sui generis 

Michael Murphy - uniqueness personified

I've heard it said that everyone who ever lived is unique and I've seen nothing in my life to contradict that notion. After all, we are all but reflections of the same light looking back at itself.

To me, however, some people seem far more unique than others, and Michael Murphy was one of the most exceptional individuals I've had the pleasure of knowing.

In the fascinating tribute that follows, my dear friend, Jim Fitzpatrick puts Murphy's robust life into perspective. But let me recount just one story of many about this remarkable, wonderful man before he does.

It took place during one of Malibu's most destructive fires sometime in the 70's. My friend, John Clemens and I had spent a couple of days fighting blazes up Topanga Canyon and down in the Rodeo Grounds with rakes, shovels and dampened burlap sacks.

We were pretty well wasted, but the fire seemed to have been beaten back in our area and John wondered how Michael Murphy and his wife, Diane were doing further up the coast.

Since they lived in a remote area on their own, we decided to jump into John's VW Microbus and see for ourselves.

There was still plenty of smoke and scenes of devastation as we made our way up the PCH to the Murphy's turnoff and it got worse once we got off the highway and onto the narrow road up to their house.

It was also a bit scary, because the fire was still burning in places along the road and there were rabbits and deer crossing the road to get away from the flames.

At one point we were concerned about John's tires catching fire. "Ever heard of anything like that happening?" asked John.

"No," I replied. "But let's not wait around to find out."

As we rolled over a high point in the road John had to brake suddenly as we came upon two fire appliances stopped in the middle of the road. They were from some place like San Bernardino and the firefighters were sitting around in various stages of exhaustion. Some had even taken off the tops of their gear and looked as if they were getting ready for a black and white mistral show - with white bodies and faces blackened with ash. 

We stopped and asked if the house just up the road was OK, but they didn't know about it because this was as far as they'd gotten.

So we said our goodbyes and drove around them.

A few minutes later we arrived at the Murphy's and were greeted at the entrance by Michael, who was stark naked except for his boots, a floppy hat and the rake he was holding.

"Hello there boys," enthused Michael. "If you've come for a swim you're out of luck."

Michael was telling us about having to use the water in pool to fight the fire when a Malibu sheriff's car pulled up just behind us and a sour looking young deputy got out with his hand on the butt of his gun.

"So what's going on here?" he demanded of John of me.

"Just checking to see if our friends up here got through the fire OK."

"Sure you're not looters?" he sneered. "We're on the lookout for looters. Let's see some identification. Now!"

After showing him our licenses he turned his attention to Michael.

"And what the hell do you think you're doing walking around here like that?" he barked. "There are laws against being naked in public."

Michael didn't answer right away, but walked up close to the deputy ... which obviously made him very uncomfortable.

"You know something, buddy, if you'd been a nice guy instead of a complete asshole, I would have invited you in for a cold beer," said Michael calmly. "But since you're not, get your ass off of my property ... and, by the way, you've been on my property since the other side of that rise, so I'm not walking around naked in public, I'm walking around naked on my own property and, so far, there's no law against THAT! So fuck off and take your fucked-up attitude with you."

By that time Diane had joined the party, so there were now four of us to deal with and, without another word, Deputy Dork got into his car, turned around and left.

"Thank God for that," said Michael as the sheriff's car disappeared over the rise. "I thought someone might have noticed me starting the backfire and reported it."

Turns out that Michael, who'd been through a few of these fires before, went out on his property during a wind change and started a backfire to burn away a wide swath of scrub before another wind change could bring it close to the house. Apparently, it was illegal for a mere civilian to do something like this, although backfires could be set by firefighters under certain conditions. But Michael was the consummate do-it-yourselfer and after sharing a few cold beers and some snacks Diane had thrown together, John and I headed back to Topanga Beach with another story to tell.


