Thursday, November 10, 2005

How Claude Murphy Caused the Greatest Civic Tribute a Mayor Ever Received. In Two Parts: Part I

Leaf through the most significant histories of organized crime in the U.S. and Chicago and you will find nary a black face: Public Enemies by Bryan Burroughs [The Penguin Press, N.Y., 2004] and the indispensable two volumes Return to the Scene of the Crime: A Guide to Infamous Places in Chicago by my fellow Taft high school alumnus Richard Lindberg [1999]. That’s because despite all the bad things you’ve heard about the Outfit, it was also a bigoted no-equal opportunity employer. Blacks were allowed to run their own scarcely profitable little enterprises but never crashed the Big Time in organized crime: a record that stands even today.

Why not? Because the gentlemen with wing-tip shoes were racists is the answer. But there was one attempted exception and it so happens I knew him. He is safely dead now (of old age and longstanding mistreatment of body through rich food and expensive wines) and the story deserves to be told since he cannot write his memoirs. It so happens I knew him very well. This African American had the improbable name of Claude Murphy. When I knew him, he wore $2,000 suits (at a time when I wore off-the-rack numbers from Benson-Rixon labeled: “You can look nifty for one hundred and fifty.” I was the government relations guy at Quaker Oats and a part-time civic booster as president of the City Club of Chicago. There was a time (A.D.: before Jay Doherty) when the City Club sorely needed money. It had one employee who was staging a slow-down because he had the temerity to expect that his check would arrive on time. I was too busy attacking Mayor Jane Byrne for purportedly awarding rebuilding contracts to her developer friends for the North Loop. But the time came when I had to face it: the City Club would either raise money or depart this life.

The usual way to raise money, originated and executed brilliantly by Jewish philanthropies, was to find a pigeon—er, distinguished citizen with plenty of bucks and offer to make him that year’s Distinguished Citizen with the quid pro quo that he would get all the attention and a plaque with his name engraved before a hotel ballroom full of his friends if. If he would use clout to get his friends to contribute so as to attend the dinner in his honor. But we had used up every available Jewish gentlemen we could find: starting with 90-year-old A. N. Pritzker who obligingly delayed his death until our Fall Tribute, then Leonard Lavin of Alberto Culver and on and on. Our imagination had limits and we had not fathomed that we could do the same trick with gentiles—but that’s why we were not the sharpest knives in the drawer in that hazy era. All the while the energetic civic reform committee of the City Club were blistering Jane Byrne but I was generally coming to the view that we had better spend our energies to raising money. Enter the improbable Claude Murphy: a little rotund black man with a bald head which shone brilliantly under the fluorescent lights of my office with a gentle voice and grandiose manner of the old south and a rich Mississippi accent from which he had emigrated decades before. He admitted himself without checking at the main receptionist, plumped himself down and said, “Ha, buddy.” Ha meant hi. I had met him earlier. He was an anomaly in that he was a Republican ward committeeman—yes, Republican—on the South Side. Then as now no African American with any yen to use the political system would ever associate himself with the Republican party. But Claude did. In a party that had no clout whatsoever, he was a Republican king-pin. For what it meant.

I was writing at my desk. He said it again: “Ha, buddy.” I said distractedly: what do you want, Claude? He said, “Ah heard you fellas sorta need money at the—at the--.” City Club, I supplied. “Yeah.” Yes, that’s right, Claude. Do you have any idea on who we could honor? He said, “Yep.” Who? “Jane Byrne.” Claude, I said, you don’t read the papers, do you? “Not regular.” The City Club has attacked Jane Byrne almost every day for two weeks as part of our civic mission to safeguard the integrity of the north Loop from rapacious developers with political clout. He said, “yeah?” Yeah. Do you have any other ideas? “Nope, I just think you oughta call her.” We’ve called her everything we can think of, Claude. Think of another honoree.

Whereupon he walked over to my phone, picked up the receiver from its cradle and said to me, “Do ah dial 9 to get outside?” Yes. He dialed and spoke so softly that even before my present state of decrepit lack of hearing it seemed a low murmur. Then he said, “wait a minute” and handed the phone to me. I said hello. On the other end was Mayor Jane Byrne. “Mr. Roeser,” she said, “Claude says that you’re looking for an honoree. I know you have criticized me on the north Loop development and I take your criticism in the positive manner in which it was offered—I think. I am perfectly ready to open the bids up to anyone for that development. In fact, if you come over to City Hall right now—and I mean this minute—I’ll show you the mailing that’s going out.” I said: I’ll be right over, thank you, Mayor. With that phone call we had brought reformism to the north Loop project.

