Biederman’s (Sismo, 1993, etc.) biography tells the story of an eccentric restaurateur.
From the 1930s to the ’60s, Patricia Murphy started several profitable restaurants in greater New York and Florida. She was, by Biederman’s account, a character; she was exacting, telling her staff to “Avoid flurried manner, even when you must work fast,” and superstitious, often crossing herself in public despite not being religious. She was also given to tall tales; she owned a plane that she falsely claimed to pilot herself. But her unparalleled business sense—evidenced in such moves as opening a restaurant in Fort Lauderdale just before it became a retirement destination—didn’t always guarantee her happiness, and Biederman illuminates her highs and lows with humor and compassion. In her earlier years, Murphy struggled to get by in New York City as a musician before investing her last few dollars in a failing Brooklyn restaurant around the start of the Great Depression. Following her initial success, she’d prove to be an expert at branding, and she advanced in the restaurant business and high society through sheer determination. Biederman’s meticulous research provides intimate details of her subject’s life, noting, for instance, that Murphy, before her success, would “pass up dinner to splurge on a twenty-five-cent bunch of daffodils.” These illustrative flourishes create a vivid narrative, anchored by interviews with Murphy’s friends, family members, and colleagues as well as letters, restaurant documents, and other primary source material. Along the way, the author offers insights into the racial dynamics of Brooklyn’s past restaurant scene, the era’s changing gender politics, and the class tensions that followed Murphy’s rise. Of particular interest is the lifelong feud that she had with her siblings, who broke away from her patronage early on to run a competing restaurant chain. Biederman follows Murphy’s life to its end in 1979, noting how time and circumstance worked together to undermine her empire.
A snappy, well-researched account of a trailblazing woman.