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A niece looks back at her long dead gay uncle who never got the chance to live openly with his partner.

When my uncle Bill Murstein died on June 7, 1967, at age 70, he was eulogized as a civic leader, philanthropist, and noted owner of his eponymous department store, Wilmurs, which had been the major retail presence in Hamilton, Ohio, for 32 years. The extensive obituary in the Hamilton Daily Journal cited his many accomplishments, local and national, and the edifices he endowed, including the William Murstein Synagogue at Hebrew Union College, Jerusalem, and the Murstein Alumni Center at Miami University. But the article made no mention of Sanford Eaffy, his companion of at least 33 years, who had died just four months earlier.

Bill had been an honorary pallbearer at Eaffy’s funeral that spring, as were my father and a cousin, testament to the place “Uncle Eaffy” had in our family. Eaffy’s obituary mentioned his connection to Uncle Bill, but only in coded terms. From the Hamilton Daily Journal, March 13, 1967: “His association with William Murstein, president and owner of Wilmurs, was a close one not alone in the operation of the department store but in sharing other interests as well.”

Now, as I approach Bill’s age when he died, I finally understand the depth of their relationship. All these years later, as the Supreme Court finally struck down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act—although Ohio’s own constitutional ban on gay marriage stands—I finally understand how important their relationship was and the impact that denying that relationship’s importance had on our entire family.


Uncle Bill and his partner Eaffy moved in together in 1934, sharing accommodations in Hamilton’s luxury Anthony Wayne Hotel. Ohio already had some of the most stringent and often-enforced sodomy laws in the country; that hadn’t changed by the time they both died in 1967, two years before Stonewall, and seven years before the state legislature repealed those laws.

Bill and Eaffy established themselves on the top floor of the hotel, behind closed doors in a series of rooms that had been cobbled together to form a two-bedroom apartment with a small galley kitchen, a formidable living room, and a dining room with windows that overlooked downtown Hamilton and the sweep of the Miami River as it curved past the Soldiers and Sailors Monument and flowed under the High Street Bridge. They kept separate doors with separate room numbers, however—the men’s protection against the draconian laws preventing their co-habitation. For public purposes, Bill and Eaffy were renting separate hotel rooms; in private, it couldn’t have been much of a secret that they’d combined their rooms, though, since Bill hosted his poker-playing buddies there, a group of the town’s elite.

When my parents moved to Hamilton after World War II, we became part of Bill and Eaffy’s lives and began the ritual of normalcy for Jewish families, among them Friday night dinners at our house and at their apartment. (These dinners lasted until the two men separated in 1965 and Bill moved to nearby Cincinnati.)

Bill and Eaffy’s twin Cadillac convertibles, bought new every two years, were a source of embarrassment for me only because we lived in a newly minted, decidedly middle-class neighborhood and nobody’s parents owned Cadillacs, let alone convertibles. Now I realize that these public symbols of togetherness were an oblique way of communicating their relationship, as was their foray into horseback riding and the purchase of two horses. (I liked that because it meant I learned to ride, too.)

As I grew up, Uncle Eaffy was a constant in my life. He was more lovable than Uncle Bill, who overplayed the rich, controlling uncle role. Despite the ritual of Friday night dinners, I have no memory of having a lengthy conversation with Bill or a truly intimate moment, even though he called me his “favorite niece” and wrote me lengthy instructive letters on how to live life. He was always a public figure; he had created a public persona, and he inhabited it. I know more about my uncle from the research I have done for my book on Hamilton’s Reform congregation Bene Israel than I knew

by Anonymousreply 1407/02/2013

I wonder if today’s new environment of openness and the possibility of a legal marriage would have made a difference to Bill and to Eaffy, and to me. Certainly Eaffy, who was the unequal partner in this relationship, would have been given legitimacy—which would have made him more than an nominal uncle in our family, and an equal publicly. If they had been married, the Murstein Center might have been the Murstein-Eaffy Center. Despite their long and public relationship, there are only two newspaper photos of them together, group photos at events where Bill honored Wilmurs’ longest-serving employees.

Bill’s was a life played out for public consumption. Apart from Eaffy, his private life was secretive and, I suspect, bitter. He sensed his own family’s ambivalence and silent rejection. Bill had no confidants. In 1966 he wrote me, “I would suggest that you …. not end up like me, not wanting those who want me, and having to pay for the favors of people who please me.”

It has taken me almost 50 years to understand that there was a reason the Murstein brothers and sisters were unsettled by their prominent brother Bill. My mother’s repeated admonishment to me growing up—“What will people say, you’re Bill Murstein’s niece”—implied that being Bill Murstein’s niece was not something to be proud about; it subjected me to extra public scrutiny. Bill’s secret was one we all actively colluded to maintain, even though it was, to some extent, an open secret—albeit one we never named or openly acknowledged. It was delusional: If we didn’t admit anything, nobody else would either. The family’s silence was not an attempt to protect Bill’s reputation. It was a silence born out of embarrassment and the fear that public knowledge that Bill was gay would somehow stigmatize them.

Bill never got real acceptance from his family, or from Hamilton. Paradoxically, maintaining the social contract of silence enabled him to contribute greatly to his congregation and his community. He could collaborate, play poker, and he was gladly elected to positions of leadership.

But in today’s more open environment he would have lived a more honest life. And how he would have enjoyed his grandniece Karen, our daughter, who inhabits a world he never knew. Recently, she joyously hosted a dinner party with her current boyfriend to celebrate the first wedding anniversary of her friends, Kevin and Luke. She is godmother to their 4-year-old daughter.

I understand the constrictions that living together in Hamilton imposed between these two men. And the price they paid: to never show affection in public or talk lovingly about the other, to never celebrate a milestone with friends and family. Instead they scrupulously observed the formalities of life, going to temple together, participating in Jewish and civic organizations, always impeccably dressed in suit and tie; everything proper. Discretion and rectitude were the tradeoff for living openly together. What they feared most I think was giving up the modicum of acceptability they had earned, the quiet resignation of family, if not acceptance, they were shown. Stonewall would have baffled and scared them. But the recent Supreme Court decision would have given Uncle Bill—who furtively gave a kind of legal acknowledgement of his relationship on that draft card in 1942—and Uncle Eaffy—who would have only known about that draft card if Bill had gone to war and died—a quiet sense of dignity.

by Anonymousreply 107/02/2013

Edith Wharton wrote a lovely short story called "Autre Temps" on a similar theme.

A woman whose divorce has caused her ostracism from society returns from self-imposed exile in Europe for the occasion of her daughter's second marriage. The daughter has been divorced, which is no big deal, but the mother still bears the stigma of having done exactly the same thing, but in less accepting times.

by Anonymousreply 207/02/2013

Surprised such a closeted man would write to his niece and basically say, "I hope you don't wind up like me, hiring hustlers."

by Anonymousreply 307/02/2013

Sensitive and well-written. Thanks for sharing. How many of us have had an Uncle Bill and Uncle Eaffy in our families?

Mine was Uncle Fred, my mom's brother. He lived alone but seemed devoted to his friend Willie, who we never met. He despised my father, who made fun of his mannerisms, although I didn't pick up on that until much later.

Nevertheless, he spent holidays with us. When I was about twelve, we were sitting around the table at Christmas dinner and I caught him looking at me. Our eyes met and he quickly looked away. He never spoke to me again.

by Anonymousreply 407/02/2013

R4, do you think your uncle saw somehow that you were gay, too? Why didn't you speak after that?

by Anonymousreply 507/02/2013

This lady's story is one of the major reason's why gays and lesbians have made so much progress over the last 40 years. It brought me back to the 80s when families of deceased "loved ones" would pull up with UHauls and cart away household possession while the unmarried partner sat and watched. This happened numerous times while I was caring for friends back then and it made me sick.

One couple had been together for 11 years when one of them died. His family came up the day after he died (they didn't know he was sick, or gay) and literally stripped the house, took the car, and even snatched up the stawberry pie Mom had baked for her son. "I guess he won't be needing this now..." said the sister as she picked it up and drove off.

by Anonymousreply 607/02/2013

R6. "This happened numerous times while I was caring for friends back then and it made me sick."

NUMEROUS TIMES? R6, how many people??? You are clearly a very special and wonderful man (woman?) of amazing strength, compassion, love and loyalty. Thank you of behalf of all of those who aren't here to do so themselves.

by Anonymousreply 707/02/2013

[quote]When I was about twelve, we were sitting around the table at Christmas dinner and I caught him looking at me.

Well, you were licking your teeth and presenting hole.

by Anonymousreply 807/02/2013

Selma and May- Selma was an Army surgeon in WW2 and I believe they met somewhere in the South Pacific. They ended up owning a tung nut "farm" (tung nuts come from a tree) in Miss. It was a gas to go to that farm. May drank whiskey in the evening and smoked a pipe, although she wore nice silk old lady dresses when not doing chores etc. They retired to San Diego.

My parents welcomed them into our home- my mother's mother (Selma came from my father's side) treated them like leppers.

The world has changed radically, I mean radically for gay men and women. Everyone should read Stonewall, the Other Side of Silence, a scholarly history of gay and lesbian life in the US in the 20th Century to get an idea of just what it was like and what happened over the course of that century- particularly those under 50.

by Anonymousreply 907/02/2013

Thanks, OP. I really enjoyed reading this.

by Anonymousreply 1007/02/2013

I'm sure I'm not the only man of a certain age who had to be there for friends with AIDS back in the 80s R6. Thanks for the kind words. I remember one incident well. My friend and I were doing the day/night shift for a guy who was living in a flophouse in the Tenderloin in SF. His parent were well off, living down the coast in Newport Beach, but wanted nothing to do with him. Not only did they never visit him, they never sent any money for his care. (He still kept a framed picture of her by his bed.) We had to beg her for $$ for the cremation money.

Then we brought his ashes to her. She had her church group with her to do a little ceremony in Laguna. I tipped his ashes into the surf (illegally) and as we walked back to the car, she thanked us for coming. Not for taking care of her only child while he left this world, mind you, but for coming to his memorial. At this exact moment, the plastic lid of the ash container popped open with a loud snap and the mother screamed and jumped three feet in the air. It was hard to keep a "straight" face and I couldn't help but think her son Tommy had the last word.

by Anonymousreply 1107/02/2013

Sorry, responding to R7

by Anonymousreply 1207/02/2013

Cute story and I had a gay uncle too who never ever came out to his family although everyone knew. I didn't make that mistake with my gay nephew. I had a wide open life for him to follow.

by Anonymousreply 1307/02/2013

[R8], I really shouldn't dignify that with a response, but I guess that anyone who posts here runs the risk of a snarky response from some loser.

[R5] That's exactly what I think happened. He'd always kept a distance from my brother and me, probably so that my creepy father would have no basis for calling him a child molester. When our eyes met on that fateful Christmas, I think he realized that I was turning out the same way he had, and he wanted no part of any of the "blame."

by Anonymousreply 1407/02/2013
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