A Malibu Pioneer 

Michael Dudley Murphy Memorialized


Michael Dudley Murphy (MDM; Murphy) first settled in Malibu during the early 1950s when the beaches, hills, and dales of a now-bygone era were just beginning to be impacted by the tendrils of creeping suburbia. MDM, a flourish of a man, seemingly pioneered every aspect of his multifaceted existence, first in Topanga Canyon and a few years later in the Paradise Cove area. Of course, Murphy didn't live; he created life and a lifestyle both relaxed and productive, and I may be selling him short when I've described him as my personal 'Picasso.' There wasn't an aspect of his life that wasn't creative. It's easy to recall when, on several occasions, he would simply declare, "Oh, well, fuck it. Let's do it! Let's just build it!" And we would. Did. Build things. Saunas, camera mounts, beds, rooms, houses, hinges, brackets, but most importantly for me, he helped build my life.

Reverend Jim Fitzpatrick
chewing it over

Pioneers have been part of the Fitzpatrick gestalt ever since 'Two Fingers' (Thomas Fitzpatrick,1799-1856, aka: 'Broken Hand') hooked up with Jedediah Smith and marched to California in 1826. A few historians actually suggest 'Broken Hand' was one of the very first Anglos to cast eyes upon California - the land Thomas Jefferson had believed to be an island off the Pacific coast. The story goes that 'Two Fingers' pointed Smith and the group of pioneers toward the backside of the Sierra Nevadas saying, "Go through that gap and you'll be where you want to be." It was California's eastern flank. Smith continued with the group through the San Gabriels and reunited with my great great great uncle Tom three years later at the annual gathering of trappers in Colorado where Tom typically taught others to read.

But the Fitzpatrick experience includes other Irish pioneers, too, and Murphy's largeness in my life defies most titles or descriptions.

His passing earlier this year becomes a cultural milestone for those familiar with the myths, legends, and real life experiences of what was his life on "The Hill" above the Paradise Cove area. His 300-degree view features a geologic mounding of Marilyn Monroe's left breast and just the hint of her pelvis alluringly tilting toward the beach. Her torso actually indicates the slope where Murphy's father Dudley opened Malibu's first hip watering hole, The Holiday House. The early '60s would find Lee Marvin, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Henry Jones, Bobby Vickory, and Willy Hunter, Jr. with dozens of others, ordering, in addition to their drinks, another sunset from Dudley. You can hear Burton's gravelly brogue, "That first 'take' was fine, but damnit, Dudley, let's do it again! This time MOS!" Dudley's routine at the hotel and restaurant was that of the owner-host who would do anything - and, typically, too much - for his customers, who were actually his friends. His son's role was to relocate from Topanga Canyon to the dozens of acres winding their way up The Hill above The Holiday House. "Michael, I don't care what you do up there, just do it!" Dozens of acres in Malibu, can you imagine?

This, of course, was a Malibu void of homes, home sites, roads to homes, or any form of what would be considered an amenity. This was a natural Malibu awaiting the impact of the pioneers brave enough to settle the challenging environment.

And this too was a Malibu without DUIs, without law enforcement (a total of three Sheriff squad cars!), and one-tenth of today's population.

Quaint. Removed. Quiet. These were the qualities attracting those artists and recluses not interested in the urban experience. Writers like John Fante and Buckley Angell raising their families in Point Dume and Cross Creek areas, but even they had roads and running water. MDM was carving his existence above Marilyn's breast with no water, no electricity, and no road. "Fuck it. Let's build it!"

And he did. Several times. Over and over again, because his Malibu was also a Malibu of pre-luxury homes demanding fancy fire-fighting air-drops. Murphy's homes were burnt down five times on The Hill. Six? Three times in Topanga Canyon before The Hill? It was part of the environment's challenge. Part of the pioneer's sacrifice. When there was no road to the property, he checked at the bid for what it would cost to hire someone to grade an access and said, "Fuck it. I'll do it myself!" and bought a tractor and a grader and rumbled up The Hill.

