I was scrolling through my email one morning last March when a message catapulted me back to an earlier time of baseball cards, bell bottoms and biology homework. One of my college roommates sent a link to a morning headline -- "Hedge Fund Manager Dead in Apparent Suicide." The man had jumped from the 24th floor of a Manhattan hotel. My roommate’s note was terse: "It's Chuck Murphy."
Charlie Murphy and I met in Ms. Puccio's homeroom class in 1974, when we were 13 years old. We were entering sophomores at Stuyvesant High School, a public New York City high school that specializes in math and science. Charlie was a nice guy, friendly and soft-spoken. Also very tall -- with inches yet to grow.
We had all the same classes our first semester, and we ran with the same pack of friends for a while. Though Charlie and I didn’t really become friends ourselves, we stayed abreast of each other -- not least because we saw each other every morning in homeroom.
Stuyvesant was -- and is -- a crucible of high-pressured academic competition. I did well there, and discovered an interest in tournament chess. Charlie also did well. We both wound up at Columbia University, where we began school together once more.
At Columbia, Charlie exercised the prerogative of many a college student: he reinvented himself. He started calling himself Chuck, and he joined the preppy fraternity. He dressed the part, too -- I saw him in black tie on more than one weekend.
Charlie also went out for crew. As a senior, he captained the crew team. That same year, I became captain of the chess team. We would say hello when our paths crossed, but they didn't cross often.
Still, Charlie's personal transformation stuck in my mind. After a while, I figured out why. He chose to shed his skin, to efface his past. But that skin he was shedding -- well, it was the skin I still wore. That past he was erasing was the past we shared.
I remember running into Charlie at commencement, where we shook hands in our gowns and congratulated each other. By then, whenever I saw him, I was mostly reminded of the differences between us.
Our paths may have diverged, but our geography remained ironically parallel. Both of us landed at Harvard University in the early 1980s. Charlie (I never got used to calling him Chuck) went to Harvard Law School, and I started the long road to a Ph.D. in English.
I had once thought about going to law school myself, and did legal work for a couple of summers during college. But I liked literature better. After vowing on numerous occasions that I would never go to graduate school -- I can still hear myself saying that -- I learned enough about myself to change my mind. So I dug in and tried for a professorship.
Charlie and I ran into each other in Harvard Yard sometimes. We always greeted each other warmly, as old familiars, but neither of us asked much about what the other was doing.
I heard that Charlie went to Europe after his 1985 graduation to work in banking and finance. I never saw him again. He never wrote to the alumni class notes, either, so his story never advanced for me. He became encased in the amber of memory.
But after my roommate’s email, I heard a lot about him. The financial papers descended upon Charlie with prurient zeal. There were stories in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Fortune, Barron’s. The Daily Mail weighed in with a heavily illustrated, gossipy account.
From these accounts, I learned that Charlie had lived in London for over 20 years before coming back to New York in 2007. Upon his return, he paid $33 million for a townhouse with 11 fireplaces, in the same part of Manhattan where he grew up.
Charlie had been a highflier, working first for Morgan Stanley, then for start-ups and hedge funds. His work, I realized, lay behind stories I’ve read in the business pages of the newspapers. One of his last deals aimed at the breakup of AIG, the insurance giant whose failure contributed to the 2008 financial crash.
Charlie made some good bets over the years -- the Journal estimated his worth in the tens of millions of dollars. He also made some bad ones: the hedge fund he joined upon his return to the United States had invested heavily in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. At the time of his death, Charlie was a partner at a different firm, and his home was for sale for $42.5 million.
Charlie had been known in his profession as Charles. His name had changed yet again, but so had something else. The financier described in his obituaries wasn’t remotely like the Charlie Murphy I remembered: Charles Murphy was "rigid" and "confrontational." "Conversations with Mr. Murphy," reported The Wall Street Journal, "amounted to lectures." A 30-minute phone call with him meant "29 minutes of Charles talking."
Call me an English professor (because I became one), but these accounts initially recalled for me Theodore Dreiser's fictionalized portrayal of the tall, handsome, daring financier Frank Cowperwood in three novels published between 1912 and 1947. One of the words Dreiser often attaches to Cowperwood is "force." The mystery Dreiser sets up but does not solve over the course of more than a thousand pages is what makes Cowperwood always want more: more money, more women, more art for his collection. "I satisfy myself," Cowperwood often says. But he's never satisfied.
My thoughts eventually fixed on Edwin Arlington Robinson's 1897 poem "Richard Cory." The title character is "a gentleman from sole to crown, / Clean favored and imperially slim." Cory is "richer than a king" and "admirably schooled in every grace."
In 1965, Paul Simon made a song out of Robinson's poem. It appears on Simon and Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence album. Many people of a certain age, including me, first encountered Richard Cory through the song, not the poem. I heard it for the first time a few years before I met Charlie Murphy. The song's out-of-left-field ending (which echoes the poem's) has never left me:
My mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read:
"Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head."
I knew Charlie Murphy once. The man his colleagues knew as Charles Murphy I knew not at all. Yet his death haunts me. No one else shared high school, college and graduate school with me.
Charlie and I tracked together from our young teens until our midtwenties -- the years when we were choosing our professions. I first read Dreiser and Robinson during those years, and now I see myself turning to the tools of my job to try to make sense of my classmate's suicide.
Which I can't, of course -- I hadn’t seen him in more than 30 years. His death is a tragedy for those close to him. For me, it's also a story that vexes me because my emotional connection to it is so hard to understand.
The Simon and Garfunkel song conveys a strange sort of self-righteous triumph when Simon sings the "put a bullet through his head" line. Simon’s narrator is an unhappy worker in one of Richard Cory’s factories. The singer’s admiration of Richard Cory is matched by his own misery: “I curse the life I’m living/And I curse my poverty.”
What lies behind the singer’s defiant tone when he delivers that last line? I’ve devoted my career to questions like that -- and to arguing for why they matter. Does the singer display a poor man's schadenfreude? The smugness of youth? Or the simple joy of someone who sees that he’s still alive?
The question has no clear answer -- and that’s one of the reasons we’re still reading and listening to “Richard Cory” after more than 50 years. And it’s one of the reasons I can’t stop thinking about Charlie Murphy.