From “Some Things You Didn’t Know About Albert Murray” by Paul Devlin (Salon.Com):
The writer Albert Murray passed away on Sunday evening at age 97. His life was long and busy, and he found many hours in the day—so many that substantive obituaries, such as the one that appeared on Page 1 of yesterday’s New York Times, can’t possibly do it justice. Nor can I. But here, at least, are a few things you might not know about one of the most original stylists in American letters, a philosopher of the blues, who championed resilience and improvisation against the cold certainty of life’s uncertainties, and helped articulate and explain the dynamic synthesis that is American culture, as much black as it is white, if not more.
As a photographer, he was a serious amateur. And yet two of his photographs are in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. How did this happen? They are photos of a block, Lenox Avenue between 131st and 132nd Streets, and they are also studies for “The Block,” one of Romare Bearden’s most ambitious works, which has been called a critique of Robert Moses along the lines of Jane Jacobs, and which was conceived on the terrace of Murray’s apartment, overlooking the block. You can watch them discuss it on Murray’s terrace in 1981. Murray gave titles to many of Bearden’s works, wrote wall text for his art. When Bearden had to write something, Murray often ghostwrote it
Albert Murray taught James Baldwin how to swim, in France in 1950. He criticized Baldwin harshly in a 1970 essay, but they appeared in a 1977 documentary together. He was generous to young people trying to learn and harsh on established figures when he thought they were faking it. He liked television: Soul Food and A Different World. Sometimes we watched golf on television together over the phone.
Albert Murray crashed on Ma Rainey’s couch. He wrote a recommendation letter for Tom Wolfe. He forgot what he did with a letter of praise from Saul Bellow. (I found it eventually, though Mr. Murray didn’t seem too concerned about it.) When Bill Clinton moved his office to Harlem, he sent over an aide with some kind of “Bill Clinton” medal for Murray. But Lyndon Johnson is the president who understood Murray. And vice versa. Murray’s South to a Very Old Place (1971, a finalist for the National Book Award) includes a rollicking verbal jam session in which middle-aged and elderly black folks in Mobile riff on the Civil Rights movement. Johnson’s former aide Jack Valenti wrote to Murray in 1972, and told him that LBJ read the section out loud to him, adding, “you should know that the President found what you wrote, poetically and structurally, as well as emotionally, to his taste.”