It’s always surprising when a rising star decides to forgo fame and fortune and be just like everybody else. That was certainly the case in the 1950s, when Sylvia Murphy, the scintillating, silver-blonde singer who had conquered Canada’s airwaves, politely declined career offers from New York and London in favour of making home-cooked meals and knitting sweaters.
Even in an era when the prevailing attitude was that a woman’s place was in the home, her choice was enough of a jaw-dropper to merit a feature spread in Maclean’s magazine. In a 1959 article titled “Why Sylvia Murphy turns her back on the big-time,” she told journalist Trent Frayne, “I love singing and the work I’m doing, and I’ve been awfully lucky. But I don’t like them that much.” She said she would far rather stay put in Toronto, raising her two young children from a brief early marriage.
At the time of the interview, Ms. Murphy had recently remarried, to ex-evangelist-turned-broadcaster Charles Templeton. Although she was better known and making more money than her new husband, within a few years she had retired from show business and taken up the full-time roles of housewife and mother.
Ms. Murphy, who died Feb. 24 in Mississauga at the age of 89, following a bout with COVID-19, was sometimes wistful about that momentous decision. But she never regretted it.
“She didn’t feel it was a big sacrifice,” her oldest son, lawyer Michael Templeton, said. “Her family was the most important thing to her.”
In fact, it was away from the spotlight that Ms. Murphy found her métier. As well as being a loving mother, she was a domestic dynamo. She not only excelled at the cooking and knitting but was also a self-taught carpenter who built cabinets and bookcases, and a skilled seamstress who could sew a stunning evening gown or an elaborate Halloween costume. Her five children remember her as a can-do “super mom” able to make a mouth-watering chicken Kiev, re-upholster an old sofa and repair just about anything around the house.
“If there was a leaky faucet, she fixed it,” said her daughter, television producer Deborah Burgess, who inherited her mother’s handiness. “I used to joke that my son Jesse grew up thinking home repair was women’s work.”
Despite her Marilyn Monroe looks, Ms. Murphy defied the odious “dumb blonde” stereotype prevalent in her day. She was highly intelligent, well versed in history and politics, and forceful in her opinions. “She was very forthright, sometimes to a fault,” Michael Templeton said fondly. “My mom wasn’t very good at sugar-coating things.”
She had the resilience of someone who had grown up poor during the Great Depression and the Second World War. Born on Sept. 24, 1931, Sylvia Barbara Murphy was the oldest child of Celia (née Zoddickson), who was Belarusian Jewish, and John Murphy, an Irish Catholic. Both were natives of Liverpool who had emigrated separately to Montreal, where they met and married. Mr. Murphy was in the merchant marine and absent for months at a time, leaving his wife to fend for herself and their three children. The family lived in a cold-water tenement flat with no toilet, Sylvia’s youngest brother, Harry, recalled. Still, there were some happy times. When their father was home from the sea, he’d play the accordion and little Sylvia would stand on a chair and sing.
Tragedy struck during the war when John Murphy barely survived a German attack on his supply ship, only to die of meningitis in the hospital while recovering from his wounds. Celia took whatever jobs she could get, including charwoman. At one low point, she temporarily put her children in a Catholic orphanage, where the nuns, in Ms. Burgess’s words, tried to “beat the Jewishness out of them.”
Sylvia went on to attend Thomas D’Arcy McGee High School but dropped out before graduating to support the family. After a brief spell as a stenographer, she began singing in Montreal’s nightclubs. She was only 16 and had to lie about her age – “I was 18 for three years running,” she later joked – but the club musicians were protective of her. “They treated her like their baby sister, to ensure none of the customers messed with her,” Ms. Burgess said.
While working in the clubs, she met Mark Simon, the playboy son of a Montreal cigar manufacturer. Although his wealthy Jewish family looked down their noses at Sylvia, the couple married – when she was really 18 – and she eventually won them over. She quit singing and became a stay-at-home mother. Deborah was her first born, followed by Michael.
Her marriage to Mr. Simon was short-lived, however. After their divorce in 1956, Ms. Murphy, now a single mother, resumed her career. Thanks to a colleague’s good word, she landed an audition with Billy O’Connor, a popular pianist-bandleader at the CBC. The sprightly Mr. O’Connor scooped her up and put her on his radio show, the Coca-Cola-sponsored Refreshment Time, as well as his summer television series, Club O’Connor, where he liked to introduce her as “our doll from Montreal.”
