.
I'm Getting Killed Right Here, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1991.
We're Off to See the Killer, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1993.
Now You See Her, Now You Don't, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1994.
A Fine Italian Hand, M. Evans (New York, NY), 1996.
(With Francis Lagrange) Flag on Devil's Island, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1961.
Adventures in the People Business: The Story of World Book, Field Enterprises Educational Corp. (Chicago, IL), 1966.
Previews of Coming Attractions: Scenes and Faces from the Permanent L.A. Fun Game, World (New York, NY), 1970.
Horse Fever, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1976.
Italy: The Fatal Gift, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1982.
The Last Italian: Portrait of a People, Prentice Hall (New York, NY), 1991.
The Wrong Horse: An Odyssey through the American Racing Scene, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1992.
The Right Horse: Winning More, Losing Less, and Having a Great Time at the Racetrack, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1997.
Janet, My Mother, and Me: A Memoir of Growing Up with Janet Flanner and Natalia Danesi Murray, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.
City of the Soul: A Walk in Rome, Crown Journeys (New York, NY), 2003.
Also author of the play Witnesses, produced in Los Angeles; contributor to numerous periodicals, including New Yorker, Nation, Village Voice, and Saturday Review; author of weekly column, "Letters from Italy," New Yorker, 1962–1990s.
ADAPTATIONS: The Sweet Ride was filmed by Twentieth Century-Fox, 1968.
SIDELIGHTS: William Murray was a prolific writer who seemed to have led two distinct lives. By day he was best known to readers of the New Yorker as the author of that magazine's "Letters from Italy" column, and three of his books are the product of his extensive travels in Italy. By night he shifted his venue closer to home—to the Del Mar, California, racetrack, the scene of a series of mystery novels whose continuing protagonist, Shifty Lou Anderson, was as caught up in the world of horse racing as his creator.
Shifty's main trade is that of a "close-up magician," meaning that he does card tricks and sleight-of-hand. He takes pride in his craft and enjoys the astonishment his tricks produce. With the help of his sidekick, professional gambler Jay Fox, he also does pretty well betting on horses. Readers first meet the two in Tip on a Dead Crab, when they become involved with a beautiful Frenchwoman named Marina and a plot to enter a horse in a race under an assumed name. Writing for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Robert W. Glasgow praised the book's "good pace and humor." Calling the novel an "authentic portrait of a dedicated horseplayer," Jack Richardson of the New York Times Book Review observed, "it teaches, with a light touch, that in the economic world we all inhabit, one must gamble to survive." A Publishers Weekly contributor faulted characters that "are a bit thin," but called the book "fast-paced" and "captivating."
In The Hard Knocker's Luck, Shifty gets involved in a torrid romance with racetrack novice Allyson Meade, but grows suspicious when she displays a prowess for picking winners. In When the Fat Man Sings, the protagonist earns the role of gambling adviser to Fulvio Gasparini, the world's greatest tenor—and worst gambler. The King of the Nightcap features a companion named Fingers who disappears with Fox's track winnings until Shifty traces him to Tijuana, where he runs afoul of some long-armed goons. In The Getaway Blues, Shifty takes a job chauffeuring an odd, suicidal racehorse owner. Trouble ensues when Shifty's employer meets a beautiful young brunette with a shady past who talks him out of his death wish. I'm Getting Killed Right Here treats Shifty's romantic entanglement with the wife of a new financial partner, a lout whose backing Shifty wishes he did not need. Dennis Dodge, writing about the novel in Booklist, remarked that "Murray has few rivals in fashioning serpentine plots and vivid characters."
According to some critics, fans of mystery writer Dick Francis will recognize in Murray's novels the same horse-racing milieu, but despite the shared subject matter, the tone and atmosphere of the two writers' work are markedly different. "With Mr. Francis," wrote Tony Hillerman in the New York Times, "the reader explores a grim, often cruel world behind the stables. His interest centers on an introspective central character's pains and trouble." Other reviewers noted that the appeal of Murray's Shifty Anderson novels, in contrast, is their behind-the-stable-doors view of the world of horse racing—a world Murray also describes with a sense of irony and madcap relish in two nonfiction books, Horse Fever and The Wrong Horse. "The cast of punters, trainers, and jockeys is so authentic," commented David Nicholson in the Washington Post Book World, "you can smell the hay and the grain, the stables, hear the voices of the grooms and exercise boys, the horses' hoofs." Still other reviewers surmised that any moral shadows lurking in the Shifty Anderson novels get lost in the jaunty, tongue-in-cheek dialogue, the colorful cast of supporting players with names like Maury the Mooch and Whodoyalike, and the bright southern California sunshine.
Apart from the racetrack, Murray's other abiding interest was Italy, where he lived from 1947 to 1952 as a music student and to which he regularly returned. Among his earliest books is The Americano, an autobiographical novel about the love affairs and friendships of an American expatriate living in post-World War II Italy. Italy: The Fatal Gift is a collection of the author's magazine pieces, mostly personal essays that reflect Murray's delight with the land and its people. In a similar collection, The Last Italian, he captures what John Casey in the New York Times Book Review described as a "love affair with Italy, a love affair filled with pangs of dismay but also with great pleasures, fondly and eloquently recorded."