When I hung up I looked mystifyingly at this little man. He smiled slowly and said, “Ha, buddy.” I said, “Claude, how in the world do you know her?” And in the cab over to City Hall he told me. He was leaving his usual haunt at what was then the Conrad Hilton hotel very, very late one evening during the mayoral campaign of 1979 when he bumped into the little lady with her husband Jay McMullen as they were leaving a function. Michael Bilandic was running for reelection and was a sure thing—until the legendary snow fell. The snow fell. And fell. And fell. With it the rage of black citizens grew fearsomely. And it was still falling when Claude bumped into her outside the Hilton.

She spotted Claude whom she had met somewhere years earlier and shouted: “Hey, Claude!” When he came over she said, “Claude, I need $75,000 for one TV spot right now. I’ve got a feeling I can win this thing. Don’t you, think so, Claude?” He did. “Can you help me? I need the dough tonight or we can’t shoot the commercial tomorrow morning. Claude, if you can help me out with this thing and I get elected, I’ll never, never, never n-e-v-e-r forget it.” Claude said, “You got the money. Go home and sleep well tonight.”

She said, “Don’t b.s. [pronouncing it explicitly] me, Claude. Will I have the money tonight?” He said, “you will.” And she did. Where did he get the money? Claude was an improbable man of means. He often rode with a chauffeur. How did he get it? In the long stretch of his past, in the 1930s, he married it. Claude Murphy married an heir to the Proctor & Gamble fortune. When the girl’s parents found she married Claude, they convinced her—in that bygone age when whites weren’t supposed to marry blacks—to get an annulment. Thereupon a lawyer from a prosperous firm came to see Claude. He asked if Claude loved her. Claude said yes. He said, $100,000 worth? Claude said oh dearie me much, much more than that. In fact my heart would be broken and could only be assuaged for--. And he named the price. Whereupon the price was paid as a lifelong sinecure courtesy Proctor & Gamble. Claude’s heart was broken and he used his money to invest wisely in various irregular enterprises. And he bore his shattered marriage manfully.

Jane Byrne got the money, made the commercials and for the first time in Chicago history the machine went down the drain—in 1979. And true to her word, she didn’t forget Claude. When we arrived at her office, I was deservedly a nobody. She embraced Claude, took his coat, allowed me to hang up my own coat and sat us down with her eyes never leaving Claude. What do you think, Claude, she said. Should I allow myself to be honored by the City Club of Chicago for—oh, let us say $200 a plate? Claude said he could vouch for me. Then we went to her big desk where, sitting at it she looked like a very little, precise lady. She lit a cigarette and went through her book. How about (she named a date two months later). Claude said, “Ma’am I think Mr. Roeser’s club needs your help sooner than that, right buddy?” I said right.

And so it was scheduled. “Er, there’s one thing,” I said. She looked up expectantly. “We need a general chairman who will round up the money, er raise the money in your honor. These things always have general chairmen, you know.” Yes, she said, of course. She thought for a second and said, “your general chairman is” and named an obscure man whom I had never heard of. “Here’s his number,” she said, scribbling it. “I’ll call him ahead of time. You might just get over and see him now.”

In the car going over to the general chairman’s office, Claude said shyly, “Ha you lik’ that, buddy?” I was stunned. When we got to see the general chairman we found he was a very un-prosperous labor lawyer, with a secretary he shared with publishers’ reps in a cooperative office. He said, “What the hell is this? I’ve just had a phone call from Mayor Jane Byrne! I’ve never raised a dollar for charity in my life! I have no list, no staff, no nothing and now I find I’m the general chairman of a civic salute for an organization I never heard of for a guy I’ve never heard of—you, Mr. Roeser!” I was almost ready to agree with him when Claude motioned me to silence. “We have some impo’tant things to discuss,” he said.

“Ah know the mayor. When she says she does somethin’ she does it. Get your secretary to sit by the phone and you sit by the phone for pretty soon the calls’l start comin’ in.” Calls? Not long later the phone started to jangle. Both the general chairman and his secretary were furiously scribbling down notes. The plumbers union wanted to buy four tables for the Tribute to Jane Byrne. The carpenters union saw the plumbers and raised them for five tables. Then came the construction industry, then the investment bankers. Somebody had alerted them to the dinner before the hall was hired and the date was announced. The hall was filled before it had been scheduled for a dinner that had not yet been set and for which invitations had not yet been printed. It was the greatest tribute I ever saw. And that night when the mayor got her standing ovation, Claude Murphy caught my eye as I presided. He chuckled and I could see his lips move in a “Ha you like all this, buddy?” Counting the receipts that allowed the City Club to continue in business, I allowed I liked it very much.

That’s the end of Part I. If you notice at the top of this article, I mentioned that there are no African Americans in the Outfit. That still goes. The money Claude made, he didn’t make from the Outfit but from his marriage and certain irregular investments. . But he did get invited to join—and join he did, staying for a very short time. Which will be the story tomorrow, if you’re interested.

1 comment:

  1. Ladies and gentlemen, the top-secret documents published on this blog have only recently been declassified and they are available NOWHERE else!