Jan Morris, artful travel writer who broke many boundaries, dies at 94
By Matt Schudel,
As a young reporter, Jan Morris was on the mountainside, at 22,000 feet, when the first expedition in history reached the top of Mount Everest. She reported on wars and revolutions around the globe, published dozens of elegant books exploring far-flung places and times and was regarded as perhaps the greatest travel writer of her time.
Yet the most remarkable journey of her life was across a private border, when she cast off her earlier identity as James Morris and became Jan Morris.
A writer of extraordinary range and productivity, and one of the world’s first well-known transgender public figures, Ms. Morris was 94 when she died Nov. 20 at a hospital in the Welsh town of Pwllheli. Her son Twm Morys announced the death in a statement but did not state the cause.
Jan Morris spent her first 45 years as James Morris, who had been a British cavalry officer, a World War II veteran and a dashing reporter renowned for international adventures and evocative writing.
“On the face of things,” a onetime colleague, David Holden, wrote in 1974, “a less likely candidate for a sex change than James Morris would have been hard to imagine. His whole career and reputation had created an aura of glamorous and successful masculinity.”
In the 1940s, James Morris lived on the Nile on the houseboat of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. In 1953, never having climbed a mountain before, James joined the expedition of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay and came within 7,000 feet of the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak. Scrambling back down, James delivered the news that Everest had been conquered for the first time in history. The Times of London printed the story on the eve of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
“I went up an unknown,” Ms. Morris told the New York Times in 1997, “and came down the most famous journalist in the world.”
Constantly on the move, James Morris reported from Israel, Algeria, South Africa and Japan, primarily for British newspapers and magazines, published books and was praised by New York Times critic Orville Prescott as a “poet and a phrase-maker with a fine flair for the beauties of the English language.”
James Morris covered the Moscow show trial of U.S. spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers and the trial in Jerusalem of unrepentant Nazi henchman Adolf Eichmann. In Cuba, James interviewed the charismatic revolutionary Che Guevara and in a 1960 dispatch published in the New York Times offered a grim assessment of what the future would hold for the country under Fidel Castro.”
“It is a strikingly immature regime — not just in age but in style and judgment too. The rulers of Havana reduce all things to simple right or wrong, East or West, in or out, yours or ours. There still is good in many of their notions, a surviving streak of idealism, a genuine quality of young inspiration. But there is little subtlety, no experience, and scarcely a jot of that prime political commodity, irony.”
In 1960, James Morris published the best-selling “Venice” (called “The World of Venice” in the United States), creating a distinctive style of travel writing, a literary dreamscape evoking past and present at once, as sensory impressions and a poignant awareness of what some called the “psychology of place” were threaded into an elegant, flowing prose.
Venice — for centuries an independent republic before it became part of Italy — “was something unique among the nations, half eastern, half western, half land, half sea, poised between Rome and Byzantium, between Christianity and Islam, one foot in Europe, the other paddling in the pearls of Asia. She . . . even had her own calendar, in which the year began on March 1st, and the days began in the evening.”
Other books followed, about New York, Britain, South America and Spain, as well as an ambitious three-volume history of the British Empire that was so authoritatively written that critics were reminded of Edward Gibbon’s monumental 18th-century chronicle of ancient Rome.
James Morris had public acclaim and a seemingly contented family life as the married father of four children — but there remained a central, inescapable fact: a misaligned gender identity, “a life distorted.”
“I was three or perhaps four years old,” Jan Morris wrote in her first book under that name, the autobiographical “Conundrum” (1974), “when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. I remember the moment well” — sitting under the piano, while her mother played Sibelius — “and it is the earliest memory of my life.”
Before marrying Elizabeth Tuckniss in 1949, James Morris explained this sense of inner conflict, telling her that “each year my every instinct seemed to become more feminine, my entombment within the male physique more terrible to me.”
James Morris began hormone treatments in 1964 and consulted with Harry Benjamin, an American physician and the author of “The Transsexual Phenomenon” (1966). In 1972, James went to Casablanca for transition surgery, choosing a doctor experienced in the procedure.
