House of Cards

Nine bright kids, two harried parents, and a table a few sizes too small made for a raucous dinnertime at the Murray home in Wilmette. Turns out, growing up amid the wisecracks provided the best training a comedian could hope for.

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It seems impossibly small now, this dining room with its tight corners and postage-stamp windows and walls that press in like a mother’s worries; too small, certainly, for a drop-leaf table with eight kids crammed around it-nine if you counted the baby squirming in the highchair-and a mother and father presiding at the ends.

 

But this is where it all started, where Ed, Brian, Nancy, Peggy, Billy, Laura, Andrew, Johnny, and Joel got their chops-and not just the kind you eat; where a family that seemed like just another big Irish Catholic clan in a tame north Chicago suburb came to produce a thespian nun, a Morgan Stanley bigwig, a restaurant Pooh-Bah, and, one by one, a roll call of witty show-biz hams, one of whom became a superstar.

The room sits quiet on this day. The little Murray kids who once squeezed around the table are now sprinkled across the country, themselves parents and grandparents. Their own parents, Edward and Lucille, died years ago. One of the siblings-Laura-still lives in the childhood home, however, and she smiles as she stands in the room communing with the ghosts and echoes of so much laughter: The night Laura bit into a cherry tomato and squirted red juice on her father’s white work shirt right after he’d warned the boys to stop squishing the little vegetables. The night the dad pronounced that the next person to knock over a glass of milk would be in big trouble-just before he toppled his own glass. All those fish-stick Friday nights, so many that some of the siblings still can’t abide looking at the skinny things. Nancy chasing Peggy around the table in a rage over shoes. The endless fights over whose turn it was to do the dishes.

And the night when Billy-nobody called him Bill-got his dad to spray a mouthful of food after the boy lost his balance doing a James Cagney impression, banged his head on the corner of the table, rebounded like a yo-yo, and sat rubbing the rising knot, his eyes beginning to fill, until he saw his father shaking with laughter and Billy suddenly forgot how much his head hurt.

At the Murray table, dinner was showtime, and a spit take from the dad was the ultimate, a standing O. “He was a tough laugh and he was a slow eater,” recalls Joel. “So if you could get him to laugh with his mouth full, you’d really done something. You didn’t have to do a whole long piece. If you could kill for ten seconds you could sit back and eat and ignore stuff for a while. You’ve got 11 people sitting around the table, so sometimes you only had about a second and a half to say something funny. I’ll say this: You learned something about timing and about what was really funny and about what was important.”

That’s what it was like “every day and every night,” says Nancy. “Dad at one end and Mom at the other. Always stories. Sometimes Dad would look around at all the kids, shake his head, and say, ‘Lucille, I think we should have raised chickens,’ and everyone would die. You knew if he said her name it was going to be some great line.”

“He was like Bob Newhart,” recalls Ed, the oldest, “and she was like Edith Bunker. She had a wonderful sense of humor, too, just in a quieter way.”

There was nothing quiet about the father’s laugh. It began with an imperceptible crack in his face, grew into a fissure, split open into a grin, and then blossomed into an open-mouthed, full-on roar that rippled over the table, toppling kids like dominoes, until the entire family were nearly spewing their food laughing at Brian or John or Ed or Joel-or Billy, especially Billy, who would one day become rich by mining just such silly moments from a childhood that, it turns out, was better training for comic genius than any workshop.

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But this is not a story about Bill Murray. Or Brian Doyle-Murray (he tacked on his grandmother’s maiden name because there was already a Brian Murray in Actors’ Equity). Or Joel. Or John. Or any of the show-biz brothers, former altar boys all, who used the springboard of a colorful childhood-and each other’s successes-to catapult themselves into the entertainment world. It is the story of the whole clan, the clamoring brood who from youngest to oldest are nearly two decades apart and the two mildly eccentric parents who raised them; it’s about a large family where laughs-getting them and giving them-seem like a genetic imperative.

Conversations with seven of the nine siblings, and with people who knew them growing up, reveal a quirky, funny, almost quintessentially American family who still gather for special occasions and still call each other often. (The famously elusive Bill remained elusive for this article, despite the efforts of several siblings. Brian has sworn off interviews, he told Chicago, through brother Ed.) It is a family that quietly gives to causes like diabetes research-in honor of their father, who died of the disease at 46. A family that “somehow,” says Ed, “ended up being a bunch of performers"-whether they do it for a living or not.

To understand how a family comes to produce such talent, it helps to come back here, back home, to the house where a father, a lumber salesman, supported his family on $13,800 a year; where a hot dog and an orange pop was a treat, and a butter pecan ice-cream cone from Homer’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor on Green Bay Road was heaven; where vacations often meant painting the house; where you helped pay your way through school by caddying for the people of means and influence who lived in the fancy houses on the fancy streets; where three brothers slept in one room, three sisters in another, and two slept in day beds downstairs, while the baby-there always seemed to be a baby-slept with Mom and Dad in a converted den; where noogies hurt like hell, and weren’t nearly as funny to receive as they were to watch on TV; where you never had much, but in that almost clichéd way of happy families, you never felt the lack.

To the siblings, growing up Murray means coming back to the house in Wilmette and the nightly dinner table revue, to the little house that the brothers and sisters call home, and in some ways have never left.

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