Josephine Wilson Murphy, who had been ill for several years, succumbed in her home on New York City’s Upper East Side on December 7. She was 92 years old.
For many years, she had spent summers and weekends at the home in Wainscott she shared with her son, Matthew Murphy. Josephine Murphy also spent time with her daughter, Amagansett resident Michelle Murphy Strada, and her son, Elliott Murphy of Paris, France.
Born on April 20, 1926, in St. Petersburg, FL, to James Patrick Kirkwood Wilson (who was a neighbor of Elvis Presley’s while growing up in Tupelo, MI) and the former Ruth Dewey, Josephine came from strong stock. Her paternal uncle, Patrick Wilson, earned a Purple Heart in World War II, and became Adjutant General of the Mississippi National Guard. In 1962, under orders from President John F. Kennedy, he walked alongside James Meredith, the first African American to be accepted as a student at the University of Mississippi.
On her mother’s side, her grandmother, Jean Thomas Dewey, was a well-respected watercolorist at the turn of the century, and her grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Dewey, was the mayor of Flemington, NJ. Josephine’s great uncle, George Dewey, was Admiral of the Navy, the only person in United States history to have attained the rank. He is best known for his victory at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish–American War. Josephine Murphy’s ancestors emigrated from England and France in 1631, 11 years after The Mayflower arrived, settled in Massachusetts, and later fought in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
Josephine, a natural redheaded beauty, had hoped to pursue an acting career. However, those dreams were suddenly interrupted when her name was given to an aspiring producer/director looking for performers. Elliott Murphy had been raised next to his English father’s (a Boer War hero) blacksmith shop in rural Brooklyn. After his father’s fatal illness during the Depression, his mother Lillian went back to her millinery work and Elliott spent the war years working as an engineer in The Brooklyn Navy Yard. As the war was coming to an end, he managed to strike a deal with Robert Moses, the New York Parks Commissioner, to produce and direct his planned theatrical extravaganza, an aquashow. He was looking for talent, and had heard about a beautiful 18-year-old redheaded actress from Baldwin, NY. Rather than offering her an acting job, he took her for a drive to Jones Beach, where he proposed.
On September 11, 1945, Josephine married Elliott James Murphy, who, from that year until 1958, produced and directed the outdoor summer stage and water extravaganza, “Elliott Murphy’s Aquashow,” located at the Flushing Meadows 1939 World’s Fair Grounds. It was featured on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and featured, over the years, performers like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Henny Youngman, Sonja Henie, The Aquadorables, and the Aquazanies.
Josephine and Elizabeth Taylor were among the co-hosts at Roosevelt Racetrack’s Star Night, a benefit for North Shore Hospital, in 1957, which Elliott Murphy and Taylor’s husband, Mike Todd, co-produced.
Elliott Murphy died suddenly of a massive heart attack on October 19, 1945, at 48 years old. After being her husband’s muse and collaborator for two decades, Josephine, who was living in Garden City by that time, was left at 39 to raise three teenagers on her own.
Josephine never lost her love of the arts. A few months before her death, Josephine surprised her daughter, Michelle, by giving her a hidden stash of drawings and poems which she had never shared before.
All three of her children survive, along with her grandchildren Alex Strada of Brooklyn, Justin Strada of Amagansett, Garpard Murphy of Paris, France, and Juliette Murphy of New York City. Her only sibling, who predeceased her, Jean Wilson Sidar, became the first female Vice President of Rutgers University, as former Dean of Rutger’s History Department.
Josephine Murphy was interred at Evergreen Cemetery in Brooklyn.