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Seeing Life in a Day at the Races : New Yorker Writer Ranges From the Track to Italy

September 15, 1986|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

DEL MAR — William Murray loves the track. He spends every day of the Del Mar season where the turf almost meets the surf. He bets, sizes up the horses and listens. He can really listen.

The quote that opens "The Hard Knocker's Luck," his most recent in a series of horse racing novels (all set in Del Mar) was overheard coming from what he calls "an anonymous hard knocker, after losing a photo in the fifth at Del Mar."

The quote:

Life is hard. And then you die.

In describing Murray's life, a stable of adjectives come galloping forth. Hard seems to be running a distant last, behind exotic, dynamic, passionate, even lucky. Not to mention skilled, professional, even charmed.

Murray--and his work--are all of those things. They are easily as charismatic as his gentle, expansive laugh, as poignant and introspective as a passage from one of his books.

In "Italy: The Fatal Gift," a moving memoir about the country of his mother's birth, Murray writes of an argument in which he shames his mother, disrespectfully, telling her she is not American, despite her protestations to the contrary.

It is not long after 1934, when he and his mother came back to the United States, she believing he should be raised an American, just because he was born in New York. That was her design but probably not her intent. She also seemed bent on escaping Mussolini and Fascism and the evil of an oncoming war. Unbeknownst to her son, she engineered the move at expense to the heart.

Murray spent his first eight years in Italy, and at the time, French and Italian came forth much more readily than English.

"No," my mother said, "I'm as American as you are."

"Of course you aren't," I said. "How can you be?" . . . My mother got up and left the room; I heard a door close . . . She was behind the bathroom door, crying soundlessly to herself. I didn't know what to do or say, so I simply put a hand on her shoulder.

"It's very hard, Bill," my mother said. "It's very hard not belonging anywhere. The distances are hard and the people are hard."

Murray has since spent a lifetime trying to bridge that distance. Duality seems a common theme. He appears to have one foot in Italy, the other in America. He's forever casting one glance at New York and the other at California. Since 1966, he has lived much of the time in either Los Angeles or San Diego.

The rest of the year, he writes the splendid "Letter from Italy" for the New Yorker, a task he has managed for the magazine since 1961. For eight months of the calendar, he is in Del Mar, spending summers racing to the track, betting that the next run will somehow be better than the last.

For Murray, Del Mar--technically, the very northern tier of San Diego--is a happy postmark. He and his wife moved to North City West last February. He jokes about it now, saying he tries to keep it secret so as not to offend longtime Del Mar cronies. Fearing Del Mar's ever-encroaching development, some consider North City West a profanity.

"I never would have guessed two years ago that I'd be living in a suburb," Murray said. "I mean, me, of all people."

But, he's a practical man--not one to bet unwisely--and buying a home near the beach was a laughably expensive proposition.

Murray is a candid, attractive man, with a balding pate and shades of gray around the sideburns. It's a safe and fair bet that the artifacts in his home are somehow different from those in his neighbors'. He has pictures of Janet Flanner, who wrote the New Yorker's "Letter from Paris" for years. She also was a lover to Murray's mother.

A chronicle of that affair, told mostly through memorably moving letters, is in his mother's book, "Darlinghissima," by Natalia Danesi Murray.

Murray's father, William Murray Sr., was a Scottish-Irish American, with drinking habits to match and a history of being a scholar, an agent, a mover and shaker in entertainment and journalism. He had once been head of the William Morris agency. He and Murray's mother separated when the boy was 2, and Murray Sr. died in 1959. Considerably older than Murray's mother, he never got close to their son. It may have been the father's loss.

Murray's childhood seems colorful at best, unconventional, eccentric, even bizarre. Not to mention blessed--existentially charmed. He finds his mother's relationship with another woman not at all unusual, except that it provided an endearing closeness to a woman he considers simply divine in shaping his life and the talent that moved it.

Flanner was the greatest writing influence he has known.

"I came from a quite liberal tradition," he said. "I simply had no (ill) feeling about race, or people's preferences in bed."

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