Further, such an arrangement would have infringed on what Murray calls “the ideal writer’s life” that Janet had created for herself. “She lived alone in a hotel,” Murray tells me, “so she didn’t have to worry about housekeeping and chores and all of that; she could just concentrate on being a writer. That drove my mother crazy, but, ultimately, my mother respected that. Janet was the purest writer I ever met. It was her dominant, overriding drive, and I admired that enormously.” Janet is the spirit, straining against the bonds of the flesh, driven by her heady pursuit of words to escape the messy complications of the shared life Natalia craved.
And it was a strain. As Janet writes to Natalia, “I have made you pay the highest human price for my work which cannot have been worth flesh, blood and hope.” And elsewhere, “…certainly only our consolidation can relieve either of us from the breakdowns and the tension.” At one point, separation from Natalia intermingles with separation from herself, and her lover becomes a tether to the world. “With the pain that you have had in knowing of your sister’s illness,” Janet writes, “I could almost wish that there was some similar precision in my case of feeling helplessly slipping away from connection with this room, this hotel, this street, this machine that I write to you upon and the scene of you in my mind’s eye with… the bay or the sea behind you.… I will try to look out of this window and look around my room and make contact with this day, this place and reality and write you from it later. You are my last attachment to my imagination.… You are my last portrait of the heart.”
But, as Murray writes, their distance may have contributed to their endurance. “My mother was a benevolent tyrant, who through the sheer force of her personality dominated everyone in her immediate orbit…. Both Janet and I, the two people my mother loved most in the world and who reciprocated that love, had maintained a relationship with her by defending our independence. In my case, through often needless and damaging confrontations; in Janet’s, by avoidance, tergiversation, and geographical distance. I could not imagine Janet a beloved captive in my mother’s train.” And work — Natalia’s satisfying work in publishing — eventually eases the strain of their separation.
In the end, the body has its say. First, with the publication of Natalia’s Darlinghissima: Letters to a Friend in 1985, and then with this book, written by the fruit of Natalia’s body and inspired by the material records she left behind. “My mother was a magpie,” writes Murray. “Unlike Janet, who lived most of her adult life in hotels and was uninterested in possessions or in preserving mementoes of the past, my mother collected and stored away the bits and pieces of her days, including almost every letter ever written to her by anyone who counted in her life. Thus it was that, after her death, I found myself in her New York apartment painstakingly going through for many hours the stacks of files and boxes stored away in various corners of her rooms. Under the windows in her bedroom was a heavy, dark antique wooden chest full of papers, photographs, and objects from her past, the most intimate and guarded items that she had not wanted revealed during her lifetime. Often, as I was growing up, when I’d ask her about past events she did not want to talk about … she’d say, ‘Ah, you will have to wait till I am gone to find out about that.’ And once, toward the end of her life, she had looked at me and said, ‘Poor Bill, you will have so much to go through after I am gone.’ ”
“[The chest] had always been there,” recalls Murray when I ask him about it. “Probably 15th or 16th Century, a very dark wooden chest. I was fascinated by it, because I knew what was in there. When I found all that correspondence which she hadn’t revealed [in Darlinghissima], that was the impetus; I realized then that she would have wanted me to write this book. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have left that correspondence, or she would have said, ‘You can read it, but don’t write about it.’
“The book was an homage to the two of them. I felt deeply about them and loved them a lot. I think their story is important; I think their story is the story of a great love affair. If you can find that kind of relationship with any other single individual in your lifetime, you’re very lucky. I wanted to tell that story, and their influence on me.”
William Murray Jr. was born on April 8, 1926, in New York City. His father, William Murray, had met his mother four years earlier while recruiting European concert pianists to come to the States and perform on Baldwin grand pianos. He signed a “celebrated but eccentric Polish concert artist” while in Rome, and the artist’s agent threw a dinner party, to which he invited Ester Danesi Traversari and her 20-year-old daughter Natalia. Natalia and William ended the evening by driving “to the Vatican and stroll[ing] about the great piazza in the bright moonlight. The setting was highly romantic,” but nothing came of it until a year later, when Murray was again in Rome. They met by chance in the Piazza del Popolo, and after they had spent a few days touring the city, Murray proposed. She didn’t accept until after she had visited him in New York, during which time she stayed with the aforementioned agent. Murray mingled with the city’s artistic and cultural elite, and the vision of ’20s New York he presented was a dazzling spectacle.
They married in 1924, and problems arose almost immediately. What had seemed like a grand party during her visit to New York proved to be the normal, everyday course of events. “Everybody was drunk in the ’20s,” says Murray. “They were always drinking and they were always out late in the speakeasies. Nobody stayed home; they were always at parties. Everybody was hung over in the morning.”