It seemed that each project, each film, each construction carried the same recommendation: "Trust your eye, Jimmy, always trust your eye!" And I have, as much as I can, but my eye hasn't been his. So it was from the tractor, when he stepped and turned, that his eye first caught the relief of Marilyn's torso back at the bottom of The Hill. He trusted his eye. The Hill was his home site for more than 40 years - Santa Monica and Palos Verdes across the ocean backed up behind Marilyn's torso. The pisser's view for those familiar with The Hill.

Those houses: Each burnt-to-the-ground house's foundation became an aspect of each newer house, with one familiar constant - the pool. Always confusing for first-timers to The Hill, because the pool wasn't for swimming, necessarily, but was a reservoir for fire-fighting; the fire of '74, Diane and he in the pool with the bilge pumping water into the 30-foot wall of flame. As he recalled, "I kept thinking we were going to run out of water, and we'd end up with our naked asses standing in the empty pool before we burned up!"

Murphy's childhood included stints with another group of pioneers, the Eastman family of Rochester, New York. That's 'Eastman' as in "Eastman Kodak." It was their pioneering efforts in film and cameras that resulted in young Michael having a camera glued to his face throughout his boyhood. He once explained to me, "I can't ever remember not taking pictures. It's wild, isn't it? I've been looking through a fucking viewfinder my whole life." Which struck me as significant especially when watching him look through a camera.

Did you ever notice how the camera became part of his head? How he smashed his face up into the camera with his large hands wrapped around it searching for buttons to push or rings or levers to pull or rotate? I find myself doing that and I know why. Trust your eye and make sure your eye is the camera's eye.

For those of us lucky enough to have known and worked with him during his incredible pioneering career/life as an award-winning photographer and film-maker-Wait, as an artist, film-maker, cinematographer, painter, designer, architect, builder, videographer, lover, gardener, naturalist and dog lover and owner . . . He was the Picasso of my life. The joy of creativity he brought to any moment is the lifestyle mantra that has played continuously in my head for the past 50 years: "Far out!" Groovy.

In the 1950s, before we Fitzpatricks moved to Topanga Beach, and before Murphy moved from Topanga Canyon to The Hill, he and my father, Fitz, spent years together in San Diego working on top-secret government films documenting the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The military had decided ICBMs were necessary for launching atomic bombs-the drop-them-from-an-airplane-thing was too slow and easily detectible by the other guys.

Those rocket pioneers were a nerdy bunch, and weren't they happy when they realized their pioneering efforts would also match up nicely with President John F. Kennedy's dedication to reaching the moon (yet another Irish pioneering white dude).

In fact, before Kennedy's election, Murphy and Fitz spent nearly two years traveling back and forth to-and through- Florida and the West Indies as they rolled 16mm film on everything the rocket pioneers attempted. Convair Astronautics was HQd in San Diego, but the rockets were launched at Cape Canaveral and then spiraled out of control down the archipelago of the West Indies. As producer-director, Fitz's mission was to get Murphy's camera focused on the rockets before and during their spectacularly explosive ends. These films, essentially just raw footage, were viewed by audiences of three and sometimes four scientists who typically left the screening rooms scratching their heads while blaming others for the failures after watching rocket after rocket explode on the launching pad or shortly after lift-off.

Fitz's unofficial responsibility was to negotiate settlements in bars like 'The Oasis' and 'The Palms' that populated Florida's east coast towns. Murphy had been a Conscientious Objector during World War II, while Fitz had been captured by the Japanese and eventually found his own way out of a prisoner of war camp before returning to his unit. Murphy abhorred violence at every level and explained to me years later on a shoot in Africa, "I was a 'CO' so they made me a medic. I didn't know anything about medicine. I hated the sight of blood, so there I was running around battlefields without any weapons, with no way to defend myself, dodging bullets foolishly trying to help guys without puking at the sight of their blood." This was the background for Murphy's genuine surprise when in these small bars he'd suddenly find himself confronted by the irate boyfriend or husband accusing him of coming on to his wife or girlfriend. Fitz, with a genetic disposition for negotiation, would once again be advocating, "Jesus Christ, Murphy . . ." while coming around to explain to the accuser, "My buddy, here, well, he didn't mean anything by this. We're here from Hollywood and . . . I'm sure we can just talk about this . . ." and usually the 'Hollywood' thing would slow them down. Meanwhile Murphy might be already looking toward any other woman who happened to be interested.

