"Smitty," as he was known in those early Cap Cities days when the company had a station in Albany and one in Providence and played dentist music on WPAT in the New York market, hired Mr. Murphy, who is known as "Murph," (they are big on nicknames at Cap Cities) and Murph took it from there, building a six billion dollar corporation which is one of the best run and most profitable operations in all of American business.
Murph was never afraid of elevators. Nor maybe of anything else.
He is a tall, balding (OK, then, bald!) and enormously amiable gent who calls people "partner" and seems to mean it, plays good golf despite an intermittently aching back, lives in Rye, N.Y. and commutes into Manhattan, and at least until a few years ago attended the children's mass Sunday mornings at the local R.C. church where he and Mr. Burke, who also lived in Rye and attended the same mass, were known to chat about company business in hushed tones whenever a sermon drifted into theologically boring territory.
His old man was a judge and there is an almost placid judiciousness that appears to run in the Murphy genes.
I met Murph about 30 years ago when Cap Cities bought Fairchild Publications, the family-held trade paper company which put out, among other things, Women's Wear Daily, of which I was publisher. Smith, Barney were the merchant bankers on the deal along with a New York banker named Tom Donovan, and the three-man Fairchild committee consisted of John Fairchild, the president, and Bill Dwyer and myself, both VPs. We went to a first meeting with the Cap Cities folks at a discreet private club in the financial district. Mr. Murphy was there, of course, and so was Don Pels, a dizzyingly bright fellow who was then Murph's number two and who had a disconcerting way of going silent and then rolling his eyes way back into his head while mulling the most innocent of queries.
John Fairchild gave us the lead and we were all charm. The Fairchild family was feuding among itself and with some of them getting on in years, the spectre of death taxes loomed heavily and for the Fairchilds a profitable sale of their very profitable little company seemed an awfully good idea. And Cap Cities, and Mr. Murphy, certainly looked the right sort.
So we nattered on, John telling stories of Jackie Kennedy and the late Christian Dior and Madame Vreeland at Vogue and which fashion designers were suspected of having affairs with geese, and stuff like that, all of which had Mr. Pels' eyes rolling even farther into his head than usual and must have had Mr. Murphy wondering was this why he went to the Harvard "B" School, to get involved with people like us.
But when the meeting ended, and pleasantly so, Murph offered to give the three of us a lift uptown in his limo.
"Oh, no," said John Fairchild, "we always take the subway."
"Why'd you say that?" Dwyer and I demanded out on the sidewalk.
"I didn't want them to think we just throw money around," said John, smug and pious.
When the deal went down John and his Cousin Edgar went on the board of Cap Cities, Dwyer and I were made VPs of our new parent company, and the Fairchild family whacked up about $35 million in cash and stock. And since we were now "family," a term Mr. Murphy likes to use (as does his new associate Mr. Eisner), we were invited to meet other Cap Cities execs and board member Lowell Thomas, the great broadcaster who'd been the original backer of Smitty (of elevator phobia fame).
First came a little tour of the Cap Cities offices in the Villard Houses, a New York architectural landmark behind St. Patrick's Cathedral, whose walls were covered with old black & white photos, not of the boss, Mr. Murphy, but of Lowell Thomas with various presidents, Indian chiefs, polar explorers, Amazonian pygmies and Lawrence of Arabia. Then it was off to dinner in the private dining room of an excellent restaurant at which John Fairchild scrutinized the wine list. Lowell Thomas and Cousin Edgar, as the two oldest gents in the room, as well as Cap Cities' two biggest shareholders, got along famously until they got on to the subject of pre-war skiing in New England.
"Edgar," said Lowell Thomas, "when you were skiing up at North Conway, did you know so-and-so?" the name mentioned being one that could be either masculine or feminine, and Edgar, rushing in where angels fear to tread, declared aloud, "Oh, that lad! Skied with him for years. Great chum of mine."
Gently, Mr. Thomas explained, "that lad" was a young woman.
"Oh," said Edgar, diving into the gin while Murph smiled uneasily and Don Pels rolled his eyes.
So that was how it began. Mr. Pels left to take over LIN Broadcasting, an ailing company he revivified and later sold for a billion or two, and Dan Burke came in. Dan had been running one of the company's best stations, WJR in Detroit. Good man, too, but tough. When a Cap Cities paper in Wilkes-Barre was on strike, a strike ugly with violence, former Gov. Bill Scranton offered his good offices to try to settle the matter. I don't want to settle, Burke was reported to have said, "I want to put people in jail." Dan retired a year or so ago and today runs a minor league baseball team up in Maine and Murph, at 70, and apparently not quite ready to turn the affair over to Bob Iger, made the deal with Disney.
Should Murphy and Burke have long ago groomed their successors for an orderly transfer of power without having to sell the company? I guess you can make the argument. I don't think there's a hell of a lot else they've ever done wrong.