(Frank) Murphy's Law

He held several lofty positions in local, state, and federal government, but Frank Murphy was always a champion of the downtrodden. And, although politics is often a dirty business, he remained untainted and ethical


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Roosevelt soon found another spot for one of the Democratic Party’s rising stars, this time as U.S. attorney general. As Murphy boarded the Washington, D.C.-bound train at Michigan Central Station one January day in 1939, he “seemed a little sad to be leaving Detroit because … he felt that it closed that whole chapter of his life,” his sister-in-law observed.

Murphy’s Michigan years had indeed drawn to a close, though the decade he was to spend in Washington was filled with the same high level of achievement. As attorney general, he cracked down on racketeering, most notably corrupt political machines in Kansas City and Philadelphia. He also created the department’s first civil-rights section.

A year later, Roosevelt appointed him to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. Lincoln, hearing the news, walked into Murphy’s office to offer congratulations. “Jim,” he said, his head in his hands, “I don’t want to do it.” Murphy, who had been touted by Time as a potential presidential or vice-presidential candidate, knew his political career was over, Lincoln says. FDR, looking ahead to his run for an unprecedented third term, had deftly removed a rival.

Murphy donned his jurist’s robe in February 1940. During his nine years as an associate justice, he stood out as the evangelist on a bench filled with legal scholars. His opinions typically were rooted more in humanism than in the fine points of the law, causing a fellow justice to nickname him “the Saint.” In his dissent to a 1944 decision that upheld the government’s right to intern Japanese-Americans during World War II, Murphy deplored “the ugly abyss of racism” — the first use of the word “racism” in a Supreme Court opinion.

If the cloistered life of an associate justice meant “the end of ambition,” as Murphy put it, certain rumors refused to die. There was considerable speculation that the unattached ladies’ man was, in fact, gay. Among other hints, gossipers pointed to the inseparable relationship between Murphy and Edward Kemp, who shared living arrangements throughout their adult lives. Their unusually close relationship was similar to the one another prominent Washington contemporary, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, had with his constant companion, Clyde Tolson. Roosevelt, whose son-in-law privately considered Murphy a “pansy,” was aware of the gossip and urged Murphy to “get busy” about marrying.

Fine briefly addressed the question of Murphy’s sexual orientation in his comprehensive three-volume biography. The respected historian later said he was “never able to find anything that could pin it down,” though he did uncover a letter, written when Murphy was attorney general, “that, if the words mean what they say, refers to a homosexual encounter between Murphy and the writer.” Deb Price, The Detroit News’ Washington-based columnist on gay issues, and her life partner, journalist Joyce Murdoch, dug into the private lives of Supreme Court justices in their well-received book, Courting Justice. “If I had to bet a week’s salary on it,” Murdoch told a reviewer from The Advocate, “I would say yes, he was gay.”

Toward the end of his life, Murphy was engaged to Joan Cuddihy — the granddaughter of the publisher of Literary Digest and a woman half his age — though there was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm on the part of the aging bachelor to actually set a wedding date. Murphy instructed his longtime secretary, Eleanor Baumgardner, to find a house that could comfortably accommodate the engaged couple, along with Baumgardner and Kemp. If Murphy was indeed gay at a time when homosexuality was a crime in most of the country and career suicide for politicians, the effort in keeping such an explosive secret from the public would have added to the stress that was already slowly killing him.

Murphy’s health steadily declined when he was in his 50s. He was treated for heart and circulation problems. He also suffered from sciatic neuralgia. Unable to sleep properly and racked by pain in his back and legs, he became hooked on Demerol and Seconal. His dependency never appeared to impair his judgment, but the seedy nature of his addiction troubled those closest to him. When doctors refused to write him any more prescriptions, he began buying the drugs from shady middlemen in hotel rooms. Murphy insisted he had the problem under control while repeatedly trying — and failing — to wean himself off his addiction.

Ignoring calls to step down because of his failing health and frequent absences, Murphy made it through the 1948-49 term. Just before the court adjourned for its summer recess, the exhausted justice flexed his bicep for a reporter. “They say I’m sick,” he declared. “But feel that muscle. They can’t keep a man like me down.” Shortly after that, he checked into Henry Ford Hospital, where he suffered a coronary thrombosis on the morning of July 19, 1949, his heart holding out until a priest could administer the last rites of the church. He was 59.

Murphy’s estate was later probated at $11,000, not quite enough to satisfy the $12,000 in debts he left behind. For many years, a simple wooden cross marked his grave at a small cemetery on Lake Huron — the terminus to what had been a remarkable journey from the quiet bean fields of Michigan’s Thumb through the raucous corridors of one of the most eventful periods in American history.

“I have never deviated from the path I set out for myself when I first started in public life,” he had reflected in a letter to an old friend. “So many public servants are new-born liberals only to be sound conservatives the next day, forgetting the inarticulate and the plundered poor.”

Bak is a Dearborn freelancer. Editorial@hourdetroit.com.

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