There is a subplot in Stonewall (2015, dir. Roland Emmerich) that revolves around the activities of the nefarious Ed ‘the Skull’ Murphy (Ron Perlman), a mysterious but threatening figure who seems to basically run the bar. This subplot reads like a ludicrous invention, an effort to shoehorn more drama into the riot, as if Emmerich thinks the riot itself isn’t enough of a reason for the audience to care. But, surprisingly, a substantial portion of the subplot is true. Ed Murphy’s life story is probably the most wildly improbable thing about the actual Stonewall Riots.
Spoiler Alert: If you’re planning on seeing this film in the theater, you may wish to put off reading this until after you’ve done so, because I discuss a variety of major plot points.
When Seymour Pine (Matt Craven) raids the Stonewall Inn for the first time in the film, early in the week, he takes Ray (Jonny Beauchamp) into custody and questions him about the death of a street youth that he knows, but he denies knowing anything. Later in the film, it emerges that Murphy is running a prostitution ring in which street youth are kidnapped, pimped out, and then apparently murdered. Danny (Jeremy Irvine) gets kidnapped and is forced to turn a trick at a hotel. Initially he thinks his client is an older but conventionally dressed man, but after that man disappears into a bedroom, another older man, Jay, emerges, grotesquely dressed as a woman and starts to initiate sex. But Ray pulls a fire alarm and rescues Danny. They concoct a scheme to confront Murphy, who is in the process of assaulting them when Pine launches his second fateful raid on the Stonewall. So as the movie frames it, Pine was really trying to get evidence of connect Murphy to the killing of the street youth. There’s also some not-clearly explained stuff about missing bonds that Pine thinks might be connected to the Stonewall.
There are serious problems with the subplot. As I said, it feels too pat, like it’s pure invention. The film completely drops the subplot once the riot starts, except for an epilogue text mentioning Murphy, so the plot never gets resolved in any fashion. Ray and Danny are fictional characters, so their whole part of the plot is untrue. And the scene with Danny in the hotel room, in which Jay the creepy drag queen attempts to have sex with him, is down-right offensive, since sex with an elderly drag queen is presented as a terrible peril that Ray narrowly rescues our beautiful young protagonist from. Danny has already started turning tricks, so the terrible thing about the sex is not the unwilling-sex-for-money element but the fact that the client is repulsive. (One reviewer apparently got the sense that Danny thinks the transvestite is the person who killed the street youth, but I don’t recall anything in the film to suggest that.)
As I said in the first part of my review, the whole scene borders on transphobia (the only reason I say ‘borders on’ is that Danny is being coerced into this, so that there’s an argument to be made that the lack of consent is supposed to be the awful element of the scene). But when Jay comes out of the bedroom, the camera lingers on his swollen ankle in a woman’s shoe and on the garish lipstick he’s wearing, and he literally crawls up Danny’s body, like that dead girl who climbs out of tv sets in The Ring. It’s awful drag, and Jay seems to think he’s passing as a woman when he’s clearly a man. While the protests of the trans community that they are being written out of the story of the Stonewall riots are basically unfounded, this scene pretty much justifies the trans community’s anger against the whole film.
But once we subtract Ray and Danny from this subplot, the rest of it is, surprisingly, based in fact.
The Improbable Life of Ed Murphy
Murphy grew up in Depression-era Manhattan where he was a problem child. He was expelled from a Catholic grammar school and later got sent to a reform school for assaulting a policeman with a milk bottle. After briefly working in a gay bar run by the Jewish mafia, Murphy fought in France in World War II. His post-war career included stints working as the doorman for gay bars, burglarizing dentist’s offices for dental gold, a ten-year term in prison noted for the numerous fights he got into, and finally a stint as a professional wrestler. During his wrestling career, he took to shaving his head and adopted the nickname “The Skull”. His signature move was a head-butt, and he was famous for throwing chairs at fans who booed him. (However, he’s not to be confused with his contemporary, pro wrestler Mike “Skull” Murphy.)