After weeks and weeks of secret travels ("I can't tell you where I'm going or when I'll be back, but we'll probably be around Antigua or St. Bart's . . .") they would eventually arrive home excitedly inviting over friends, "Wait until you see this son-of-a-bitch blow up. It's incredible!" Our home movies were the hit of our Bird Rock neighborhood, but everyone was sworn to secrecy, "You can't tell a soul!!! Watch this!!!" These were the days of my making skateboards out of my sister's skates, and spending entire days at La Jolla Shores on my overly inflated canvas mat. We were a pioneering group on several different levels.

Michael Murphy and Fitz (standing)
with Jim Fitzpatrick contemplating
the elephant's eye

Murphy, unmarried at the time, lived the bachelor's dream life with a bay-front Craftsman's cottage in Mission Beach. In fact, it was such a dream life that Fitz ended up living with him, too, because those time-consuming journeys to the West Indies just weren't what a father needed to be doing according to my mother, Dody (a pioneer in her own right). Actually, it was Murphy's where I had several pioneering experiences of my own. Naked women were plentiful. The nudity was a simple result of Murphy's artistic ability, he was always photographing or painting or drawing women (well, there was plenty of sex, too-one seemed to preclude the other). He loved women, and his admiration was indiscriminate:

All women-married, young, younger, older. The main criteria was a certain gesture or 'look.' It didn't take much. I remember an early party on The Hill, when I had mistakenly taken a date. I thought he was kidding as he approached and walked off with my date who was one-third his age. I thought I was immune, or that my date was immune. "Hey, Murphy! It's me! She's my date!" "Yeah, I know . . ." and he turned his attentions back to her.

There was a fine line defining his whole experience with women, because his love of women, and his love of drawing them and photographing them, provided the opportunity to look at and touch them, and when he asked, "Would you mind if I just drew your arm? . . . If you could just hold that . . ." or, "Would you just stand over here, in this light, or just out of this light? I'd like to take a photograph of you, just there . . ." and he'd already have the camera up to his eye and there must have been no way out other than to allow his camera to click or his pencil to line or his pastel to color. He loved it. And he just talked and explained how the light was this or the curve of the wrist was just . . . . It's not that it was a 'technique' or a 'way,' but there sure were many beautiful women in his life.

The Mission Beach era was interrupted when my parents remarried and Fitz really located his production efforts in Hollywood. We moved to Topanga Beach, and Murphy loved it because our house was en route to The Hill, which was always an adventure because 4WD was really necessary, but this was the Malibu before the SUV.

The Scout (who drove a Scout!?!), parked at the bottom of The Hill, would relieve the town car, early on a Citroen 2CV (they had the flip-up windows). Murphy's vehicles tended to be small and filled to capacity with his 6'4" frame tucked inside.

As The Hill developed, Murphy married Colina Rentmeister, a fashion model arriving from Denmark, where her brother, Co, had paddled on the Olympic rowing team. Following the Rome Olympics he and his sisters arrived at Topanga Beach and our world was never the same. Co took his world-class Olympic experience to Art Center and became an international sports photographer for Time and Sports Illustrated. His other sister, Roena, married Robby Diener's ("Robby Diener has a big wiener") dad, Royce, who lived next door to our house before Mike Hamilburg had moved in.

Murphy was a wee bit taller than the six-foot Colina, so when all these Dieners and Rentmiesters were mixed into the Fitzpatricks house, all hell breaking out was neutralized by our front yard-the Pacific Ocean. Living on the beach at Topanga, stepping from your living room onto the sand is a great equalizer for rooms overcrowded with loud, boisterously happy pioneers. And Topanga Beach throughout the sixties was not limited to any one house nor home.

