By Patricia Danaher, Contributor
October / November 2012
Jimmy Murphy, the Irishman behind the iconic Beverly Hills restaurant Jimmy’s, a favorite among Hollywood’s elite for over twenty years, tells his story to Patricia Danaher.
For more than 20 years, Jimmy’s was the place in Hollywood where the good and the great, the rich and the very famous came to let their hair down, secure in the attentions of Jimmy Murphy and his Mullingar-born wife, Anne. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were regulars, as were Maureen O’Hara, Mitzi Gaynor, Bob and Dolores Hope, Paul Newman, Henry Kissinger, Burt Lancaster, Farrah Fawcett, Roger Moore, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and many, many others.
To Marlon Brando, he was “Il Patron.” To Angela Lansbury, he was a regular dance partner. To Old Hollywood, Jimmy Murphy was the keeper of the most elegant salon and restaurant in Beverly Hills, where anything could (and did) happen.
It was thanks to a combination of good taste, charm and serendipity that Kilkenny-born Murphy, who left school at the age of 14, found himself and his restaurant at the heart of where Hollywood came to do business and came out to play.
The Salad Days
“I never knew where the story was going to end, but I always felt from a young age that I was going to be a success,” he recently told me – 73 and as charming as ever. “I was one of eight children from an ordinary working class family. After I left school at 14, I went to Waterford and started my career in entertainment working in Dooley’s hotel.”
In fact, he cycled to Waterford from Kilkenny to start work and learned the basics of catering and hotel management. After a couple of years he took the boat to England, where he worked in various small hotels and then at the Carlton, until he landed a seemingly fated job at the Savoy Hotel in London. This marked his first introduction to waiting on celebrities, including Charlie Chaplin and his wife Oona O’Neill, the daughter of Irish American playwright Eugene O’Neill. Murphy was happy in London and gained experience that was to open doors down the line for him in then unimaginable ways.
Fate intervened further when he met his future wife Anne Power at a dance at the Café du Paris near Leicester.
“Anne was a nurse and she loved dancing. Her sister was a nurse in California, where they were looking for English-trained nurses. Anne was already planning to go to Los Angeles when we met in February 1963. We dated in London for three months and then she moved to LA and kept sending me photos of convertibles and bikinis and sunshine! We kept corresponding for about nine months and during the following winter, which was one of the worst in Europe in decades, I made the decision to go to LA.”
Getting visas and Green Cards was pretty straightforward in those days, and with his Savoy training behind him, Jimmy quickly started working at the very high-end Beverly Wilshire Hotel in LA.
“Hernando Courtwright [who headed the investment team that bought out the Beverly Wilshire and liked to hold court in La Bella Fontana, the hotel’s famed restaurant], was half Irish and half Mexican, and he loved the Irish. Within a couple of months, I was running the restaurant. I met a lot of famous people there including Billy Wilder and Frank Sinatra, who used to have to put his gun in the cloakroom. I also met Kurt Niklas, who owned one of the most famous restaurants in Los Angeles. He was opening a new place, the Bistro, and he obviously saw something in me because he asked me to come and work for him. I turned him down, saying I only worked in high-end places, not bistros, but eventually he persuaded me. This turned out to be a major stepping stone to the rest of my life.”
The Main Course
Jimmy and Anne married and had three children. He was a nearly permanent presence in the Bistro and so popular with its celebrity patrons that many people actually believed him to be the owner. Eventually they began to persuade him to go out on his own with their support and investment.
The group bought a 10,000-square-foot car park for $650,000 and Jimmy set about designing the elegant interiors with a French-themed restaurant, a cocktail lounge and rooms for private parties. Jimmy’s “opened in 1978 and was an instant hit with customers and the media alike.
“People like Johnny Carson, Bob Newhart and Don Rickles kept telling me I should have a place of my own and they became some of the first people to invest their money in what became Jimmy’s. They became part of my following, which included about 60 well-connected investors who brought their friends to the restaurant every night. They treated it like home away from home.
“It was a time when people really dressed up to go out, they would buy new dresses, get their hair done because they were going to have dinner at Jimmy’s. There was always glamour associated with it almost from day one. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were regulars. Burton said the Irish and the Welsh had three things in common: we are good drinkers, we are surrounded by water and none of us can swim!
“Rogers and Cowan, the big international celebrity PR firm had their offices above Jimmy’s and CAA were down the street. Their head man, Michael Ovitz used to come to the restaurant about four times a week to entertain and do business with all the major celebrities he represented. It very quickly became the place to be seen, or if you were visiting from out of town, to see big talent.
“People would spend the whole evening there, starting with cocktails, staying for dinner and then staying on to listen to jazz. You never knew who was going to come in. One night a group of customers were about to leave when Marlon Brando, Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood came in and started drinking at the bar. Everyone else sat back down, to see what would happen.”
Los Angeles is a town dominated by cars and in 2000, Jimmy received an offer for Jimmy’s that he couldn’t refuse. After 22 years, he decided to sell his iconic restaurant and focus on the Chaplin project. The site is now a car park again.
“I missed it of course after 22 years, and after a while I opened an upscale Irish pub called Jimmy’s Tavern. It did good business, but I sold it after a year and retired from the restaurant business. My new career is in show business.”
For anyone trying to break in to entertainment, Jimmy’s was a great place to be seen and heard. One night, a piano player from Boston called Chris Curtis showed up at the restaurant looking for work.
“I already had three piano players, so I wasn’t looking for anyone, but I said I would try him out. Bob Newhart was there and he immediately saw how talented Chris was. Outside the restaurant every night, a character dressed as Charlie Chaplin would open the doors of the cars of the celebrities and walk the women into the restaurant, twirling his umbrella. I never hired him – he just showed up and worked for tips.
“Chris happened to be doing a course on Chaplin at UCLA and became fascinated by his life. He started writing music about him and playing some of these songs in the restaurant.”
Jimmy thought Curtis and his songs had great potential, and a number of his friends in the know agreed. Keen to help him develop them into a show about Chaplin, Jimmy hosted a cocktail party and raised half a million dollars in a single evening, with Chris performing his new music.
Though the Chaplin project initially got off to a flying start, with interest from such big names as Irish producer Noel Pearson (My Left Foot, Dancing at Lughnasa), they soon encountered setback after setback, otherwise known as “Development Hell.” People signed on to help develop the show and then dropped out; the money they had raised was misused in careless hands.
Eventually, though, it all came together. Tan, fit, lively and still so well connected, Jimmy was able to raise another $1.2 million two years ago to help stage a production of Chaplin (then titled Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin) at the influential La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, which operates as a kind of clearing house for plays that make it to Broadway. Thomas Meehan, whose résumé includes Annie, Hairspray and The Producers, signed on to collaborate with Curtis on the show’s book, and they found their leading man in Rob McClure, an actor with little name-recognition but heaps of talent, and an affinity for Chaplin’s spirit and signature movements. Chaplin received strong reviews and played to packed audiences.
Again, the show’s guardian angel (he is not listed as an official producer), Jimmy was able to go to a handful of investors, who raised the necessary $12 million to stage the show
on Broadway. Chaplin: The Musical opened on September 10 at the Barrymore Theater, and Jimmy hopes its run will be both long and lauded.
“I’ve been connected to show business all my working life, catering to people in the business, from actors to presidents. I remember when I was at the Savoy in London, Chaplin used to come in and I had no idea then as I waited on him that his story would come to form such a big part of my own life. It’s been fascinating and challenging and I love the way it’s all unfolded. I hope the show is going to run on Broadway for years.”