He eventually got a job as a house detective at the New York Hilton, doing discrete security work. And it’s here that his story gets weird. Murphy became involved in a remarkably elaborate prostitution and blackmail ring that operated across the whole country. The ring recruited young, often homeless men, known in gay parlance as ‘chickens’, and used them to turn tricks at the Hilton or sometimes another hotel. Once the hustler got a client into a room, one of two things would happen. Sometimes the chicken would steal the victim’s wallet and leave. They kept the money but turned the contents of the wallet over the ring, who would use the driver’s license and other information to begin blackmailing the victim. In the other scenario, Murphy or other members of the ring would break into the room, posing as members of the Vice Squad. They would threaten to arrest the man, but agree to let him go if the man paid them a “fine” or “bail money”. New York vice cops were notoriously corrupt and bribable in the 1950s and 60s, so the scheme relied on the terrible reputation of the real police to add verisimilitude to the con.
What is truly astounding about this whole scheme is the extraordinary lengths they went to. Sometimes they put the ‘arrested’ victim into a room with a second supposed victim who would then encourage the victim to pay up by talking about how bad it would be if he was outed as homosexual. The fake cops sometimes used real guns, real police badges, and fake copies of actual police paperwork such as arrest warrants. Sometimes they took the victim down to a police precinct and pretended to go inside to “speak with the duty captain” while the victim was held outside in a car by another member of the ring. Sometimes they took the victim into night court and sat in the back of the courtroom while one member would go and chat with the court clerk. In one case, a member of the ring actually tricked a desk officer into putting the victim into a holding cell for a while.
The whole purpose of these elaborate charades was to get the victim to agree to pay up. Once the victim did, the ring drove him to his bank (waiting with him until it opened, if need be) so he could take money out; sometimes they actually waited in line with him. In some cases, they literally had the victim empty his bank account, demanding sums so large the withdrawal required special authorization from a supervisor.
But the demands often didn’t end that day. The ring frequently continued to blackmail its victims long afterward. Sometimes they called the victim pretending to be a reporter who was writing a story about their arrest, to remind him about the risk of exposure. Occasionally, members flew across the country to press a victim for more money, and once went as far as London. In one remarkable incident, they confronted a nuclear scientist at a secure government research facility. The frightened scientist passed them off as personal friends and wound up giving them a tour of the top-secret facilities when a supervisor entered the room. Even more brazenly, when the ring snared a New Jersey congressman, on two occasions they escorted him out of his office on Capitol Hill and flew him by private plane to a New Jersey bank to make a pay-off. They escorted a surgeon out of an operation to make a payment, and escorted an admiral out of the Pentagon. In all, the ring is estimated to have garnered more than $2 million, a colossal sum of money for the period.
This blackmail ring nabbed more than just a New Jersey congressman. Their victims included two generals, a decorated Navy pilot, a reportedly well-known British film producer, an Ivy League professor, the head of the American Medical Association, and several reportedly well-known actors, singers, and other performers. They are thought to have snared famous pianist Liberace at one point. Another victim, Admiral William Church, committed suicide after years of pay-offs when the actual police investigating the ring tried to interview him.
Exactly what role Murphy played in the prostitution scam is unclear. Some have said he was one of its ringleaders, while Murphy later claimed that he joined the ring to act as a police spy, and records suggest he was arrested during the investigation and gave evidence to avoid a jail sentence.
When the real police finally learned of the scheme and brought the members of the ring to trial in 1965, the whole thing became a national scandal. The detective supervising the case actually treated the targets as victims rather than as criminals, a surprisingly progressive choice given the way homosexuals were treated in the post-war period. Pressure from the Mattachine Society in the wake of the scandal led the NYPD to end the entrapment operations that made this scheme so plausible.
But That’s Not All
After dodging jail time for his involvement in this scam, Murphy went on to become the door manager of the Stonewall Inn. Historian David Carter thinks that Murphy may have run a prostitution network out of the upper floor of the Stonewall, although he doesn’t explore it much in his book on Stonewall, perhaps because at this remove there simply aren’t many people left who know much about it. Certainly the New York Mafia ran prostitution rings that provided chickens to wealth gay men, including clients such as Liberace, Malcolm Forbes, Cardinal Spellman, and reportedly a vice-president.
The Stonewall Inn claimed to be a private club that required memberships. Those who wanted entrance had to sign a book. Smart patrons used fake names, but lots of others used their real names. Murphy combined that information with information that the bartenders had pumped from patrons to start blackmailing gay Wall Street bankers.
