Larger Than Life

Morgan Murphy has a knack for fixing classic Caddies, a massive book deal in the works, and a decorated history with the Naval Reserves. These days he’s in Kabul sharing some positive news about the conflict on Facebook. But no matter where he travels, it is a Southern sense of place that drives him home.

In 1990, Birmingham–born Morgan Murphy was driving a battered Range Rover ambulance down a gutted road in the Republic of Cameroon when a leopard dove into his path. He slammed on the brakes and narrowly missed the creature, catching its hateful stare before it trotted off into the bush.

He recounted the experience for me over a glass of bourbon at Dram in Mountain Brook Village, about as far from Cameroon as one can get. The story concluded with us both laughing about his African co-pilot being angry. Evidently, leopard makes tasty road-kill, and Murphy had missed a drive-through dinner by inches.

While the telling was definitely entertaining, it’s one of so many experiences that the adult portion of his 38 years on earth reads more like the memoirs of Indiana Jones than a man born in Mountain Brook. He’s got a knack for fixing classic Caddies, a massive book deal in the works, and a decorated history with the Naval Reserves.

His latest endeavor? Morgan Murphy is in Kabul as the Social Media coordinator for the war. For seven months, his job will be to Facebook from the frontlines.

“The military doesn’t see the press as an enemy,” Murphy remarks, sitting in a neatly pressed button-down shirt in his renovated 1929 Tudor home across from Ramsey Park. He grew up in Birmingham on Fairway Drive with three younger sisters, graduated from Birmingham-Southern cum laude and earned an MBA at the University of Oxford in England as a member of the esteemed Exeter College.
“The idea with this war is get as much accurate information out as quickly as possible,” he continues, “Our enemy uses disinformation as a weapon. Our surest defense is spreading the truth as quickly as possible.”
One of the fastest ways to spread information where Afghanistan is concerned is social media outlets such as Facebook, and through the International Security Assistance Force (or ISAF). Murphy is serving as a press handler and is the keeper of the NATO’s social pages live from Kabul. While it’s his first war tour, it’s not his first time serving.
The lieutenant commander has trod four continents in the past 11 years in the Navy Reserve. For his service in countries like Morocco and Korea, he was awarded a Navy Achievement Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Medal, the Overseas Service Ribbon and the Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal.
“I signed on for nine months, and it will be seven months boots-on-the-ground on a base in Kabul,” he says. “The military is actually very adept at using social media to an advantage. We hear horror stories on the news all the time, but we have found that many of the positive stories … things like schools being rebuilt, clean water efforts, and our medical missions … can be skipped over. Social media is an efficient way to get those stories out on a micro-level.”
Murphy is surely the man to write them, as well. A passion for writing fueled his life prior to joining the reserves, when he spent a decade in New York with a rather illustrious magazine career. He began at Vanity Fair before moving on to a position with Forbes, which evolved into Murphy’s seven-year stretch as the executive editor for Time Warner. He moved back to Birmingham in 2000 and traveled the country for nearly a decade as the food critic and travel editor for Southern Living.
“I adore Birmingham,” Murphy admits. “For one, the food is phenomenal. Gilchrist’s … Chez Fonfon … Niki’s West. Man, I love Niki’s West. One of my favorite things is the sign hanging on the wall there that reads, ‘No bare feet, no tank tops, no rollers on head.’ Evidently there was once an epidemic of diners coming in barefoot with curlers in their hair.”
Alongside his love of the food is the sense of place he finds here.
His family has been here for eight generations. “My veins pump with old red dirt, humidity, and heat,” he says with conviction, “I love Alabama and am proud to be from here.”
Murphy’s love of Southern culture is palpable, and it’s set the stage for his current project, a book and a web-based TV series entitled “Off the Eaten Path,” which will be a collection of recipes and stories from Southern dives and diners, published by Time Inc. this spring.

“Morgan is very much a 21st century Renaissance man,” offers Melinda Rainey Thompson. Thompson met Murphy at Birmingham-Southern when he enrolled in her English class as a freshman. Many years and many experiences later, the duo co-wrote and published a humorous non-fiction on marriage, life and relationships this past February entitled, “I Love You—Now Hush.”
“I’m not at all surprised at all to hear he is headed to the Middle East,” she says proudly. “Morgan has a deep sense of family. He’s very Southern in that he feels the weight of generations going way back, and he believes in the gift of service and the honor of duty. Of course, he is probably the only Navy man with a watch fob and three–piece Savile Row suit.”
He is also likely the only man whose past includes owning and restoring a 1941 Cadillac that once belonged to the King of England.

“It took me four years to convince the last owner to sell me that car,” Morgan says, happily. “People collect things for different reasons, and for me, it’s the thrill of the hunt. I also just love to fix things.”

Murphy has been fixing vintage Cadillacs for years (he has nine in his possession now) and the hobby inspired another “first” for him when, in 2009, he launched the world’s only social media site dedicated to vintage car enthusiasts, He left Southern Living three years ago to start the site, which has approximately 10,000 users today, and is estimated to reach 50,000 by summer of 2011. Typical Murphy: the site’s official launch was no mere cocktail soiree.

“I went on the mother of all roadtrips to promote it,” Murphy recalls laughing. “In a 1958 Cadillac I restored. Or, I thought I restored. In the 48 states I visited, that car broke down 48 times, including in one very miserable spot in the Valley Diablo in New Mexico.”
Murphy’s seen a great deal of the world through the unbiased eyes of a journalist, and he’s a man many friends often lovingly joke was born in the wrong century.

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