Each literally was connected, so people spilling from our house immediately found themselves engaged with our immediate neighbors, the Neeny of Neeny's Famouse Weenies-Austin Nienhauser and his buxom wife, Pat.

There was the crop of UCLA students renting the beach houses during the school year, including Norm Olmstead ("Sky King" actor and eventually an LA attorney), Bill Cleary (ex-marine and eventual surfing author and editor), Bob Barrow, Larry Krause, George Van Noy, Bob Feigel, Mike Gaughan, Aldon Doseburg, and Wes Arman.

As lifeguards, swimmers, and surfers these strapping athletes would foolishly bring their dates and girlfriends to the beach, much to Murphy's enjoyment. He was constantly chumming the waters with his camera or sketch pad, "Hey, Jimmy, don't you have some charcoal or 6B pencils? How about some pastels?" and these weren't static questions. They were asked while already moving toward these beauties composing the image in his eye. Oh, those were interesting times. He was a master at so many levels.

Those interesting times included the multi-layered influences of youthfulness, the beach, the beauties, and the impact of rock and roll, all contributing to Topanga's development as a hip counterculture headquarters, and Murphy was an instrumental ingredient because of his relationship with the "other" Michael Murphy; the Michael Murphy in Big Sur busily developing Esalen and his personal research of higher consciousness. Murphy and Murphy and Timothy Leary, on acid, tripping through the light fantastic, found its way back to Topanga Beach, not with MDM's pockets filled with Owsley blue tablets, but more the sense of 'availability.' That is, I never got drunk with Murphy, but I enjoyed fine wines with him. Nor did we ever get 'stoned,' but we sure got 'high.' His interest in altered states of consciousness had more to do with Doors of Perception than it did with being 'wasted.' In fact, the last time I spent an afternoon with him he blurted, "Far out! It's great to see you! Do you still get high? Let's get high . . ." - this coming from a 78-year-old. I had to smile, at the time, and the memory brings a smile, too, because my 16-year-old baseball-playing son, Colin, was with me and we hadn't crossed that bridge yet. But that's what pioneers do, isn't it? They cross gaps and bridges, and ford rivers, and end up places others are hesitant to go. Pioneers go.

They trust their eyes and they do things, they create and build and initiate, and for all of those lessons and memories and experiences, and so many more, I say, "Thank you, Michael. Let's do it!"

Excerpted from "Malibu Pioneers" by Jim Fitzpatrick. © 2005 by Jim Fitzpatrick.


Comment from Peter Cornberg

A week or so after I published the above tribute to Michael, I received this email from a mutual friend, Peter Cornberg. Peter and I attended the same Junior High and High School in Santa Monica, California. I think we were about a year apart. Like me, Peter now lives in New Zealand and, although we haven't managed to get together as yet, we correspond via email. 

Small world, especially when I learn that not only did he know Michael Murphy,  it's likely that he also knows Jimmy Fitzpatrick as well.

As I mentioned to Peter when I replied to his email about Michael, one of my favorite quotes from that great fictional detective, Charlie Chan is: "When weaving nets, all threads count."

Thanks for the recent updates. I’ve been flat out and just got to seriously looking at them…and, very sadly, saw the Mike Murphy story. He was, without question, a great man.

I met Michael in about 1968. I’d been working in the music biz and was trying to get into ‘the movies’. One thing led to another and I finally got work building sets for features and about the same time got work as a grip on a couple of industrial films, met guys in commercials and then got work in commercials as a grip and electrician. I met Michael on a commercial shoot. He had hair half way down his back. Mine was shoulder-length and I’d a full beard. We eyed each other up, became friends immediately and then he began getting work for me and shortly invited me to Malibu. 