According to Seymour Pine (who, incidentally, literally wrote the US Army’s handbook on hand-to-hand combat), the thing that actually led to the raid on the Stonewall was not simply its status as a gay bar, but rather a report that negotiable security bonds had vanished from Manhattan brokerage houses and turned up for sale in Europe. A theory emerged that the bonds were stolen by a gay banker who was being blackmailed by the mob, and the activities at the Stonewall made it seem like it could be the center of the blackmail. So Pine claimed in later years that his true goal was to shut down a blackmail ring and not simply to harass the gay community.
Carter offers an even more interesting theory on top of these details. He points out that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was homosexual and probably in a relationship with Clyde Tolson, his assistant director at the FBI. By the late 1960s Hoover’s sexual interests were a widely whispered secret within the gay community; in fact, a 1968 publication, The Homosexual Handbook, actually outed Hoover by name, but was forced to remove the mention from a subsequent printing of the book. Hoover is rumored to have been a transvestite; although historians have dismissed the story as unsubstantiated, at least two witnesses have insisted that they saw Hoover dressed as a woman at parties at which Mafia-provided hustlers were present. At least one of these hustlers claims to have had a picture of himself with Hoover in drag, which he kept as a way to ensure his own safety from police harassment.
From all of this, David Carter theorizes that Ed Murphy may have had compromising photos of Hoover that he used to keep Hoover off the Mafia’s back. He doesn’t have any direct proof of this, but given Murphy’s role in both prostitution and blackmail rings, it is an entirely plausible theory, and one newspaper source reported that one of the leaders of the Hilton prostitution scam had pictures of himself with Hoover, which may be a reference to Murphy, who claimed to have known Hoover.
And that brings me back to the offensive scene with the elderly transvestite. It fits what we know of Ed Murphy’s activities. Murphy was at one point rumored to have participated in the kidnapping of a street youth, Carter suspects he was running a prostitution ring, and he may have had a connection to Hoover.
And that’s why I think that Jay is supposed to be Hoover; Jeremy Irvine has broadly hinted at this. And note Hoover’s first initial.
But Wait! There’s More!
Murphy’s life had one last surprising twist to it. After a career as a petty criminal, soldier, doorman at gay bars, pro wrestler, pimp, blackmailer, and police informant, in the wake of the Stonewall Riots he fashioned an even more improbable identity for himself as a gay rights activist.
In 1972, he founded the Christopher Street Festival, timed to coincide with the growing Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, and in 1974, he persuaded the parade’s organizing committee to reverse the direction of the parade, so that it would start at Central Park and end at Christopher Street. His motive for this was probably money, since if the parade ended at Christopher Street, all the bars and businesses there were likely to turn a nice profit, but he insisted in later life that of all the people running the Stonewall Inn, he was the only one who actually cared about gay rights. He took to calling himself the First Stonewaller and began riding in a float in the parade.
Over the course of the next two decades, Murphy became a highly respected activist, doing charity work for a variety of causes including homeless street youth, prostitutes, and the mentally handicapped. Whereas the street youth in Stonewall distrust Murphy, he was in fact beloved by the real street youth, who nicknamed him ‘Mother’. When the AIDS crisis developed Murphy championed that issue as well. In 1978, he formally came out as gay and led a march in support of an anti-discrimination bill for New York City. He acted as a witness against mafia figures who controlled the gay bars, and decried the police corruption of the 1960 by which gay bars paid off the police to be notified when raids were coming; he claimed that the police had been paid off literally hours before the second Stonewall raid. By the end of his life, he had become known as the Mayor of Christopher Street (although he’s not the only figure that title has been applied to, since Marsha P. Johnson was another candidate for that honor). When he died of AIDS in 1989, he received a standing-room only funeral and was posthumously named Grand Marshall of what was by that point the Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade.
So the Stonewall Riots weren’t just transformative for the gay community in New York City. They also apparently gave Murphy an opportunity to redeem himself for the way he had preyed on the gay community earlier in his life. It’s a pity that the film couldn’t make his sub-plot more satisfying, because he was much more fascinating person than the film suggests.
Want to Know More?
The movie is not available yet, since it’s still in theaters.
If you want to read more about Stonewall, seriously, get David Carter’s Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. It’s an excellent piece of scholarship and highly readable.