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On Murray Kempton (1917–1997)

For some years Murray Kempton lived, as I do, on West 67th Street in Manhattan and so he was not only a friend but a neighbor. Every day of his adult life Murray wrote, since he was a practicing journalist with nightly deadlines to be met. When he was not at his desk, he was sure to be talking in a rather stately but never dominating manner. I sometimes met him when he was going off to work in the morning. There at the curb I never heard him speak of the weather even though in New York there is likely to be too much or too little of whatever mean is thought desirable. Instead, without preface, he would begin: “I don’t know what to make of Philip Larkin’s unpleasant letters. All that stuff about wogs and blacks is just a pose, because clever people like to pretend to be worse than they are.” Or if he had his earphones on he might say: Perhaps there is something Nazi about Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s singing, but anyway God bless her.

Part of Murray’s refinement was to be generous to the thieving and polite to the perfidious. In his loquacious individuality there was an absence of vehemence, all the more striking in a moralist, which he was, as well as being more or less a man of the left. In lacking the instinct or habit of vehemence of opinion he was free of the woeful predictability of ideologues of both the left and the right. The grudge, the storehouse of rancor, was not his style and perhaps in that way he was a little out-of-date in the present hyperbolic atmosphere. There he was in his Brooks Brothers suit, shirt, and tie, toting his pipe and briefcase, costumed for, perhaps, some minor but consoling corporate position. But solvency was hardly his fate since he was one who always managed to take on more obligation than income.

His prose style—there’s that, noticeable as his very curly hair. Of course, Murray lived among and worked with colleagues who also had a style, which in the zoo of the arts is a sort of protective coloring like the stripes of a zebra. A demotic, urban, rapid mode is a gift but also an accomplishment, personal and defining, street-smart and artful—Jimmy Breslin comes to mind. Murray also went down to the courthouse, knew the pols, and gave thought to the felons, although what he wrote about those encountered there perhaps they could not always parse. In his columns, his style was closer to the nineteenth-century English historians and essayists than to the moderate cadence of, for instance, Walter Lippmann. I once or twice talked with him about the possible influence on his manner of the great Macauley. His reply would go something like this: I would not deign to hang my ragged pantaloons on the swallowtail coat of a lord.

After much procrastination, or perhaps modest reluctance for whatever reason, he brought to publication a selection of his work to accompany a previous one that appeared in 1963. He gave it the title Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events. It is a beautiful book with some almost forgotten public figures brought back to mind, along with mischievous undertakings by those still more or less fresh. Tribulations, misadventures, and occasional escapes from retribution are here memorialized, a word not altogether indolent since in other hands than Murray’s the ill-thought-of would have fared much worse.

Westbrook Pegler: He never told a lie that he had not told himself first.

Roy Cohn: Was commencing to look like some priapic statue incautiously bought at the flea market and left out too long in the garden rains.

Gordon Liddy: At his worst, there was something comforting about Liddy; there will always be plots against human liberty, and how can we be safer than with someone this certain to mess up their execution? Not the least of his manifold talents is for getting caught.

Michael Milken: However we may despair of ever touching the infinite, we never so sense its presence as when we contemplate the sincerity of the swindler.

The disreputable brought to public notice were not always the object of Murray’s reflections; he went to art galleries, read poetry and history, and traveled abroad. Still, when he goes to Italy, what you might call Murray-Kempton-events will appear unbidden with an impish mockery. He is in Sicily in the ancient Greek city of Syracuse on the Ionian Sea, lodging in the old part of town among ruins of temples and fountains, walking on the ground that had known the footsteps of Plato, Pindar, and Aeschylus. The ancient theater remains with its stone seats sloping down to the stage. A poster announces that there is to be in the hallowed amphitheater a jazz concert by Romano Mussolini, Romano being the youngest son of the misbegotten duce who passed down to his children a patrimony of one disaster after another. The poster leads Murray to imagine:

The Anglo-American fleet lowering upon the southern coast of Sicily, and in Rome, at the Villa Torlonia, Benito Mussolini upstairs abed under assault by his ulcers and intimations that it might all be coming apart, and downstairs little Romano listening to Count Basie on the American Armed Forces Radio and rejoicing that its signal was growing louder and louder.

Murray’s funeral became him as his life did. It was held at Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, his church, and was to abide by his expressed wishes for the Burial Order in the Book of Common Prayer and that the Sanctus, Benedictus and the Agnus Dei by Byrd be sung. I was reminded of a wedding once held in my apartment and presided over by the classics scholar Moses Hadas of Columbia University. As he rose to begin, he glanced at the secular group assembled and said: “I suppose there’s to be no mention of the Deity.”

At Murray’s funeral there was much mention of the Deity, but he had asked that his own name not be mentioned, and thereby precluded the testimony of friends, offerings so likely to be, in my experience, somewhat jocular in order to soothe the bereaved with memories of happier days. At the end of the service a bell was struck for each of the seventy-nine years of the deceased. It was a sound of incredible beauty as each tolling soulfully drifted off until the next year was struck. We were on West End Avenue in Manhattan, a broad and practical city thoroughfare, but with the unearthly resonance of the service in the air we might have been in medieval Florence, in Italy, following the funeral cortege, black carriage, black horses along the cobbled street.

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