We worked a lot together on commercials and had a fine time indeed, on and off the set. In late 1969 my feature connections got me a job on THE LAST MOVIE and I went off to Peru with Dennis Hopper for six months. That is a whole story in itself. Suffice to say that when I returned from Peru I was a wreck. It was an incredible experience, an incredible job but towards the end I got terrible food poisoning. (Don’t ever eat shrimp in the Andes; there’s no ocean anywhere close!)

I returned to L.A. without a place to live and Michael was building the sauna. I think he’d recently met Diane. I was exhausted and at loose ends and he kind of gave me a place to crash, indefinitely, while I was getting my head back together. I helped with the sauna and other projects, we did film together, and I recovered. I was trying to get into ‘production’ and was trying to work as an assistant director and production manager; it was a hard slog getting into it. 

One of the things I did was to break down scripts and do budgets on spec with the agreement that if the project ‘went’, I’d get a production job. Michael had done ‘government’ stuff historically and was approached to do a documentary for the United States Information Agency. I budgeted the project and he ultimately got the contract. It was an anti-USSR film which would be distributed around the world by the USIA with the hope of getting local TV play everyplace they could. The project was titled The Architecture of Religion. The purpose was to show in live-action and glorious colour, masses of people pursuing their various religious persuasions in the ‘free world’ vs. the oppression of religion behind the Iron Curtain, churches in disrepair or turned into offices or museums or whatever, which was to be depicted only with black and white stills, void of people. I guess the propagandists at the USIA thought that was a balanced approach. 

Diane did most of the research, pre-production and logistics. I didn’t really do production but did stills and sound and griped. It was me, Michael, Diane and Bob Patton, Michael’s assistant cameraman, crew-cut and a bit of a red-neck but a consummate technician and dedicated worker. 

So, we were two long haired hippies, Diane who looked a cross between a young hippy housewife and maybe Michael’s daughter, a straight almost-skin-head and 1600 pounds of equipment. Michael took two 35mm Éclair’s and heaps of gear and film and I took three Nikons, a 4x4 and a Nagra, microphones, film, tape and all the accessories. 

We went around the world in thirty days and shot in thirteen countries. At every stop we were met by United States Information Service personnel (the ‘Agency’s’ field operatives). They helped with local logistics and looked after us, especially after hours when a couple invited us to their homes for a meal. On one such occasion, in Kuala Lumpur, as I recall, in a gorgeous colonial mansion our host laid it on the line. He said he was sure we were going to make a fine film but we had to understand that because of the tightrope a lot of countries walked between the favours and/or threats of the US on the one hand and the favours and /or threats of the USSR on the other, a film as blatantly one-sided as ours was going to be would never be aired in his or many other postings. Oh well, we hadn’t written the thing and I suppose it eased any guilt we carried, as serious hippies, regards working for ‘the man’ on such an endeavour.

The ‘high point’, no pun intended, of the trip was the result of scoring a quantity of excellent hash ‘on the street’ in Tyre, Lebanon. It kept the three of us high, to Bob’s ongoing derision, until we got to London where we realized our next stop was to be Boston and serious customs and maybe even sniffer-dogs. We’d decided not to risk trying to take the hash back with us but couldn’t deal with flushing it either. So in the taxi on the way to the airport we three divided it up and ate it, to Bob’s disgust and consternation.

Now, this was maybe 1972 or some-such and the Boeing 747 was a brand new machine. None of us had ever seen one let alone been on one. Well, we checked in (getting a buzz) and walked to the gate (coming on stronger) and what was outside the window but an airplane the size of an office building, a bloody 747. It was the first or second one to London and return and it was almost empty. We each had a row to ourselves and the food and booze never stopped coming. We were beginning to peak as we left the ground and the flight to Boston was pure flash-fantasy.

After that my career headed toward features and big commercial projects and I didn’t see that much of Mike and Diane again except for a few of their wonderful parties.

Indeed a great man, rarely without a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. For a couple of years I loved him as a great friend. I’m very sorry to hear he’s passed on.

- Peter Cornberg and reproduced with his permission