One of Murray's last volumes about Italy is City of the Soul: A Walk in Rome. He commented on the history and architecture and landmarks that can be seen on a walking tour of the Eternal City, and also on its hotels, restaurants, and bars, about which he makes recommendations. Murray also noted famous figures from the past who frequented the various spots. A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that "like a nice walk, Murray's work is leisurely yet not too long, inspiring daydreams of zooming around town on a Vespa in an espresso-induced state of ecstasy."
Throughout his career, Murray took a journalist's interest both in news events and in recreating the tone and atmosphere of a place. The author brought these concerns to much of his early work. For example, Previews of Coming Attractions, a collection of the author's early magazine pieces, contains profiles of the 1960s "L.A. scene" that are "humorous and barbed" according to Publishers Weekly reviewer Albert Johnston. The Dream Girls is a sort of generic "biography" of the illusions and disillusionment of three would-be Hollywood starlets looking for their big break in Tinsel Town. The Killing Touch is a mystery novel based loosely on the famous case of Kitty Genovese, the New York City woman who was repeatedly attacked on the street but unable to summon help. The Mouth of the Wolf, also based on actual events, is a thriller about the kidnapping in Rome of a dissolute young man whose wealthy grandfather refuses to pay ransom and sends his American problem-solver to bring the young man home.
Murray most recently lived in San Diego, California, where he found the opportunity not only to frequent the track but to fulfill an early ambition—to sing baritone in a professional opera company. But Murray's public seems destined to identify him with Shifty Anderson and the racetrack—and Murray raised no objections: "I was trying to find a way to write about these things that I loved," he told Sarah Ferrell of the New York Times Book Review. Murray said that when he confided to a friend his "surprise that these books were received as well as they were, because [he] was having such fun writing them," his friend replied, "We all write best out of our obsessions."
Janet, My Mother, and Me: A Memoir of Growing Up with Janet Flanner and Natalia Danesi Murray is Murray's account, not only of his mother's lesbian affair with the writer Flanner, but also of his life from childhood, and the people, primarily the women, who influenced it. He draws on Flanner's letters to his mother, but hers to Flanner have been lost. Diane Johnson noted in the New York Times Book Review that although Murray's mother was Italian, "there will be no spaghetti or spumoni here. His grandmother, Ester, was founding editor of a glossy women's magazine in Rome, La Donna; she had lovers and did not cook. His mother also had a distinguished publishing career, at Mondadori, and once was seduced by Gabriele D'Annunzio, the poet." His father managed the New York branch of the William Morris agency, which at the time represented vaudeville stars, such as Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker.
Murray had a privileged life, and when he was fourteen, his mother began the affair with Flanner, which lasted until the latter 's death in 1978. He vacationed with them on Fire Island and was very involved in their life together, which, to him, seemed fairly normal in the context of the artistic community within which they traveled. But the two women spent much of their time apart, with Murray in New York and Flanner in France, where she wrote her "Letters from Paris" column for the New Yorker. Flanner also engaged in other lesbian relationships and Murray remained married until her husband's death. Of Flanner, Johnson wrote, "Murray could be excused for any ambivalence he may have felt about this prickly and apparently imperious personage—Flanner comes off as the least pleasant character of this tale." Murray looked up to Flanner, but although she found him to possess positive character traits, especially as a young man, she severely criticized his first book behind his back, saying that he had not spent enough time on it. Murray documents the role Flanner played in changing the tone of the New Yorker and his own relationship with editor William Shawn.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Murray, William, Janet, My Mother, and Me: A Memoir of Growing Up with Janet Flanner and Natalia Danesi Murray, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.
Booklist, August, 1992, Dennis Dodge, review of I'm Getting Killed Right Here, p. 1989; January 1, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of Janet, My Mother, and Me: A Memoir of Growing Up with Janet Flanner and Natalia Danesi Murray, p. 861.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2002, review of City of the Soul: A Walk in Rome, p. 1679.
Library Journal, January, 2000, William Gargan, review of Janet, My Mother, and Me, p. 108; December, 2002, David I. Fulton, review of City of the Soul, p. 161.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 15, 1991, Robert W. Glasgow, review of Tip on a Dead Crab.
New York Times, November 8, 1987; June 13, 1991; July 14, 1991; October 11, 1992.
New York Times Book Review, April 22, 1984, Jack Richardson, review of Tip on a Dead Crab; March 5, 2000, Diane Johnson, review of Janet, My Mother, and Me, p. 10; April 27, 2003, Wilborn Hampton, review of City of the Soul, p. 24.
Publishers Weekly, January 31, 2000, review of Janet, My Mother, and Me, p. 95; December 9, 2002, review of City of the Soul, p. 72.
Washington Post Book World, August 20, 1989; September 16, 1990, p. 6; November 17, 1991.