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The Personal Side of George Murphy at Age 83

June 12, 1986|ZAN THOMPSON | Thompson writes a Sunday column for View. and

Something was making a wake on the blue of the lake, inscribing a gentle curve across the mirror-smooth water. George Murphy turned to the North Carolinian who was showing the Murphys through the mountains. "What's that?" Murphy asked, waving an arm at the wake.

"A beaver," the man said.

George Murphy looked at the attractive woman by his side. She nodded.

"We'll take it," Murphy said.

That's how the former United States senator from California bought the land for the house in the Great Smoky Mountains, he recalled during a recent visit to Los Angeles.

The woman who stood beside him, her hair pulled back in a pony tail, anchored with a wide, black grosgrain Chanel bow, was the senator's new wife, the former Bette Blandi. She was once a Powers girl, one of that roster of long-legged beauties who made modeling an art form.

Married Since 1982

She and Murphy have been married since June, 1982, when he was nearly 80 years old. They were married by a judge and a year later they were remarried in a brief Catholic ceremony at St. Patrick's Church in Washington, according to the lifelong tenets of Irish-Catholic Murphy.

George Murphy came to Hollywood after a successful tenure in the theater in New York and with touring companies. The handsome Murphy acted, danced and sang. His working clothes were white tie and tails and top hat. His friends and contemporaries were Fred Astaire, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope and the other stars of the golden age of motion pictures.

He always had a turn of phrase and a full allotment of charm, and they carried him into public life. He was a patriotic, red, white and blue fellow, born on the Fourth of July.

George Murphy became sort of an unofficial spokesman for the motion picture industry and was comfortable in Washington. In November of 1964, he defeated Pierre Salinger for the U.S. Senate and served until 1970. He and his first wife, Julie, were married for 47 years. She died in 1973 and spent the last years of her life as an invalid in their Beverly Hills residence. During his years in the Senate, George Murphy came home every weekend to be with her, returning to Washington late Sunday evening on the man-eating flight known as the red-eye. His devotion to Julie was an often-told love story.

School With Jimmy Stewart

He spoke of Jimmy Stewart and said, "Good man." Murphy and Stewart were in prep school together at Peddie School in New Jersey. "I waited on tables and stoked the furnaces," Murphy remembered.

He told of a young woman with whom he did a dance routine in a motion picture. "She was a big girl, bigger than I was used to tossing around. I had a hernia and before the picture, I couldn't afford to have it fixed. By the time the picture was finished, I had another one."

He did not mention the young woman's name.

In 1980, George Murphy was living in Palm Beach, Fla., and went with some business associates to the Colony Hotel. "I saw a pretty girl and asked to be introduced. I asked her out and said, 'I'll be back. Will you go out with me again? And then we'll get married.' "

Bette Blandi said that when she was seeing George before their marriage, she said to her 26-year-old daughter, Debra, "I can't marry an 80-year-old man."

"And Debra said, 'If you don't want him, I'll take him.' " Mrs. Murphy smiled widely and put her arm around his shoulders and said, "I'm glad I married the old geezer."

Gait of an Athlete, Dancer

George Murphy still looks years away from someone who could be called an old geezer. He walked into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel with the gait of an athlete and dancer. He was wearing a flat navy-blue beret, snugged down over his wavy silver hair and straight across his brow. On George Murphy, it came off as the most \o7 macho \f7 headgear that could be worn, instead of something sent over by wardrobe for the French street scene.

The Murphys have built a country French house on the bank of that lake where the beaver was inscribing his message.

"Bette designed it. When it was being built, she would get a new idea and say to the contractor, 'Can we do that?' He would smile and nod. We soon found out it was costing us about $1,000 a nod. It's two bedrooms, one on each end, and in the middle, the living room, long and with a 30-foot ceiling. We're the only people in those mountains who have a handball court for a living room."

"We have a country French kitchen," Mrs. Murphy said, "a dining room and breakfast room and a bay window. There are no curtains or draperies anywhere in the house. You can look from one end to the other."

Murphy has an office "just big enough for a desk, a chair and a couch, up a spiral staircase."

"We spend a lot of time on the 90-foot deck that runs across the front of the house. We were sitting there one evening and a large bird swooped in and sat beside us. In a few minutes, here came another one. They were almost 3 feet tall. At least they looked it. They were horned owls. They visit often.

Regular Visitors

"Chipmunks run around the deck all the time and the mountain dogs come and visit. They sit and rest a while, catch their breath and move on. Some of them are regulars."

The Murphys go to their North Carolina house near the town of Cashiers in the southwestern corner of North Carolina about the middle of May when it begins to get hot in Palm Beach. They stay at their 3,500-foot-high home until the middle of November. "Long enough to see the leaves start to turn on the trees all around the lake."

Murphy still works. He has an office in Washington that he visits regularly. He is health-care consultant for two unions, the National Assn. of Government Employees and the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.

He also is writing a book, "Fakes, Frauds, Phonies and a Few Good Guys."

"After 60 years in the public arena, there are some things I'd like to say," he explained.

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