Maintaining a Family Fiction About My Uncle—and His Partner of 33 Years
Last week’s Supreme Court decision on gay marriage came too late for Uncle Bill, who had to keep his relationship a secret
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changed by the time they both died in 1967, two years before Stonewall, and seven years before the state legislature repealed those laws.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 about him when he was alive. Until his name popped out in the Board minutes I was reviewing, I never even knew the extent of his involvement in the temple.
Eaffy was a part of every family life-cycle event, until he suddenly wasn’t. Looking back, I wonder why I didn’t question why Eaffy was no longer included in the family after they broke up in 1965.
I was equally unaware of Bill’s sexuality. Until an out-of-town guest at my wedding in 1971 loudly demanded, “Which one is your gay uncle?” I hadn’t thought of Bill—the most prominent of my uncles—as gay. Even that comment and its implications didn’t register at the time.
Officially, nobody was gay in Hamilton. We never heard or used the word “homosexual.” To me Uncle Bill and Uncle Eaffy, as I was instructed to call him, were just two bachelors living together because they were in business together. We subscribed to the family fiction: Bill was too busy for women and too absorbed in Wilmurs for a wife, and it would be unfair to a woman for Eaffy to marry because he had diabetes.
Until 2011 when I began researching my book, I didn’t realize that the code of silence his own family colluded together in—not acknowledging the obvious—said a lot about our attitudes and genuine acceptance of Bill and Eaffy as gay men and an established couple.
My cousin Max, Bill’s only male heir and executor of his estate, destroyed all Bill’s papers when he died, claiming they were an embarrassment and shouldn’t be read. My mother, always Bill’s advocate for preserving his immortality and greatness, didn’t protest. My father, the Southern obstetrician often viewed as a “redneck,” was perhaps the bravest of us and the most tolerant. When a hospital nurse he respected was accused of a lesbian act and fired, he hired her as his office nurse, a position she held until he retired.
As part of my research, I had gone back to Hamilton in 2011 to conduct interviews and focus groups with the remnants of the Jewish community. I asked if they thought Bill was gay. The consensus was, “Everyone knows that.” One man, a lawyer in his 80s, did say Bill couldn’t have been gay because he played poker, and he named several of the most prominent men in town, regulars at poker night.
Then I found Bill’s World War II draft registration card. He was getting close to middle age, 45, in 1942. He listed his address as the Anthony Wayne Hotel, Hamilton, Ohio. In the line “Name and address of person who will always know your address,” he wrote S. Eaffy, Anthony Wayne Hotel. I believe Bill was trying to give a public expression to his relationship. He could have easily listed a next of kin, one of his seven brothers or two sisters. I understood then how much he loved Eaffy. Theirs was a union.
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.
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Just as we sing lullabies to newborns, I now offer the same loving care as part of my work with a burial fellowship