Jimmy Murphy, the genial Irishman who reigned as a Beverly Hills dining room power broker for more than three decades, has died. The longtime maitre d’ first at the Bistro in Beverly Hills and later at his own Jimmy’s Beverly Hills, he was an icon in the days when restaurants were better known for their dining room staffs than for the chefs who were working in their kitchens.
Murphy, 75, died at home in Beverly Hills Friday afternoon after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, family members said.
Jimmy’s, located at 201 S. Moreno Drive in Beverly Hills, was a favorite haunt of celebrities and socialites in the 1970s and 1980s. Among Murphy’s regulars were Frank Sinatra, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Restaurant investors included Johnny Carson, Don Rickles and Bob Newhart, who emceed a celebrity gala in Murphy’s honor in 1983.
The famed public relations firm Rogers & Cowan had its offices upstairs from the restaurant and Mike Ovitz’s mega-powerful talent agency CAA was just down the block. [UPDATED: The story originally described Rogers & Cowan as a talent agency]
The secret to his success, Murphy once told The Times, was catering to his customers. “It’s important to have a good retention of names and to remember people’s favorite little things,” he said in a 1982 interview. “People will come in and the waiter will automatically bring their drinks because he remembers their habits, what they like. For a birthday or anniversary, we’ll bake a special cake. Or if a customer doesn’t want dessert but has a yen for a little something sweet, we’ll send over some little cookies. No, there’s no charge.”
One of his sons, Sean, remembers his father sitting for an hour before every lunch and dinner service plotting out exactly where everyone would sit. “He used to tell me it was like setting a stage play,” he said.
Murphy was born June 4, 1938 in Kilkenny, Ireland, and trained in the restaurant business, working his way up to a position at London’s Savoy Hotel. He moved to Los Angeles in pursuit of his future wife, a nurse named Anne Power, who came to California to work. “[She] kept sending me photos of convertibles and bikinis and sunshine!” he told Patricia Danaher in an interview for the Irish American website. “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 L.A.”
Not long after arriving, Murphy went to work for the legendary Kurt Niklas at his then-new Bistro restaurant in Beverly Hills, where he worked for 14 years, meeting and greeting the great and powerful (Niklas died in 2009 at age 83). Murphy went out on his own in 1978, spending a then-astronomical nearly $1 million building an elegant 14,000-square foot restaurant and cocktail lounge that would fit with his customers' expectations.
“It was a time when people really dressed up to go out,” Murphy told Danaher. “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.”
Murphy and his restaurant were regulars in Southern California society coverage. In 1981 he was interviewed by The Times along with socialites Denise Hale, Marvin Mitchelson, and Marcia Medavoy on the subject of status in Hollywood. “Old status is and always will be the establishment,” he said. “Old status gets the best tables. It’s a question of RHIP [rank has its privileges]. The mark of truly statused people is that they never offend, whether they are owners or guests.”
Murphy and his wife were instrumental in launching the long-running Beverly Hills St. Patrick’s Day parade, which they led for many years.
But by the 1990s, the world was changing and in 1998, Murphy closed the restaurant. "Dining in an elegant setting is not what it used to be,” he told The Times then. “It seems to be trendier. People are always looking for the newest thing."
Murphy and his family attempted a couple of comebacks. In 1999, the restaurant reopened on the same site, with his two sons Jamie and Sean and daughter Geraldine working the room. But that lasted less than a year. They made another run in 2003 with Jimmy’s Tavern, a more casual place on Pico Boulevard, just south of Beverly Hills.
When Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila reviewed the place, she found “from the very first week, it was as if Murphy pressed the play button after a long pause, and the ongoing party that was Jimmy's picked up where it left off three years before. There's the stately Sidney Poitier at the head of a large table one night, and across the room, a face I glimpsed in an old late-night film. Like the old Jimmy's, this one has its moments, and its audience.”
It closed in 2004 and Murphy devoted the next decade to his long-cherished project of developing a Broadway musical around the life of Charlie Chaplin. It debuted at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2010 and opened on Broadway in 2012 to mixed reviews.
Murphy is survived by his wife of 50 years and their three children. In lieu of flowers the family is requesting that donations be made on behalf of Jimmy Murphy to Sister Alice Marie Quinn, St. Vincent Meals on Wheels Foundation. 2200 West 3rd St., Suite 200; Los Angeles, CA 90057-1935.