Jack Roland Murphy, aka Murph the Surf, was a classically trained violinist, a tennis star, a surfing champion and a professional high diver for the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
He is best known, however, as the man who, along with an accomplice, stole 23 of the world’s most valuable gems, including the Star of India, from the New York Museum of Natural History in 1964. He served about two years for that crime.
But being the adrenaline junkie that he was, Murph was soon incarcerated again, and ended up spending about 20 years in maximum security prisons.
The jewel heist portion of Murph’s life, which has been termed the greatest jewel heist in history, was portrayed in the forgettable “Live a Little, Steal a Lot,” which was alternately released in 1975 as “Murph the Surf.”
While Hollywood has always treated surfers as losers, this cheese fest took it to a whole new level, with Murphy portrayed by Don Stroud as a wave-riding Gilligan.
The poster for the flick pretty much sums it up: a photo portraying two swingin’ Miami playboys surveying a museum in nothing but Daisy Dukes and latex gloves.
The reality of Murph goes much deeper. He was a genius who, by his own admission, wasted much of his talent pursuing a life of crime. He was a master thief and once led the biggest prison riot in Florida state history. These items can be overlooked by society, but Jack may have had a far darker side. He denies allegations that he robbed and pistol-whipped actress Eva Gabor or killed two women (he was convicted in 1969 of the latter charge).
I knew none of that when I first met Murph, after the legendary David Nuuhiwa called and asked if I wanted to tag along on a prison weekend that Jack was helping to host.
Once there, I drove Murphy into Level 4 yards at Donovan State Prison where he shared the Gospel with broken men, many of whom were in for life. Jack enjoyed scaring me, once saying that a certain convict wanted to speak to me privately.
After a life-changing weekend behind bars, Murph and I had dinner and talked mostly about surfing and our mutual friends. He stayed in touch after that and we had plans for writing articles, books and a movie that could help atone for both his sins and those that Hollywood had committed against him and our sport.
Jack Murphy died on Sept. 12, 2020. He is survived by Kitten, his wife of over 20 years. At this writing, there is talk of a movie on the life of Jack “Murph the Surf” Murphy. I pray they get it right this time.
Check out Chris Ahrens’ latest passion project, the God N Gangsters YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/c/GodNGangsters