Perhaps most damaging of all, “Sex consisted of somebody sticking it in you, coming, and then rolling over and going to sleep. That was hardly conducive to an appreciation of sex, and that’s what she had to deal with. I’m sure she was basically gay, so she found sex with women to be compatible, but I think if she’d had a careful, sensitive, caring lover, it might have made some difference. I’m pretty sure she was a virgin when she married my father, or if not, the next thing to it.”
Natalia fled to Rome after Bill was born — he caught pneumonia and Natalia believed he needed Italian air and food, along with the tender care of his grandmother, to recover and maintain his health. She returned to New York several times, but never for long, and she was in Italy when the crash came in ’29. Murray Sr. told his wife to stay in Italy until he could get back on his feet, and she gladly obliged. Soon after, she began to have affairs with women, who “seemed to provide for her the warmth and affection, as well as sexual satisfaction, she needed.”
The voyages back and forth to New York established a pattern of travel in young Murray’s life, a pattern that would lead him to write later, “We were always traveling, always in flight, it seemed.” In 1932, he was sent to a school in Switzerland for a year, “because my mother had a yen to find out about her acting possibilities, and went off with a touring troupe of players, doing the ingenue leads up and down the peninsula.” He was happy there, so much so that he had to be literally pried away when his mother came to collect him, but though his tone in recollection is sanguine, he grants that such a nomadic life may have taken its toll.
“I had no stability, and I’m sure there were negative effects from it. I suffered from a lot of homesickness as a kid. I was always being sent away for one reason or another, or being taken care of by somebody who was neither mother nor father. I thought it was the norm; I never realized that there was another way to be a child. But it certainly made for insecurity and unhappiness on my part.”
After Switzerland, he traveled with his mother and grandmother to Capri, where he might have remained had not his father written to Natalia, asking for a divorce. The letter, writes Murray, revealed Natalia as “a true Roman bourgeoise.” “She believed in the structure of family,” he explains. “She believed that once you make commitments, you keep them. That’s why we came back from Italy to try to salvage her marriage.” Even though she was being unfaithful to him with other women? “One of the things about the middle class is that you maintain the form, even if the content is not there.” So it was back to New York in 1934 for a second (and unsuccessful) try at marriage.
The instability of place was mirrored in Natalia’s motherhood. “She had the instinctive love that a mother has for a child,” Murray says. “But my mother was not a very demonstrative mother. She rarely hugged me or embraced me or kissed me or caressed me or stuff like that. Much later, very late in her life, she told [my wife] Alice how much she had wanted to do all of that obvious mother physical nurturing, but that she was afraid that I’d be gay. I’d be too tied to her strings; I’d be unmanned by her excessive affection. So it was a conscious decision on her part.
“But every now and then there would be these outpourings of love, particularly in writing. She wrote me wonderful letters from time to time. I keep one on my desk; it arrived when I was 60 years old. It just blew me away. It came from out of the blue, how much she loved me, how proud she was of me. She just didn’t ordinarily express [that] in the course of events.”
With regard to her role as governess, writes Murray, “My mother would alternate between long periods of basically ignoring me, while I was away from her, to bouts of attempting to exert control over all my actions. She was a very dominant personality, and she was always trying to rein me in and keep me from doing things I wanted to do.”
Her temperament was given to similar veerings. “My mother had a very mercurial personality, to put it mildly. [Sometimes she had] this very explosive, difficult personality, difficult for a kid like me to live under. She had these very dark moods, and, for no reason that I could see, would sometimes be very, very difficult for me. Dark, pessimistic, angry. And then there were periods when she was just incredibly wonderful — just supportive and loving and funny. Everybody adored her; she had this great gift for making people fall in love with her, no matter what sex they were.
“[That] was also sort of irritating to me as a kid. I was always in her shadow. There’s a photograph of my mother doing a public reading from Darlinghissima with the actress Marion Seldes at the Manhattan Theater Club in New York. That same night, I was in Riverside on the UC campus doing the guest-writer lecture there. I had maybe 400 people in the theater, and she had a packed house in New York. I thought that was sort of symbolic of our whole relationship: she was playing to standing room only in New York, and I was in Riverside, California, playing to a half-empty house.”
These are darkened corners of the Murray household, but there is no trace of bitterness in Murray’s account of them, and he maintains a deep admiration for his mother. “As I grew older and became more aware of my mother in an objective way, it seemed to me that she had managed to do everything with her life that she had wanted to do. She saw herself as this self-sacrificing, dedicated person, always giving up the easy things for the hard things, and I saw her as just the opposite. I saw her as someone who did pretty much what she wanted to do.”