Thursday 18 July 2019

'I threw antidepressants in the sea after my wife left me in 1995' - former La Stampa owner Louis Murray

Louis Murray tells Barry Egan about his roller-coaster business life, beating cancer and losing his wife

ENTREPRENEUR WITH DRIVING AMBITION: Louis Murray, who despite a tough upbringing has led a successful life, at his stunning home on Killiney Hill. Photo: Steve Humphrey
ENTREPRENEUR WITH DRIVING AMBITION: Louis Murray, who despite a tough upbringing has led a successful life, at his stunning home on Killiney Hill. Photo: Steve Humphrey
F1 playboy James Hunt and his wife Suzi
Brigitte Bardot
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

A Bentley sits magisterially in the driveway. When the door to Louis Murray's home of nearly 40 years swings open, an opulent mansion with marble floors and art on the walls is revealed. His friend Brian Archer ushers me into the large hall.

Then a handsome, if frail figure resplendent in a shirt, jeans and loafers appears out of the sunlight streaming in through the windows.

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"Come in," says Louis, as we sit down on the French antique couches in the living room opposite a roaring fire in the fireplace.

One can't help but imagine Louis's palace in the hills high over Killiney Bay as the set of some Irish version of Citizen Kane or The Great Gatsby.

The last time I was here, it was more like The Last Supper. Or the Last Dinner Party.

On St Stephen's Day 2011, Louis, who I had known for a few years and had been a semi-regular guest to his home and parties (he threw a 50th birthday party for his friend Sean Penn), had invited me to an intimate repast.

The house was a mansion by any standards, with manicured gardens that swept down to the tennis court and a gazebo. Louis's next door neighbour was the lead singer in U2.

The dinner party was to mark the host's last occasion to entertain for a while at least. This was significant, because a few weeks earlier Louis had been diagnosed with cancer of the tongue and was going into hospital in January to begin treatment. I remember sitting up with Louis and his girlfriend Cristina Petrar drinking brandy, talking about life and wondering whether this would be his last Christmas.

I stayed the night. Louis made me breakfast the following morning. He didn't have the look of someone who was going to die.

Eight months later, Louis did indeed have the look of a man in frighteningly close proximity to death's door.

"There was a lump... here," he says showing me his tongue, "and Cristina brought me down to the doctor in December, 2011. From there we went to see a professor in James's. He performed the operation in early January. But I got pneumonia and TB and I was then taken into the Beacon. That was a nightmare. If it wasn't for Cristina I wouldn't be alive, because I was getting these night sweats. That delayed my radiation treatment for months.

"So, overall, the recovery, because of the complications, took two years. And that's when I got hit by a bank who stole my business," he says of his former hotel and restaurant La Stampa as well as the Sam Sara bar on Dawson Street.

On May 22 of this year, Louis broke down in the stand in court when he remembered hearing on October 23, 2014, while he was recovering from cancer, that AIB had appointed PwC as receiver to La Stampa."I viewed it as something of a betrayal," he said on the stand. "The word receivership was never mentioned."

Louis says now: "I settled that thing last Friday week in the Four Courts," referring to how his High Court action against a bank and a receiver has been withdrawn on confidential terms agreed between the parties.

"I walked out with a signed, sealed settlement."

Louis and his company, Bailieboro Spring Water, in receivership, sued AIB and a receiver over an alleged breach of an agreement for the consensual sale of two Dawson Street, Dublin properties which housed the restaurant, a hotel and a bar.

"During those five years," Louis says, "I couldn't sleep beyond 4 or 5am. I would be sitting here, studying law. I was a great friend of Adrian Hardiman," he says of the late legal legend and judge of the Supreme Court. "Adrian taught me a lot about what to study about law and contracts. So, that was my life; five in the morning to 10 at night studying. I didn't go out a lot. Also, they froze, unlawfully froze, an Anglo-Irish Bank account; a very hefty bank account I had with Sean Fitz. Sean is a decent fella. I had to slip down to Marbella and sell my penthouse, which I lost a million on."

Between getting cancer and spending the guts of five years in the commercial courts, it is a wonder Louis Murray didn't go broke or die before he reached a settlement last week.

"No." laughs Louis, "I have never felt better, and I am far from broke. The fees were over €1m. So, not many people can take a bank to court for obvious reasons. But if I have endured those seven-and-a-half years I will endure anything. That's it in a nutshell."

I ask him where he got the strength to endure through it all?

"It was 60 years of work I was trying to protect for my children and my grandchildren. So, I had great resilience and determination and strength. Simple." Only it wasn't that simple. He was born as one of seven children in a two-bedrom house in Dundrum. He left school at 14. "I was so fortunate, and successful, that I opened 24 businesses."

His father Patrick was a painter in the ESB. There is a picture of his mother, Kathleen, on the wall of the grand living room. "She died at 40, with complications after giving birth to the eighth child. Then my father had to look after seven kids." A self-invented man from a humble background who was ahead of his time, Louis looked like a playboy but was an entrepreneur with driving ambition.

