Murph the Surf: the Cool Thief
by gaspar gonzalez
As the investigation dragged on—Nadjari had neither witnesses nor jewels to enter into evidence—Murphy emerged as the front man for the group. He relished the spotlight. “I was at the police station in New York one time and they had me handcuffed to this drag queen, to make me look bad,” he recounts. “So I said to her, ‘Listen, when they take us down to the paddy wagon, [pretend] I’m Tab Hunter and you’re Leslie Uggams [at a Hollywood premiere].’ The cops start walking us down and I’m like, ‘Okay, baby, it’s showtime!’ And the crowd outside is going wild.”
With his dark glasses, hipster swagger and pop moniker, Murph the Surf oozed Jet Age cool. To his court dates, he wore silk suits, colorful ties and an overcoat with a fur collar. When reporters asked about his plans for the future, he joked about opening a nightclub with Kuhn on Miami Beach. They were going to call it the Star of India.
“Those [guys] exuded confidence,” says Nadjari. “I knew I had to break them down.” To do that, Nadjari relied on some star power. Eva Gabor— soon to be cast in television’s Green Acres—was famous for her good looks, bad movies and multiple marriages, a poor man’s Liz Taylor. On January 5, she became Nadjari’s secret weapon. The Hungarian bombshell claimed that, a year earlier, Murphy and Kuhn had pistol-whipped her in her North Bay Village condo and taken a $25,000 diamond ring. To this day, Murphy scoffs at the charge: “They put me in a lineup with eight Puerto Ricans. [Of course] Gabor picked me out.”
Possibly nothing more than a ruse by Nadjari—the actress later declined to testify in court—Gabor’s dramatic allegation nevertheless placed Murphy and Kuhn at the scene of a crime. It was a different crime, but it was enough to get them jailed. “I got an indictment on them,” says Nadjari triumphantly. “By 4 PM [that day], I got a phone call saying Kuhn wanted to speak with me.”
The beach boys, it turned out, did not like the view from inside the Manhattan Detention Complex, known as The Tombs for its oppressive architecture. With the jail’s dark, gray walls staring them in the face, they decided to cut a deal. They confessed to the museum heist. On January 9, the newspapers reported that the jewels had been retrieved from a bus-station locker in downtown Miami. For his role in the theft, Murphy got 21 months.
Prison did little to diminish Murphy’s or his friends’ celebrity. “When they came back [in 1967], I did a story on them,” says crime writer Edna Buchanan, then a reporter for the Miami Beach Daily Sun. “Old people [on Miami Beach] treated them like conquering heroes.”
When he was apprehended a few months later for breaking into the home of a Miami Beach socialite, it sounded like vintage Murph the Surf. This time, however, there was a difference. Things had gotten rough. Murphy, working with a different set of accomplices, had threatened to pour boiling water on the woman’s eight-year-old niece if the woman didn’t cooperate. When the cops showed up, he ran through a glass door trying to get away.
At the hospital following his arrest, the former trick diver showed he still had a performer’s instincts. “They were suturing [his face] up,” recalls Buchanan, “and I said, ‘Jack, what happened?’ And he said, ‘I cut myself shaving.’ He never lost that bravado.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY bettmann/corbis and LYNN PELHAM/TIME LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES