Obituary: Martha Duffy
Saturday 21 June 1997
She herself became the subject of literary anecdote. As early in her career as 1961, she founded a whole genre of journalism, when, assigned to work on a cover story on the reclusive J.D. Salinger, she actually tracked him down to a remote New Hampshire post office. Martha Duffy was an attractive young woman, but that held no charms for the author of Catcher in the Rye; when she politely asked if she might speak to him, he looked alarmed and fled.
After giving up her demanding senior editorship in 1989, Duffy stayed on as a senior writer on Time and was encouraged to follow her own interests. Her formidable portfolio included book reviewing and music. We first met at the 1994 Bayreuth Festival, where her friend James Levine was conducting a new Ring cycle. She was severely critical of the production, particularly of the costumes.
For this was another of Duffy's passions, and she wrote many of Time's major fashion pieces. She had written or co-authored Time's landmark articles on Christian Lacroix and Giorgio Armani. London saw a lot of her in the last few years, for she had become a fan of the London fashion scene, particularly of John Galliano and of Alexander McQueen, whose rocketing careers she watched with enthusiasm. Duffy loved clothes, and, despite severe arthritis, could look ravishing and chic in her latest Bill Blass, Armani or Ungaro outfit.
The visual arts were another of Duffy's enthusiasms, and she was also Time's royal watcher. She wrote the cover story about the Waleses' troubled marriage in November 1992, and continued to take an interest in the worried house of Windsor. She even turned her hand to sports writing. A piece on Princess Anne's participation in the European equestrian championships in Kiev that appeared in the sister magazine, Sports Illustrated, resulted in Duffy's dry wit being denounced in the Daily Mail in 1973: "It appears to have been rewritten with a spray gun filled with arsenic. Indeed, it will carry off the Bitch-of-the-Year award without a contender in sight."
But her real love was dance, and she remained Time's dance critic from the mid-1970s until her death. Her last published piece was a review of Matthew Bourne's production of Swan Lake. She profiled George Balanchine, and knew most of the principal dancers and choreographers of the New York companies, and quite a few in London.
She was born Martha Murphy in Boston, and graduated in 1957 from Radcliffe College, the women's outpost of Harvard. An early marriage to David McDowell ended in divorce. Twenty-nine years ago she married James Duffy, a prominent Manhattan lawyer who chucked in his career in order to write thrillers, using the nom de plume Haughton Murphy. Reuben and Cynthia Frost, his "elegant Manhattan crimebusters" (to quote from a dust-jacket), were at their most sophisticated in A Very Venetian Murder (1992), in which the plot turns on an understanding of the Italian judicial system and the layout of the Cipriani Hotel, where Jim and Martha spent a long holiday every autumn. Are Reuben and Cynthia Jim and Martha? Hard to say, but wisecracking and lovable they are certainly, in the tradition of Nick and Nora in Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man.
Martha Duffy had a gift for friendship and for fun. Her death came as a shock; for, though she walked with a stick, and had to inject herself with insulin before each of the many meals in restaurants she so relished, she was full of vitality. Though she often experienced physical discomfort, always intrepid, she made time and took trouble to keep up with her friends both in Britain and the United States, France and Italy. She supported them in their triumphs and acted as mentor to younger, talented writers.
One of these was Frank Rich, unkindly called the "butcher of Broadway" during his time as the New York Times's theatre critic (he had been film and television critic for Time from 1977 to 1980). Rich said of Martha Duffy's editing skills, "She could improve any piece of copy, but she ultimately taught you how to improve your own copy. She had a brain like steel."
Paul Levy and Anthony Peattie
Martha Young Murphy, journalist: born Boston, Massachusetts 16 September 1935; married first David McDowell (marriage dissolved), second 1968 James Duffy; died New York 16 June 1997.
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