Ms. Murphy’s next big break came as a last-minute substitute on CBC TV’s Cross Canada Hit Parade, crooning the chart-toppers of 1957. It won her national attention and the role of featured vocalist on a string of variety shows with Jack Kane and his jazz orchestra. She was also a regular singing guest on CBC’s big comedy hit, The Wayne and Shuster Hour, and began leading critics’ polls and winning awards as the country’s favourite new singer.
By then, Ms. Murphy had gone from commuting between Montreal and CBC’s Toronto studios to settling in Toronto, moving into a spacious three-bedroom apartment in the area around Bathurst Street and Lawrence Avenue with her children and widowed mother. Still, she resisted the siren song beckoning her to go further, to the United States or even abroad. Invitations by visiting celebrities such as TV impresario Arthur Godfrey, who wanted her for his hit CBS show, and a recording offer from a British label were graciously turned down.
In 1959, she made her first venture into acting when legendary Canadian filmmaker Paul Almond cast her in a teleplay, A Face to Remember, alongside another neophyte actor. He was the darkly handsome Charles (Chuck) Templeton, a one-time teenage sports cartoonist for The Globe (precursor to The Globe and Mail) who had then spent 20 years as a Christian evangelist side-by-side with Billy Graham on the U.S. Bible-thumping circuit. Having lost his faith, he’d turned to a secular broadcasting career as a CBC interviewer.
No kinescope survives to show whether Ms. Murphy and Mr. Templeton had on-screen chemistry, but they definitely did off-screen. By spring, the two were married and moving into a big new split-level house in suburban Clarkson, Ont. (now part of Mississauga). That’s when Maclean’s came calling, followed by Chatelaine and other national magazines, eager to profile Canada’s appealing new showbiz couple.
With Mr. Templeton, Ms. Murphy added to her brood, giving birth to their sons, future internet trailblazer Brad and comic-book artist Tyrone (Ty) Templeton, even while continuing to perform. “There are great clips of her at the CBC wearing enormous fur coats and capes and things, disguising her pregnancies,” Ms. Burgess said.
The versatile Mr. Templeton, meanwhile, kept up a punishing pace, doing an array of TV and radio gigs while also working at the Toronto Star, where he swiftly rose to the position of managing editor. His real ambition, however, was to get into politics. He was already expressing that desire in the Chatelaine interview, while Ms. Murphy was voicing her trepidation. “Sometimes I get scared thinking about it,” she told writer Christina McCall.
“She was very against the idea of being a political wife,” Brad Templeton said. “They fought over that and it did harm to their marriage.” Charles Templeton made a failed bid for the leadership of the Ontario Liberals in 1964. His marriage to Ms. Murphy survived that foray and they remained together – “putting on a pretty good show,” in Brad’s words – into the next decade. They divorced in 1976.
Ms. Murphy did take occasional shots at a comeback. In 1970, she seemed to find a perfect television vehicle for her DIY skills as a regular guest on 55 North Maple, a curious CBC experiment that was part sitcom, part how-to series. She also got together with the old O’Connor gang for some gigs. But she balked at touring, even after her kids were grown.
She did, however, love to travel and did so extensively during her third and final marriage, to aeronautics executive William C. Tate. They made frequent trips to Europe and Asia, which Ms. Murphy always treated as learning experiences, avidly absorbing the local culture.
As her family grew to include grandchildren and, most recently, great-grandchildren, Ms. Murphy easily assumed the role of matriarch. She would whip up fabulous holiday dinners for the whole clan, but was also quick to correct anyone if they used bad grammar at the table. She had an old-school respect for good diction and aversion to vulgarity, but she was also the first to laugh at her own foibles.
Ms. Murphy continued to live in the Mississauga house she’d bought with Charles Templeton and had extensively renovated over the years. It was there, in January, that she suffered a fall that broke her hip. While healing from surgery in the hospital, she contracted COVID-19. Although she recovered, a subsequent blood infection and weakness from both the virus and the operation contributed to her eventual death. Her family was at her bedside virtually throughout her last weeks, visiting her daily on a computer via Skype. According to Michael Templeton, until the end, she was as sharp – and melodious – as ever. “We would distract her by getting her to sing some of her old songs,” he said.
Ms. Murphy was predeceased by her brother Joseph Murphy and her husbands, Mr. Simon, Mr. Templeton and Mr. Tate. She leaves her brother Harry Murphy; her children, Deborah Burgess, Michael, Brad and Ty Templeton, and Bruce Tate; 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.