Prologue

Posted By Brie Austin

Murray and Me…

             Life on the Glamorous Track

The phone rang early on a May morning.  When I picked it up, and said hello, I got the shock of my life: It was my friend Margie calling to tell me that Murray, the Mafia bookie, the nightclub denizen, Murray my constant companion, roommate and meal ticket for eight years — my Murray, whom I threw out over 30 years earlier was dead.

This was 1985, and Murray had been in Chicago for nearly all the years since I left, or rather politely asked him to leave the New York apartment we shared.  There was a time in those crazy years after World War II, when I lost a husband, raised a baby boy, and kept up with the nightclub set, when Murray became a vital part of my everyday life. We were a couple:  regulars at the Copacabana, Latin Quarter, “21″, all the fashionable night spots where Murray conducted his business and I chatted with celebrities.  I was Murray’s companion, and he was my live-in benefactor.  For eight years it was a mutually agreeable arrangement.

But, then Murray had decamped to Chicago because of a dispute with some Mafia friends over money he owed them. Except for a brief visit I made a few years earlier, I hadn’t heard from him since.

But now I felt I owed him something. In times past when I needed help and a friend, Murray was there, even though he never required a thank you. I knew there would be no family there, he never maintained a relationship with them — it still seemed my place.

I caught the next flight to Chicago. Immediately I went to get Murray’s keys from Margie and Howie Wong, his best friends.  Next, I headed right for Murray’s apartment on Lake Shore Drive, one of the better sections of Chicago. Most people would have been stunned by Murray’s home. Not I.  I always associated Murray with gorgeous apartments with white rugs, ornate furniture, expensive curtains, lamps and original artwork.  He was always redecorating our New York apartment, often on the spur of the moment.  He had expensive — if flashy — taste and was no cheapskate;  he bought only the best.

His Chicago apartment proved he hadn’t changed.  Not only the rugs, but all the furniture was white.  The couch had white satin pillows, the tables were glass, and the custom-made draperies were closed to keep out the light and block the view of Lake Michigan. Murray, like me, had seen the best of the glitz era, and he wanted to keep it that way.

In the kitchen, I couldn’t resist checking the refrigerator.  What I saw was typical:  lots of chocolate candy and ice cream.  Murray only snacked at home; he dined out for every meal.  A side-room, perhaps a pantry, was filled with all sorts of electrical cooking gadgets from Hammacher Schlemmer (a specialty store for the rich) — this from a man who couldn’t hammer a nail.

I was helping Margie take inventory, when the phone rang.  I answered, and a surly, raspy voice asked, “What are you doing in that apartment? I wanna talk to you…”

It doesn’t take much to get my Irish temper up. “Listen,” I said, “if you have anything to say to me, come talk to me eyeball to eyeball.”

I hung up.  I wasn’t afraid of anybody out there.  But, I knew I’d have company soon.  Marge left to return to work, so I was alone when this little Al Capone type — squinty eyes, no neck, large cigar, big hat, and a limp — came strolling down the hallway.  The apartment door was open, so he came in, peering around to see if he knew me, and if anyone else was there. I waited.  When he got ready to say something, I got there first.

“Look, before you say anything, sit down.”  He sat.

“I’m no whore Murray hooked up with,” I said, “we go back 40 years.  I’m here to see that Murray gets a good funeral.  That’s what I came out here to do.  OK?”

I was speaking calmly.  He remained silent. “I don’t know who you are or what you want here,” I continued.  “Are you here to help?”

The little guy thought a moment … then nodded yes.

“First thing we do, we check him out of the hospital,” he said, in a casual way as if we were going to rent a car. “Then we’ll get him over to this funeral parlor that some friends of mine have, so we can set up the wake properly.”

The funeral parlor was owned by the Italian mob — however, I wasn’t about to argue that issue right now. We went to the hospital, signed some papers, and arranged to have Murray brought to the funeral home.

It never occurred to me that Murray being Jewish could be a problem after he died.  It had never been a problem when he was alive.  All the mob guys called him “Little Moishe”, but that was about it.

“Little Al”, whose name turned out to be Rocco got the ball rolling: The wake was to take two days and nights, with the funeral to follow on the third morning in the Our Lady of Something-or-other cemetery.  Fine!  I knew none of these people, although it was obvious that his old mob friends still had special affection for Murray.  Most people who knew him did.  He had never been a typical “dese” and “doze” mob guy.  He had been a quiet, gentlemanly guy with a strong sense of duty. So now I considered my duty to be that of seeing Murray properly buried, then I could go home.

But first, there was the wake on Thursday and Friday. It was suggested by Rocco that it would be a “good thing” if I could be in the front row of mourners to greet the visitors, as Murray had no family.  OK by me … anything to move things along.

The wake was a picture of floral excess — Murray would have loved it. Roses ($600 worth) adorned the head of the casket,  another $600 arrangement was placed at the foot.  Other bouquets, wreaths and clusters sat in baskets and huge vases atop tables, which occupied every niche and corner.

