In 1968 California senator George Murphy moved to a desk in the back row on the Republican side of the Senate Chamber. Senator Murphy had a sweet tooth and always kept candy in his desk. One day, he invited his colleagues to help themselves to the candy supply, and before long other senators began stocking the drawer with their favorite confections. Thanks to Senator Murphy, a new tradition—the “candy desk”—was born, but what about the man behind the tradition?
Born in Connecticut in 1902, George Murphy was athletic and competitive. Those athletic skills gained him a Yale scholarship in 1921, but he never excelled academically. Before long, he left school and started working in a variety of jobs, including as a Pennsylvania coal miner and a messenger on Wall Street. Then, in 1926, he married a young New York actress who taught him to dance. Within a few years they were a successful dance team, performing in nightclubs, in vaudeville, and eventually on Broadway. Hollywood beckoned in 1934 and over the next two decades George Murphy starred in more than 40 films, becoming a popular musical and dramatic actor.
By that time Murphy also was playing an active role in politics. In 1939, along with fellow dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Murphy founded the Hollywood Republican Committee. He became a leader of Hollywood’s conservative bloc, a group that also included a young actor named Ronald Reagan. In fact, it was Murphy more than anyone else who paved the way for Reagan’s successful transition from Hollywood actor to national politician. Among the earliest members of the Screen Actors Guild, Murphy became the guild’s president in 1944—two years before Ronald Reagan assumed that post. Murphy fought against racketeering and promoted better working conditions for screen actors—causes subsequently championed by Reagan. Murphy also took a strong and controversial stand against communist activities in Hollywood—again, well before Reagan. “Fighting communism was not easy,” Murphy later commented, “nor was it pleasant, but it had to be done.”
By 1952, when Murphy quit acting to concentrate on business and politics, he was an influential figure in the national Republican Party. He directed the inaugurations of President Dwight Eisenhower, provided programming for four national party conventions, and served as the party’s principal fundraiser. In 1965, two years before Ronald Reagan became governor of California, George Murphy became a U.S. senator, but his Senate career did not last long. In 1966 he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Surgery successfully removed the cancer, but it also took away his voice, leaving him unable to speak above a whisper—a decided disadvantage on the campaign trail. He lost his bid for reelection in 1970, but remained active in the Republican Party until his death in 1992.
When George Murphy departed the Senate in 1971, he left behind the tradition of the candy desk, but that’s just a small part of his legacy. Today, when senators reach into that well-stocked drawer, they might remember Senator Murphy—a one-time song-and-dance man whose political activism helped to promote a post-war resurgence of the Republican Party and set the stage for one of the party’s most influential leaders. There was a lot more to George Murphy than his sweet tooth.