He opened a jewellery shop at 22, then a club on Leeson Street in 1971, the Pheasantry. "I bought Park's hotel in 1981, then Silk's in the Phoenix Park Race Course, Barbarella's in 1976, then a place in London. I bought James Hunt's club in Marbella. I was quite friendly with James. I loved him, a wonderful guy. He was an extremely fit man, but unfortunately he was doing the coke. He died in his forties. With all the millions he made, he died very poor."

With his Irish charisma and a twinkle in his eye, Louis Murray from humble beginnings in Dundrum, managed to meet and become friends with the great and the good across Europe in the 1970s and 1980s.

"I met Brigitte Bardot in St Tropez when she was living with Gunter Sachs. I always fancied Brigitte Bardot. I'm sure you did too. I also met Susan George in St Tropez. She was a friend for many years. Look, I was a very fortunate young guy," he says as we move out in the garden. "A very fortunate man who never looked back until I got the cancer, and they all f**ked me. Look, I am not here looking for sympathy from anyone."

How do you feel now?

"I have never felt better in my life. If I got through that, all of that... I saw a psychologist for a few years, but it wasn't depression, really. There were bouts of it. It was difficult for Cristina," he says of his long-term partner.

Louis is also honest enough to admit that in the mid-1990s, when he broke up with Judy, his wife - and mother of his three grown-up children, Sarah, Samantha and Rebecca - was "the worst experience of my life.

"Now, it was the most unexpected thing to ever happen to me. We weren't arguing. I was with Judy in La Stampa on Friday night with [daughter] Rebecca for dinner, and the next morning she ran off to Antigua. She announced to me that she wanted to leave. That was the most devastating. That was in 1995."

Louis spent a long time trying to deal with the break-up. "The doctor gave me antidepressants. But I decided," he says pointing, "walking that beach below us in Killiney to throw the antidepressants in the sea. The day I threw them in the sea I started recovering. That was probably a year after my wife left me."

He wed Judy in the summer of 1974. "She was a model in town from Co Down. We got married in the church in Stephen's Green and we went off to a friend's villa in St Tropez."

It wasn't all wealth and well-appointed residences in the Cote d'Azur. Louis tells a story against himself with the comic delivery of an old Hollywood matinee idol like Cary Grant.

"When I first met Judy, when I was much younger," he begins, with a mischievous smile on his face, "we weren't dating but I was in town one day when another girl asked me, could I take her to a dinner dance in the Shelbourne Hotel?

"At three in the morning, I was standing up at the top of the balcony chatting to a few people when a guy comes along and punches me. And I go over the balcony and I break two bones in my back. I was in Vincent's for months. Judy came to see me.

"When I got out of the hospital, the doctor told me to head to the sun. So Judy and me went to the sun. I worked in a bar and I was fired. Judy worked in an art gallery. She was the star of Ibiza.

"There were guys on yachts who loved her. On one yacht they threw me overboard. I fell into a dirty harbour and I got an awful infection.

"And it wasn't getting better!" he laughs.

"So, I had to get back to Dublin. We had no money. I hadn't paid the rent. So Michael Fitzsimons, a friend of mine in Dublin Garages, was in Ibiza.

"I walked to his hotel in a pair of shorts and a pair of flip-flops. I met Michael. He gave me £150 to go home. After meeting Michael, I was walking in the corridor of the hotel when I saw a lovely pair of shoes.

"I left my flip flops, suffice to say!" he roars with laughter.

"Judy and I flew back to Dublin and I went into Vincent's and they cured me. I was about 22.

"That's when I started doing business. I opened a jewellery business. I married Judy in 1974 and it just went into the stratosphere from there."

And now?

"The feeling of freedom which I have only got recently - having secured the future for my children and grandchildren forever, and my own future - there is no better feeling."

Louis recently bought a 6,000 sq ft penthouse in Marbella.

He will take possession of it on September 1. He will live in southern Spain six months of the year and the other six in his Killiney castle in the sky next door to Bono, who has always been supportive of him as a friend, as well as a neighbour. "Bono is a good guy," he says. "A lovely man."

"Look," says the still faintly dashing tycoon, "I grew up in poverty. I had a tough childhood. I knocked around with semi-criminal kids. The bullies used to spit at me and bully me. What drove me was my mother and father's poverty.

"They couldn't put food on the table. I used to play football with Home Farm. But I could only afford one bus," Louis says, taking me for a walk in the garden.

"The guy who spent over four years creating this garden used to go to school with me."

Now 74 years of age, Louis has survived his wife leaving him, the recession, cancer, suing the bank. "I got through it. I got through it because of the love I had for my mum," he says, looking up at her picture on the wall, "and the love that my dad gave to me.

"Because of their love, I felt I could do anything; and I did. And I still do. That's how I got through the five years. I'm a free man. I'm going to live every day of it," says Louis, going for a walk in decidedly un-stolen shoes in his magic garden.

Sunday Independent

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