Jimmy Murphy Remembered

by HFPA February 11, 2014


To Marlon Brando he was Il Patron. To Angela Lansbury he was a regular dance partner. To Old Hollywood, Ireland-born Jimmy Murphy was keeper of the most elegant salon and restaurant in Beverly Hills, where over two decades, anything could (and did) happen.

It was thanks to a combination of good taste, charm and serendipity that Jimmy Murphy, who left school at the age of 14, found himself and his restaurant at the heart of where Hollywood worked and played. He died last week at 75, after a long battle with
pancreatic cancer.

Moving to London from Kilkenny, where he landed a seemingly fated job at the Savoy Hotel, marked Jimmy’s first introduction to waiting on celebrities, including Charlie Chaplin and his wife Oona. (Years later Jimmy would produce a Broadway musical on the life of Chaplin.)

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 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.”

“Hernando Courtwright who owned Bella Fontana 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 called The Bistro and he obviously saw something in me because he asked me to go 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 for the rest of my life.”

He and Anne married and had three children. Jimmy 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 a 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 had their offices above Jimmy’s and CAA were down the street. 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, having 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.”

Jimmy’s closed in 2000 and he devoted the remainder of his life to his family and to successfully putting Chaplin on Broadway. He is survived by Anne, his wife of 50 years and their three children.

Patricia Danaher