Tiny Dancer Turned Author: Remembering Jane Murray Heimlich

Jane Murray Heimlich Jane Murray Heimlich stopped writing a while ago. Her Parkinson’s made her hands too shaky to hold a pencil and her memory required someone else to fill in the details.

The daughter of the king of ballroom, Jane was never much into the dancing empire her father, Arthur Murray, had created. Dancing had taken him away and turned him into a stranger to Jane and her twin sister, Phyllis. It had made her mother, Kathryn, crash into herself and attempt suicide because he loved the dancing business more than their family. He treated his wife as if she were his third child, leaving her home alone to eat the cold dinner she had hours earlier prepared for her king, while he gave a southern belle late night lessons at the dance studio.

John Baskin, as he was editing Jane’s memoir, Out of Step and trying to extract more information about her dysfunctional history, apologized for delving so deeply into her family. Jane’s response was, “That’s all right. Maybe one day I’ll have a go at your family.”

I made Jane tell the same story over and over again at her book signings, the one about her interview of actress Joan Crawford: Joan had brought Jane to her apartment so she could show Jane how she packed her glamorous outfits into her suitcase. Jane went reluctantly as she had already spent an entire afternoon with her and desperately needed to get home to her children. So when she finally had the opportunity to politely say, “Gee, it’s getting late, I really must be going,” Joan said, “Yes, but please wait one minute, I have a gift for you,” and whirled away into another room to retrieve what one hoped would be something magnificent and glamorous. Instead she returned with and placed in Jane’s hand, one wooden hanger. Jane, dumbfounded, took it and left.

After I had read this passage in her book, I said to Jane, “Wow, this lady sure had a hang up with hangers.” And Jane laughed her deep gravelly laugh; the one her husband said was so deep it was in the carpet.

Jane married Hank (Henry) Heimlich, creator of the Heimlich maneuver that will most definitely save you if you are choking. This I am sure of, having had it done to me when I was gagging on pizza cheese at the apex of my innocence. My mother saved my eight-year-old life, and as a result I did not eat pizza for several years.

Jane passed away Saturday at the age of 86 from her lengthy battle with Parkinson’s. All I could think about was the woman who made me laugh with her droll sense of humor and spoke slowly and measured, as if every word were on trial before it was pushed into the air. Jane and Henry came to Orange Frazer’s 25th anniversary party in July of this year. She was more elegant, even in her wheel chair, than the rest of us. I hadn’t heard from her since then because, I found out, the Parkinson’s had finally taken her voice, along with her ability to hold that pencil.

I would like to imagine, upon her passing, that she is twirling into the ether to greet her mother and father who had both died many years ago—a happy reunion, a family dancing to the twinkle of the stars, like the ending to a Disney film. But that’s not Jane. Her heaven would be a spot in solitude on her own private star, observing and writing about all the heavenly things that amused her and thinking to herself, “I never much liked dancing…”