Murph the Surf: the Cool Thief
by gaspar gonzalez
When Jack Murphy arrived in Miami Beach in the 1950s, he worked as a strolling violinist at the Poodle Room in the Fontainebleau. A gifted tennis player, he gave lessons—and hustled games—at the Roney Plaza’s courts. He was a champion surfer. And he developed an aquatic act that was perfect for the tourist crowd. “Every hotel had a high [diving] board and a pool, and they would all put on water shows,” says Murphy, who specialized in acrobatic comedy dives. Tall, blonde and cocky, the California native became a fixture on the beach, with a nickname custom-made for the era of sun-and-fun: Murph the Surf.
Of course, if that’s all Murphy was famous for, we wouldn’t be sitting at this open-air restaurant on the bay in Coconut Grove. We’re here because the 72-year-old Murphy still likes being close to the water. “You want to know about the heist, huh?” he asks, adjusting the Rolex on his wrist. The heist, as Murphy calls it, occurred 46 years ago, on October 29, 1964.
That night, Murphy and two beach buddies, Allan Kuhn and Roger Clark, broke into the American Museum of Natural History in New York and made off with two dozen prize gems, including the 563-carat Star of India, perhaps the most famous sapphire in the world, and the 100-carat DeLong Star ruby. The value of the stones was estimated at around $410,000 (about $2.8 million today), but, in reality, they were irreplaceable. It was the biggest jewel job in history.
The trio made it look easy. Clark was the lookout man. Murphy and Kuhn, a marine salvage diver, scaled a 125-foot wall to the fourth floor. Once there, an unlocked window gave them access to the room where the gems were kept in glass cases. The men had researched the heist well; they knew the museum’s alarm system was antiquated and wouldn’t sound when they cut into the cases. “For us, it wasn’t anything,” says Murphy. “We just swung in there and took the stuff.”
It was not their first burglary. Living in Miami, Murphy and his friends had developed an appetite for speedboats, luxury cars and expensive clothes. As their tastes became more and more refined, says Kuhn, who today lives in California, “the crime thing just crept into our lives.”
It didn’t take the police long to identify Murphy, Kuhn and Clark as suspects. In the weeks leading up to the break-in, they had been staying at a hotel near the museum, throwing parties and trying to impress their New York friends with talk of what they were planning. “We knew we’d get picked up,” says Murphy. “It’s like jumping in a car and doing 90 miles an hour. You’re not surprised when you get pulled over.” Less than 48 hours after the burglary, police in Manhattan collared Clark, while the FBI arrested Murphy and Kuhn in Miami—though not before they had managed to hand off the jewels to friends for safekeeping.
The arrests created a media frenzy. “[The newspapers] called it ‘The Crime of the Century,’” remembers Maurice Nadjari, the Manhattan assistant district attorney assigned to the case. “There was this talk that these guys had seen the [recent hit] movie Topkapi, about the robbery of a Turkish museum. Since they were athletic types, they thought they could try something similar.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY bettmann/corbis and LYNN PELHAM/TIME LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES