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changed by the time they both died in 1967, two years before Stonewall, and seven years before the state legislature repealed those laws.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