The ornately carved casket had a white shirred lining and seemed to rest on a huge wave of flowers. The room was decorated in an ornate style — heavy red drapes, red furniture a large-patterned carpeting.  Soft Italian music was played in every corner of the room and into the side rooms.

Murray himself seemed lost in these surroundings.  He looked smaller than I remembered, and his white hair stood out because his flesh looked so colorless.

During the wake itself, with a steady stream of people coming and going, you could hear the constant buzz of voices, too low to distinguish what was being said. But there was the atmosphere that is always present at a wake attended by people, about the same age as the guest of honor in the coffin. You get the feeling of, “Who’s next?”

Mourners, almost exclusively men well-dressed who stood around in small groups whispering to one another, took up spaces not occupied by all the over-furnishing.  Occasionally, someone from one knot of mourners would ease over to another group and wedge himself into the conversation.

All who spoke to me did so with deference. In effect, I was the token woman.  Many of them I knew immediately, Guys I recognized from California, Vegas, New York, all came to pay their respects. At least I remembered their faces, because I never knew the real names of Murray’s associates.  All those Italian faces and star sapphire pinky rings were vivid reminders of my life with Murray.  So were the money filled envelopes passed quietly to Murray’s pizan, Rocco, on the receiving line. Rocco was the treasurer.

I received none of these tokens of respect, but I didn’t expect or want any of it.  I just wanted to get this over with so I could go home, but my post-Murray adventure wasn’t over yet.

After the first evening of the wake, I was back at the apartment ready for bed, when the phone rang.

“Now, what do they want?” I asked myself as I picked up the phone.

“You don’t know us,” a strange voice said calmly, “but, we’re friends of Murray.”

“Yes?”

“Yes. But we’re his Jewish friends, from Las Vegas.  Murray was Jewish.” he said.

I realized where this conversation was heading. “I know, but I couldn’t tell the mob guys what to do.”

He interrupted, “We know all about that, so don’t worry.  But, we want to get Murray out of that funeral home and into a Jewish one so we can sit Shiva.” This was shaping up as something I wanted to be far away from, and I said so.

“Look, you guys fight this out among yourselves.  Leave me out of it.  By the end of the week, I’m getting on a plane for New York.  I just want to see Murray buried. You guys can settle where and by whom.”

I skipped the Italian wake that night because I was asked to sit with the Jewish mourners. This was the Las Vegas mob, who arrived en masse soon after my conversation with Little Al’s counterpart, Kenny.

After talking to me, they went to the Italian funeral home, long after visiting hours — and took away Murray’s corpse.  It was a comedy of errors

I wasn’t surprised that the Vegas mob took over.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if we suddenly heard from the New York mob, and I had another wake to go to. Murray would have been touched by all the attention of grief and respect he was getting from the organization.

The Jewish funeral was a stark contrast to the previous evening’s opulent wake.  The funeral parlor was very plain, if not bare.  Wooden chairs arranged in rows, facing a simple wooden unlined casket.  Murray now wore a yarmulke and what looked like a simple robe.

I couldn’t help wondering if this simply furnished funeral parlor had ever before hosted a deceased who was first embalmed and had been the featured guest at an Italian wake. This was hardly in keeping with Jewish tradition, so it’s probably just as well that they didn’t know.

It seemed as if the Las Vegas group won out in whatever negotiations they had over Murray’s body, because the next morning, a limo picked me up and took me to the gravesite they had picked in a Jewish cemetery. I didn’t recognize anyone.  The crowd was large and didn’t mingle much.  I felt very lonely and sad, and more than ready to leave. But before going home I had to pack up Murray’s things and make arrangements to get rid of the apartment. The Chicago boys told me to take whatever I wanted of Murray’s effects.

Like Murray’s décor, his closet was a shrine to old-fashioned excess: I packed 250 shirts, 100 suits, 60 pairs of shoes (some still in boxes), coats, jackets, lots of Cavanaugh hats (these fedora-like hats were a sign of high style in Murray’s circle), and jewelry — gold watches, cufflinks (gold and platinum) and everything else a man about town would wear.  It took boxes and boxes to pack it all, though some of the clothes wound up adorning his Chicago chums.  All these belongings, and the furniture, went to Marge and Howie’s apartment – except for a small box I packed for myself – including a gold Cartier watch given to him by Hugh Heffner, which I still wear today.

Much of this is what you might expect from anyone’s house, but I thought I’d find one or two signs of Murray’s unorthodox lifestyle.      Whenever he was short of cash, an occupational hazard in his business, he’d pawn something valuable, and reclaim it when he was flush again, so pawn tickets, or hock tickets, as he called them, were always to be found among Murray’s personal things. Out of curiosity, I searched for some, but none were to be found.

When I finally finished the apartment was totally empty, another door, another life closed. I caught the next plane back to New York.

My conscience was clear.  I had done what I wanted, to honor Murray for the past, and now I could get on with my life.  I had no idea what was in store for me, and that’s a good thing.  My life was due for a dramatic about face, about as far from the Murray’s, the mob, and the Copacabana as you can get. But, I’m getting ahead of myself…

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