If you’re wondering where Richard Nixon resides these days, Chris Murray can tell you. The autistic artist, whose inspirational story is told in “Dad’s In Heaven With Nixon,” says the former president is playing poker with Chris’s late dad inside the Pearly Gates.
The documentary, which airs tomorrow on Showtime at 8:30 p.m. New York time, is basically a home movie about a deeply troubled family. Chris, whose autism is blamed on a lack of oxygen during birth, is in many ways the luckiest member of the Murray clan.
The film, made by Chris’s brother Tom, starts in Southampton, the upscale Long Island, New York, town where Murrays have spent their summers for the past century. Old footage shows the days when the area was largely potato fields and traversed by horse-drawn carriages. Kids boxed, played tennis on grass courts and swam in the ocean.
Though the Murrays were privileged, they were also plagued by bipolar disorder.
Thomas E. Murray, Tom and Chris’s great-grandfather, was a brilliant inventor with almost 500 patents and is credited with helping Thomas Edison electrify American homes. His son, John, who sported a large moustache and a larger appetite for alcohol, suffered from depression and cirrhosis. He died the day before his 38th birthday.
He is now thought to have suffered from bipolar disorder, as did his son, Thomas Murray II. Tom and Chris’s father was a successful stockbroker who was consumed by a rage he refused to seek treatment for and which scarred every member of his family.
Chris’s life, which on the surface would seem the bleakest, is actually the bright spot, though it didn’t start out that way. His mother, Janice Murray, who bears a resemblance to Nancy Reagan, says just before Chris’s birth in 1960 she knew “this was going to be very different.”
During delivery, she says, Chris “got stuck” and suffered oxygen deprivation, which turned the whites of his eyes scarlet red. He didn’t walk until 16 months old or talk until he was four. Doctors told the family not to expect much from him and urged that he be institutionalized.
Yet Janice saw promise.
“I felt that something could be reached,” she says.
Her husband didn’t share her feeling. “He could not bear it,” says Janice, who got a divorce in 1976.
The film is largely made up of interviews with family members and clips from home movies. It drags a bit at times though the story, a combination of dissolution and triumph, will keep most viewers tuned in.
Thomas Murray II, who eventually sold his seat on the New York Stock Exchange for a pittance, struggled financially and drowned in 1979 while swimming off the Southampton coast. He was 52.
Speculation as to his celestial status is the topic of an endearing interview with Chris, who speaks in an urgent, hoarse whisper.
He insists his father is in heaven with Nixon, whom the elder Murray detested while on earth. Better yet, according to Chris, the newfound pals probably play poker together. You have to wonder if the ex-president hides a few cards up his sleeves just for old time’s sake.
The film also focuses on Chris’s blossoming as an artist. His colorful paintings of New York City scenes and skylines have drawn attention from, among others, Gloria Vanderbilt, who calls his work “really arresting and very original.” Another fan is collector Tom Isenberg, who describes Chris’s paintings as “luscious” and calls him a great artist.
Tom suggests his brother may have achieved a happiness that often eludes the rest of us. His story will likely put a smile on your face, as does the thought of Nixon scowling and shuffling among the cherubim.
(Dave Shiflett is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this story: Dave Shiflett at firstname.lastname@example.org.