It was the fall of 1962 and I was aware enough of current events to know that Eunice Murray was not a run of the mill domestic worker that my father Norman Brokaw employed to take care of my brothers and me during one of my mother’s involuntary vacations at the mental hospital. Mrs. Murray was indeed in the news and for all the reasons you’d never want to make you famous.
First impressions do matter. There was something that didn’t quite add up about her. To a nine-year-old, she seemed nice enough. But warm and openhearted she definitively was not. She was caring, responsible and totally stalwart, but with more in common to an English butler, tinged with a cold and slightly standoffish manner.
Middle-aged with a round Irish looking face framed in cat eyeglasses, Mrs. Murray had one quality that little impressionable minds would never fail to notice. She was as close as I had ever seen in my short life to a bald woman. The male equivalent was nothing new to me—it ran on my mother’s side of the family (especially in my mad, mean Romanian Grandpa Sam). Mrs. Murray wasn’t quite full blown but she had a very serious thinning problem up top
Her hair loss was noticed more than with just the eyes, but imprinted with an odor that still makes me wince more nearly six decades later. She put some sort of tonic on what was left of her short grayish-black hair, and it had a rank smell, like of a dead rodent in the early stage of decomposition.
Who knows what was in it, but maybe it had something to do with the fact that she was into natural stuff long before it was vogue. She dug up a little patch in the backyard and introduced me to organic gardening. She took special pride in layering her compost heap just perfectly. Come to think of it, maybe the same thing was going on with the microbiome of her scalp. Whatever it was doing, to make her hair grow or appear thicker, it didn’t seem to make much difference in the year or less I knew her. Instead, the tincture she applied was like a greasy repellent, a warning to not come too close, something that a lizard might excrete to ward off predators.
It had been only a matter of a few weeks if not days before Mrs. Murray showed up in her late model Dodge Dart to our Laurel Canyon home that she had became part of one of those infamous, iconic moments of history. Early one morning before dawn, she noticed the light on behind her employer’s locked bedroom door. Inside was the most famous woman in the world at that time, lying naked on the bed and quite dead, clutching a telephone in her hand. It was Marilyn Monroe.
For the rest of her days, Mrs. Murray was ensnared in all sorts of conspiracy theories. What a perfect storm between the mysterious suicide of the most iconic film actress in history and intrigue with the Kennedy family! Had she given Marilyn an overdose in the form barbiturate-laced enema as some have theorized? Did she have the inside scoop about the affairs with President Kennedy and his brother Robert? Had Robert been at the home that evening? Could he have killed her with a lethal injection because a leak about the alleged affair could have destroyed JFK’s reelection campaign? Were the pill bottles on the bed stand planted there? Everyone believed that Mrs. Murray had to know the truth, but why wasn’t she telling anybody? She was an easy target of suspicion in the category of “the butler did it.”
There really wasn’t any greater parenting sensitivity in that day and age about bringing someone in to the family home who had just been through that kind of trauma as a bystander let alone in the less likely chance that she had been a participant in the deed or its cover up. I’m sure my father had a full load of responsibility with a demanding job and three kids whose well-being and welfare were at stake. No doubt he saw the hiring of Mrs. Murray as a godsend and didn’t spend too much time worrying about our possible exposure to any toxic energies or worse.
I can only guess how my father came to hire Mrs. Murray to be our nanny. True, my father had a personal connection to Marilyn. He took the then up and coming starlet around to studio auditions in the late 1940s and early 1950s when she was the paramour of his uncle Johnny Hyde, a powerful movie agent. He told us at that time that he was somewhat embarrassed about driving her around in the old jalopy he had. So, he removed the old fashioned running boards on the side of the car to make it look more presentable.
My best guess was that Mrs. Murray had been a referral from a professional. Perhaps my mother was also a patient of Marilyn’s psychiatrist Dr. Robert Greenson. Dr. Greenson was known to place Mrs. Murray as a housekeeper/companion to his patients. Timing is everything. Mrs. Murray was available and could use a new gig (and perhaps a place to hide out). She did have an apartment in Santa Monica. Her next-door neighbor was Stan Laurel of the golden age of film comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. Mrs. Murray said that I could come with her to meet him, an invitation I regretfully did not accept.
Going through all the trauma with my mother and selfishly self-centered as most kids are at that age, I was somewhat oblivious to whatever Mrs. Murray’s inner state of mind was. Safe to say we were PTSD compadres. At the same time, I could feel people’s energy and would easily recoil from anyone who triggered my bullshit meter. Our new nanny kept up her appearances. Except for her thinning hair, there were no other cracks in her veneer, at least not in the beginning.
My mother Florence Brokaw, age 34 at the time, was beautiful in an Elizabeth Taylor kind of way. But the birth of me, her third child, was probably the last straw. Not that she had it stress free with my two older twin brothers and her ambitious, hardworking husband before I came into the picture. Diagnosed as schizophrenic, my mother would often signal her readiness for the institution by becoming hyper-hyperactive, going on bizarre and ludicriously expensive shopping sprees and sometimes crashing cars. It seemed to happen about every two years that she would go off the deep end. Her voice in this state would transform into a high-pitched scream that was terrifying. When I saw the the classic horror film monster Frankenstein on television giving the little flower to the girl at the lake before killing her, I remember diving under the couch thinking, “That’s me!” So Mrs. Murray’s trauma was not high on my radar.
Both as it related to parenting and mental illness in America of the early 1960s, there was not a lot of sensitivity or higher consciousness for that matter. If the answer wasn’t in Dr. Benjamin Spock’s ubiquitous book on child-rearing or if you didn’t have a strong and active grandparent in the home, you were on your own. Doctors did make house calls though, and the milkman delivered. The options for emotionally sick people like Marilyn Monroe and my mother were crude and often barbaric compared to today’s treatments. Mother’s little helpers like Milltown was my mother’s go-to. The shock treatments she got as the next step up when the medicines didn’t give relief were highly disturbing for a child like me to think about. Truth be told, I did not have a normal loving mother/child bond with my mother. Her behavior triggered my protective wall up long before I even knew how to formulate that that concept into a cogent thought. I somehow instinctively knew that being close to her put me in danger to going down with a sinking ship.
With the shock treatments, part of my imagination went back to Frankenstein with the two bolts on his neck. The other part of my mind thought of the electric chair and what they did to really bad people back then. Being strapped to a gurney with electrodes and a piece of rubber in her mouth to keep her from biting off her tongue when they flicked the switch sounded like torture.
Sometime later in the summer of 1963, my mother returned home. By that time, Mrs. Murray had had enough of my brothers and me. What drove her over the edge was driving us a dozen or more times a month to night games at Dodger Stadium, waiting hours at a nearby friend’s house, ear glued to radio announcer Vin Scully’s voice to know when to fish us up. My father wisely bought us the baseball season tickets to give us a healthy escape from our messed up childhoods. Mrs. Murray did little to hide her burn out, becoming progressively grouchier. The last straw was one night when the game went into extra innings, and she didn’t pick us up until 1 a.m. My brother David recalls that although most cars didn’t have air conditioning back then, the air in Mrs. Murray’s car that night was cold as ice. So, as soon as Florence Brokaw was stable enough and showed capacity to more or less manage her responsibilities, Mrs. Murray quit and she and her Dart turned around in the driveway and disappeared forever out of my life.