Louellen Wright Murray, 1951-2021

This tradition of eulogies at Tate Annual Meetings has a certain shape. But no passing of those we love can really fit a pattern. The passing of my cousin Louellen Murray is especially hard and uncontainable. It comes way too soon. We are devastated.

I am humbled that Tim has allowed me to read the beautiful words he has written. Before I do that, I want to say a few personal words.

Louellen was more than just a first cousin to me. She occupied a special generational space that I shared – we’re both second children of the two elder Wright children, Whittier and Emily. Both of us were born in 1951, both graduated from Atlanta high schools in 1969. We’re both lovers of poetry, of irony, of family history and beautiful things in an imperfect world. We have both been accused of getting off easy from whatever difficulties our siblings had with our parents – the “golden” ones. And now, shockingly, she is gone, and I am here, remembering her a lot as I turn 70.

The times I spent in conversation with her were all too few, but I remember them vividly – at Tate as children, as teenagers when she had a horse at Tate named Prufrock, as hippies, us talking in the little ruined cottage behind their house on 17th Street in Ansley Park, or on a lovely walk the two of us took around the Murray paradise in Lake Forest, Illinois, called Shadow Pond, and around its surrounding marshes. She seemed like the Whittier and the Wright inside of me – the quiet observer and writer – New England classy, East Tennessee tough. In me, this is jumbled up with the noisy and nosy Cumming thing. With Louellen, that Whittier and Wright style, along with her mother Sena’s quiet genius, was in its purest, beautiful quintessence.

I’ll read a few passages she wrote, to show what I mean.

Reading her book about the 12-acre estate in Lake Forest that she and Tim rescued from long neglect – she called it a “Renaissance” – is like dipping into articles in the New Yorker magazine from the 1950s. Sassy but understated, fact-checked and fascinating.

“I’m not sure when the old oak died,” she begins her book on Shadow Pond. “It wasn’t our fault. But unless something gets killed on the first page of a book, Tim Murray will not read any further. So impetus is born. The dead tree, its massively useless limbs overhanging the driveway, had to be cut down. The trunk was rendered into lengths ten feet long and four feet thick. I could imagine thick slices of the trunk being used as tables or benches, or at the very least, filleted into steppers and places throughout the woods to create paths. But professional foresters are not known for their fine tuning abilities. The trunk sections were hauled off. The limbs were fed to the chipper. All that remained was a pile of dusty wood chips which eventually scattered in the wind.”

And this, from her memories of the Tate “Sanctuary” that Whittier expanded from a garage behind the original Wright house that our great grandmother built (which burned down in 1970). The back house was originally for Whittier and Bill Emerson to hold their outrageous bull sessions before a blazing fire.

“We moved into the Sanctuary in the late 1950s. Papa and Mama slept on a foldout sofa bed in front of the fire. We ‘pigmies’ shared the brown bedroom with whatever insects still clung to us after a day in the woods.

“In the mid-1960s, a two-story wing of bedrooms was added with windows on three sides. Our room was on the ground floor, paved in flagstone, and the walls were unstained pine paneling. The dark whorls in the wood grain looked like faces, mostly owls, and became as familiar as old friends.

“Papa and Mama took the bedroom above us. The staircase, which was wood, reverberated with every step they took and with every toe on every paw of every dog that scratched a flea up there. They had a rug on the floor, but it was impossible to climb the stairs without being heard below.”

Now I’d like to read from what Tim wrote and sent me:

Louellen and I first met 45 years ago.  She was living at home after college and I was living as a bachelor working at the Trust Company Bank in Atlanta.  By divine luck, we were introduced to each other during coinciding sporting weekends at Hilton Head Island.  I was there with my bank friends to play golf, and Louellen was there with friends to play tennis.  The two groups had overlapping connections from Atlanta and socialized together in the afternoons and evenings.   Although I didn’t get to spend all that much time with Louellen during that trip, I was smitten by her beauty and charm and by the fact that she was the first girl that I had met who could throw a Frisbee!

After returning from Hilton Head, I talked my banker friend Frank into committing what was probably a crime – to research the Trust Company bank records to find out Louellen’s phone number (given that her father was a bank customer).  I called her up, we dated for two months and then I went back to business school in Chicago.  We had a long distance romance for a year (keeping Delta Airlines and AT&T in business) and were married at St Philip’s Church in Atlanta on June 19, 1976 – 45 years ago.

To capture Louellen’s essence in a few words is pretty impossible.  She was a like a priceless work of art – multifaceted, multidimensional – not perfect – but extraordinarily complex and beautiful.  I would like to share just some of the attributes that help to describe her:

  • She thrived on projects.  No matter what the task or topic, she put her heart and soul into her interests.  Always wanted to “just do it”, not just think about it.  She definitely had a bit of “never in error, but never in doubt” — didn’t respond well to authority — and probably bent a few rules over time in pursuit of her passions.  But…

She created, loved and nurtured beautiful things.  First on her list were of course our three children, Patrick, Philip and Eleanor.  And more recently includes our two daughters-in-law, Anna and Ronnie, and our three granddaughters, Coral, Iris and Sylvie.

  • She loved animals and cherished the various dogs that we had over time in our family.
  • She created masterpieces of the various apartments and houses that we shared together over time.  Her gardens received broad acclaim.
  • She was a great athlete, competing on numerous tennis and platform tennis teams over time.  Rather than sitting down after a full day of activity, our regular cocktail hour included spirited games of ping pong.  (I will not divulge who won more often!)
  • She was a Master Gardener (as certified by the Garden Club of America), a National Garden Show judge, a member of the National Society of Colonial Dames, a member of the Women’s Board of the Chicago Botanic Garden, a member of the Kenilworth and Lake Forest, Illinois garden clubs and a dedicated volunteer tending to the Chicago Botanic Garden’s renown bonsai tree collection.
  • She had numerous friends and acquaintances but didn’t “suffer fools lightly” and could have a pretty sharp wit.  The stacks of get well and condolences cards and letters that we have received are testimony to the breadth of her impact on so many people.
  • She loved Tate and tried to contribute, long distance, to Tate-related issues, including discussions and committees.  She and our children participated in a number of Joe Cumming’s Annual Meeting plays.  She thrived on the Tate environment.
  • She loved writing.  Among her essays and other written works, she produced a major rewrite of her father’s book – “TATE:  The First Sixty Years”.  Show.  I have about a dozen copies of the book at our house which I am happy to share.

In summary, I would like to thank my children for their support and comfort during Louellen’s final days. 

Louellen was my wife, my soulmate, and my best friend.  I miss her desperately.  Thank you for keeping her in your thoughts and prayers.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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