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Wednesday, March 16, 2005 | Long before he moved to San Diego, William Murray – Bill to his friends – gained fame as a writer for The New Yorker. He also sang opera, wrote books about Italy, the land of his heritage, and loved the theatre from both sides of the footlights.

When he came west, he settled in Del Mar, as close to the track as he could live, because racehorses and all that went with them had captured another part of his heart.

He began to write mysteries set in the world of horseracing and gathered quite a following for his main character “Shifty” Lou Anderson, a man who knew his way around the back side of the track, as did Murray, a horse owner himself.

The first time I met Bill Murray was by telephone, a quick call to ask if he would speak at the Southern California Writers’ Conference in a few weeks. Of course he would, he said, after checking his calendar. After all, he was in heavy rehearsals at the time with the San Diego Gilbert & Sullivan Company but the performances would be over by then. And then there was the matter of a short book tour because his Italian book – a temporary departure from Shifty – was due out the next month. “But of course I can speak,” he said. “When do you want me?”

I went on to explain that the conference asked that staff and speakers make themselves available to rookie writers who had questions and needed to learn the ropes from working writers who’d been around. “I understand,” Bill said. “You just tell me what you need. I’ll be there.”

And he was. With slender build, graying hair and gentle eyes that missed nothing, he mixed with writers who hadn’t a credit to their names, regaling them with tales about writing, the theatre, travel, light opera and horseracing, and never failing to ask about them. I took great pleasure in watching faces as the buzz passed from group to group about just who this nice, non-assuming guy really was. ‘The’ Bill Murray was a big hit that evening.

He spoke, passed along encouraging words about writing and the craft, but he loved people and so as the evening waned, he lingered.

When I went to thank him, I brought along a rookie writer, a retired gentleman who had told a good story and was ready to take the next step toward getting published. They shook hands and traded pleasantries. “Tell me about your book,” Bill said, as I backed away.

Always one to love a longshot, Murray ended the evening by asking if he could take a look at the manuscript. He read it, then introduced the writer to his agent. A few months later, Jack Mullen, retired San Diego homicide detective, was a published author, and Bill had brought in another winner.

Last week Murray was in New York to meet with his agent and, no doubt, to visit friends and take in a few shows. But this time, he won’t be coming back. The upcoming racing season at Del Mar will be a little less for that, so will the local light opera season. And his writer buddies will miss him. In that one moment of his passing, we – all of us – lost much.

Jean Jenkins is a freelance writer and editor. She teaches the craft of rewrite at the Southern California Writers Conference.

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