Interesting Ideas

A world of his own - 4

The other demigods were his family. A typical piece is an amalgam of 14 family images that span decades, with pasted-on American and Chicago flags and headline clippings reading "Chicago" scattered across it. "Our dear boy Jimmie... Sister Dorothy... Our mother... Our dear ma... Johnnie," read the labels Murphy penned in. A World War I-era soldier has his medals outlined with pen. Other faces are tinted and have their eyebrows penciled over; many of the photos have frames drawn in around them.

Turn the frame over and scrawled on the backing cardboard in two-inch-high characters: "Joseph, Jimmie, Dorothy, Johnny, Leo, Dorothy, Leo, Jimmie, Connie, Michael." These names show up over and over, scribbled compulsively on the back of the framed pictures, without regard to who is on the front. (Consider 40,000, alone in the drafty garage where he had his workshop, obsessively scrawling these names of his near and dear on the countless pieces of posterboard he used for backing.)

Besides the framed groupings, Murphy made many poster-size or larger assemblies of photos stapled to backing board, many mixing shots of Murphy with publicity stills of sports figures and actors.

3K collage JPG
Murphy was born Joseph Cerny in 1898. He changed his last name in 1916 because, according to the Tribune, he "thought an Irish handle would make it easier to get hired in those days." The handle kept him working through 1965, when he retired from Andy Frain. All that time he lived in the brick three-flat on 34th Street. Across the street he had a dormered five-car garage, and on the back of the lot was the kind of cottage that provides inexpensive housing for family or longtime friends.

Murphy's father built the house around the turn of the century. 40,000 is said to have shared the building with his siblings, each taking an apartment.

In 40,000's hands this stalwart home for a stalwart of Chicago's old regime became more than a house. Along with the garage, it was a private museum to Murphy and the world passing him by.

The garage was a shrine in itself. Photos were spread all over -- walls, ceiling and rafters. Flag-stickered posters of President Kennedy and Mayor Daley hung from the ceiling on either size of a large model of the White House, said to be hand-made. Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey and former Ill. Gov. Otto Kerner also were memorialized in the garage, while Kennedy and Lincoln bookended the Gettysburg address and the Pledge of Allegiance.

Lincoln & Kennedy 8/42K JPG

The usual Murphy stuff also was in evidence. Pictures of models, baseball players, dear Jim Sobota, skaters and dear sister Dorothy covered the walls and ceilings, while a row of baseball pennants ran underneath Kennedy and Daley.

Altogether the effect, as seen in photographs taken by the Chicago Tribune in 1973, is of a walk-in collage, an impression that must have been similar in the room 40,000 appears to have used as an office. Pictures were stapled to cover the ceiling, and Murphy lined the walls floor to ceiling with wooden rails set up so that framed pictures could be slid between them. Newspaper photos taken over a period of decades picture him showing off this room. (Whether visitors were delighted in the extravagance of images or astonished at its oddity is unknown.) One picture from 1949 shows 40,000 and, according to the caption, "a small -- a very small -- portion of his souvenirs, collected in 27 years of ushering everywhere crowds gather."

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