Two weeks later, Jan Morris flew back to England, where she was greeted by Elizabeth. Under British law at the time, they had to obtain a divorce because same-sex couples were not permitted to marry. Still, they continued to live together.
“To me gender is not physical at all, but is altogether insubstantial,” Ms. Morris wrote in “Conundrum,” which became an international best seller. “It is the essentialness of oneself, the psyche, the fragment of unity. Male and female are sex, masculine and feminine are gender, and though the conceptions obviously overlap, they are far from synonymous.”
Many readers admired Ms. Morris’s revelatory candor, but others were confused or hostile. In Esquire magazine, Nora Ephron disparaged “Conundrum” as “a mawkish and embarrassing book. . . . Jan Morris is perfectly awful at being a woman; what she has become instead is exactly what James Morris wanted to become those many years ago. A girl. And worse, a 47-year-old girl.”
In any case, Ms. Morris continued with her writing life much as before, only wearing skirts, necklaces, a nimbus of graying hair and a perpetual smile.
She completed the final volume of the British Empire trilogy and continued to wander the globe, writing for Rolling Stone and other publications. The books seem to pour out of her, often with simple titles such as “Travels,” “Journeys,” “Destinations” and “Among the Cities.”
She became almost a revered figure, considered a founder of modern travel writing, even though she resisted the title.
“The reason why I don’t regard myself as a travel writer is that the books have never tried to tell somebody what a city is like,” she told the Independent in 2001. “All I do is say how I’ve felt about it, how it impinged on my sensibility.”
Ms. Morris was often asked which city in the world, out of the hundreds she knew, was her favorite. She invariably named Manhattan and Venice, both of which she visited every year.
But she also had an abiding attachment to Trieste, a somewhat eccentric port city in northeastern Italy. Ms. Morris first saw Trieste in 1945, then returned periodically over the years before publishing in 2001 what she considered perhaps her finest travel book, “Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.”
“The nostalgia that I felt here 50 years ago was, I realize now, nostalgia not for a lost Europe, but for a Europe that never was, and has yet to be,” she wrote. “But we can still hope and try, and be grateful that we are where we are, in this ever-marvelous and fateful corner of the world.”
James Humphry Morris was born Oct. 2, 1926, in Clevedon, England.
At 17, James Morris joined the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, a storied British cavalry unit, and served in Italy and the Middle East during World War II. James later worked for a news agency in Cairo, then returned to Britain to study at the University of Oxford, graduating in 1951.
After working for the Times of London for several years, James joined what was then the Manchester Guardian in 1956 as “wandering correspondent,” winning a George Polk Award for journalism in 1960. A year later, James became a freelance writer and received a master’s degree in English literature from Oxford.
It was in Oxford where James Morris made the first tentative steps toward becoming Jan, going out in public wearing dresses and makeup, years before athletes Renée Richards and Caitlyn Jenner were heralded as transgender pioneers.
In 2008, Ms. Morris and Elizabeth Tuckniss Morris were united in a civil union.
“I made my marriage vows 59 years ago and still have them,” Elizabeth Morris told Britain’s Evening Standard. “We are back together again officially. After Jan had a sex change we had to divorce. So there we were. It did not make any difference to me. We still had our family. We just carried on.”
They settled in the Welsh village of Llanystumdwy, with one of their sons living next door. The couple arranged for a joint gravestone with an engraving in Welsh and English: “Here are two friends, at the end of one life.”
In addition to Elizabeth Morris and their son, Twm Morys, survivors include three other children. Another child, a daughter, died in infancy.
If anything, Jan Morris was a more productive writer than James had been. She often published two or three books a year, and more than 45 in all. Besides her accounts of travel, history and autobiography, she wrote two novels and biographical studies of Abraham Lincoln and British admiral John Fisher.
In 2018, she published “Battleship Yamato,” about an ill-fated Japanese warship that was sunk in 1945. It was believed to be one of the last books about World War II written by a veteran of the war. She continued to publish essays about her life in Wales, her memories and what she called the “tangled web” of her life until shortly before her death.
“I spent half my life traveling in foreign places,” Ms. Morris wrote in “Conundrum.” “I did it because I liked it, and to earn a living, and I have only lately recognized that incessant wandering as an outer expression of my inner journey.”
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