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social sciences

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Murphy, Frank (1890-1949)  
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Frank Murphy had a distinguished and varied career in politics and law that included service as Mayor of Detroit, Governor-General of the Philippines, Governor of Michigan, Attorney General of the United States, and Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. At his side throughout his public service was his trusted adviser and close companion Edward Kemp.

Murphy's parents, John and Mary Brennan Murphy, were the grandson and daughter, respectively, of Irish immigrants. The devoutly Catholic couple made their home in Sand Harbor (now Harbor Springs), Michigan. The third of their four children was born April 13, 1890 and christened William Francis but soon became known by the nickname Frank. As part of a tight-knit family, Murphy enjoyed "about as happy a boyhood as it is possible to have." In high school he found success as an athlete and a formidable debater.

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Mary Murphy had hoped that her son would become a priest, but he chose to follow his father into the practice of law. He entered the University of Michigan in 1908, enrolling in a "combined literary and law course," a program in which students would first earn a baccalaureate degree in liberal arts and then proceed to the study of law. Because Murphy fell ill with diphtheria in the winter of 1911, he could not complete the courses necessary for his bachelor's degree; even without it, though, he was allowed to begin his course in the Law Department, from which he received his LL.B. degree in 1914.

The gregarious Murphy was a popular figure on campus--a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity and the secret society Michigamua, an editor of the Michigan Daily, and a rousing speaker at pep rallies.

He made many friends, none more important than Edward G. Kemp, who would remain at his side through all the multifarious stages of his career.

Had Murphy been a luminary at the law school, it might have made sense that Kemp would hitch his wagon to Murphy's star in hopes of advancement, but Murphy's grades there were undistinguished, and he only scraped by to graduate.

Murphy's biographer Sidney Fine wrote, "In a curious reversal of roles, Ed Kemp, who became the silent and self-effacing partner of the Murphy-Kemp team, was distinctly the 'bigger' and more successful of the two men on campus."

The attribution of Murphy's sexuality must remain speculative. He never publicly identified himself as homosexual, which would, especially at a time when homosexual acts were illegal throughout the United States, have been extremely difficult for him as a Catholic and undoubtedly fatal to his legal and political career.

Murphy's significance for glbtq history is that he exemplifies how, in a sexually naive age, discreet homosexuals were able to attain prominence even in high-profile positions, thanks to a widespread presumption of heterosexuality (especially for men who did not conform to the prevailing stereotype of homosexuals as weak and ineffectual) and to the reluctance of the press to delve deeply into the private lives of public figures. In this regard, Murphy and Kemp bear some resemblance to another famous homosexual couple of the period, J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson.

As a handsome and apparently eligible bachelor, Murphy escorted attractive women to social events throughout his life, but when it came to marriage, he wrote to his mother while in his twenties, "The subject is not particularly interesting to me."

Gossip columnists of the day did not consider talk about the possible homosexual orientation of prominent figures fit to print, and so such talk never reached the general public. Fine stated, "I was never able to find anything that could pin it down. . . . All I can say is that there were rumors to that effect but not corroborated."

What is clear, however, is that Murphy and Kemp shared an extraordinary journey that lasted for decades and took them from the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor halfway around the world to the Philippines and eventually to Washington, D.C.

Following his graduation, Murphy briefly joined his father's law practice and also began taking an active role in the Democratic party. After only a few months, however, he moved to Detroit to work at the firm of George F. Monaghan and Peter J. Monaghan, where he enjoyed great success.

In 1917 Murphy responded to the entry of the United States into World War I by enlisting in the Army. He went for training to Fort Sheridan, Illinois, and wrote to his mother, "The best men in the land are here." Among them was Kemp.

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