Seeing Ethel Merman on Broadway solidified Peg Murray’s lifelong desire to be a theater actress. Years later, she’d share the stage with the musical icon.
In her lifetime, Ms. Murray won a Tony Award, spent more than a decade in a recurring role on a beloved soap opera and became a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Perhaps the longtime Southold resident’s finest accomplishments, however, came from her ability to connect with others. At the start of her career, she used touring companies in war-torn Europe and the American south to bring the arts to unlikely places. Later in life, she served as an unofficial ambassador of community theater on the East End, appearing in local productions and helping to create the organization now known as Northeast Stage. She never stopped leaving an impression on the people who entered into her life.
“Over the past five days, as we knew she was nearing the end, I saw the impact she had on others through the outpouring of people who wanted to talk to and connect with her,” said friend and caretaker Sue Stanley of Southold. “She had a ripple effect on their lives.”
Ms. Murray, who lived in Southold for about 40 years and spent the final few years at Peconic Landing in Greenport, died Sunday evening following a period of declining health that was precipitated by a stroke. She was 96. Arrangements, still incomplete, are in the care of DeFriest-Grattan Funeral Home in Southold.
Born in Denver, Colorado on Valentine’s Day 1924, Ms. Murray’s father had founded Westminster Law School at the University of Denver, but the family moved to New York when she was still a young girl. Her musical talents, which she shared with her two older brothers, were inherited from her mother and she booked her first paid gig performing for a local radio station at the age of 3, she explained in “Peg Murray: Inspiration,” a documentary produced last year by longtime friend and collaborator Amie Sponza of Greenport.
The family would ultimately settle in Larchmont, N.Y., where Ms. Murray performed in plays while a student at Mamaroneck High School. She earned a theater scholarship to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and began her professional career performing overseas for Army soldiers in the months following World War II. The experience inspired her to continue traveling and performing in the U.S.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t we do this at home?’ ” Ms. Murray said of an epiphany she had following a performance overseas.
The Touring Players performed in 16 states twice a year across a route that started in New York then went to Texas, before heading back east all the way to West Virginia and back up the Atlantic coast. It was an enriching experience in the late 1940s and ’50s that opened her eyes to issues of equality for women and African Americans and shaped a progressive worldview that remained with her through life, friends said.
“She cared deeply about equality,” said Ms. Sponza, who met Ms. Murray while a student at Greenport High School and went on to form the Greenport Summer Players with her in the 1980s, the theater company that would later become Northeast Stage.
In the documentary, she shared a story of how a Black college administrator in the south took her to a hospital when she was hurt performing and they were forced to enter through a back door.
“I came to learn America was really two things.” Ms. Murray said. “It was really white and black.”
While touring opened up Ms. Murray’s eyes and heart to new places and ways of life, it was not the limits of her career as a performer.
She reached Broadway with a role opposite Ms. Merman in “Gypsy” in 1959 and rose to the pinnacle of her profession with a Tony Award in 1967 for a supporting role in the original production of “Cabaret.” Two years later, she played Golde in “Fiddler on the Roof” in the latter half of the classic musical’s initial Broadway run.
She might be best recognized for her screen work, most notably in the recurring role of Olga Swenson on “All My Children” from 1983 to 1996.
Ms. Sponza said she believes Ms. Murray might have had more success in film and television if she wasn’t so drawn to New York.
“She could have been as big as Betty White, I’d imagine, based on how talented she was,” her friend said. “LA wasn’t her thing.”
Instead, she continued to focus her efforts on bringing theater to places that might not have exposure to that type of culture otherwise. Even in New York City, where she starred in more than a dozen Broadway plays, she performed for audiences in underprivileged communities working with Mayor John Lindsay to create Broadway in the Streets.
While Ms. Murray maintained an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village into her 90s, she spent most of her time the past four-plus decades at her home on Lighthouse Road in Southold, where she was socially active but lived an unpretentious life.
She was known to have breakfast every morning at the former Jeni’s Main Street Grill in Southold, where she’d strike up conversations with strangers who couldn’t have known just how successful she’d been. She formed many lasting friendships during her time here.
“She was always encouraging others to know theater to see theater,” Ms. Stanley said. “And she taught women to know strength, to know your voice.”
After suffering a stroke and breaking her leg at the age of 92 in 2016, Ms. Murray, who still drove a car until that point, was confined to a wheelchair. Ms. Sponza recalled helping her move to Peconic Landing and sifting through her personal belongings that served as a first-hand account of a life well-lived.
Like many older adults in New York, Ms. Murray was forced to live much of this past year without visitors.
As she reached end of life care this past week, she had the opportunity to reconnect with friends, who phoned to say goodbye. Ms. Stanley was at Ms. Murray’s side when she died.
She marveled at the care the actress received at Peconic Landing, where she said staffers were sure to tell Ms. Murray she left an “imprint on their hearts.”
She did the same for friends.
“She left the world a better place, that’s for sure,” remarked Ms. Sponza.
Ms. Stanley said Ms. Murray, never herself afraid of the spotlight, led her friend to find her own voice.
“She changed the trajectory of my life,” the caretaker said. “She will ripple on in my life forever … and I’m not the only one.”