October 2, 1926 – Jan Morris:
“To me gender is not physical at all but is altogether insubstantial. It is soul, perhaps, it is talent, it is taste, it is environment, it is how one feels, it is light and shade, it is inner music.“
In Britain, she is a famous and much-loved writer; publishing essays, history books, magazine and newspaper pieces. She has written more than four dozen books. Her memoir My Mind’s Eye: A Thought Diary (2018) was serialized on BBC radio in 2018.
Morris has lived many lives, and it is impossible to separate who she is now from who she was before: James Humphrey Morris, born in Somerset, England, with an education and career that were typical of privileged Englishmen at the time.
Morris studied at Oxford; served in the Queen’s Royal Lancers during World War II; and at 23 years old, he met and married a young woman, Elizabeth Tuckniss. They had four children.
After the war, Morris worked as a journalist specializing in splashy, intrepid assignments for the Times and Sunday Times in London. In 1953, Morris was the Times correspondent embedded in the British Mount Everest Expedition, the first to scale Mount Everest, the highest point on our pretty planet. Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the summit on Friday, May 29, 1953. Led by Colonel John Hunt, it was organized and financed by the Joint Himalayan Committee.
In 1949, the long-standing climbing route to the summit of Mount Everest was closed by Chinese-controlled Tibet. For the next several years, neighboring Nepal allowed only one expedition per year. A Swiss expedition (in which Norgay took part) tried to reach the summit in 1952 but was forced back by bad weather and problems with oxygen. The expedition included over 400 people, including 362 porters, 20 Sherpa guides, and 10,000 pounds of baggage.
The expedition set up base camp in March 1953. Norgay later wrote that Hillary took the first step onto the summit and he followed. They reached Everest’s 29,028 ft summit at 11:30 am on May 29. They spent about 15 minutes at the summit. Hillary took a photo of Norgay, but there is no photo of Hillary. Morris wrote that Norgay had never used a camera.
News of the expedition’s success reached London in time to be released on the morning of Queen Elizabeth II‘s coronation, on June 2 of that year.
Morris reported the success in a coded message to the Times. Claims that the news was held back didn’t take into account the communication problems of the era; it was quite an achievement to get the news to London. Morris heard the news at Base Camp on May 30 and sent a coded message by runner to the small Nepalese village of Namche Bazaar, where a wireless transmitter was used to forward it as a telegram to the British Embassy in Kathmandu. Morris’s coded message read: “Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop awaiting improvement“. The “snow conditions bad” was the agreed code to signify that the summit had been reached; “advance base abandoned” referred to Hillary and “awaiting improvement” referred to the Sherpa.
The conquest of Everest was probably the last major news item to be delivered to the world by runner.
The exclusive account of Hillary and Norgay’s historic ascent of Mount Everest turned Morris into that rare thing, a famous journalist, because of how exciting and competitive the story was and how physically dangerous it was to get the story. It required being embedded with the Everest team, climbing 17,900 feet to base camp, and then, thrillingly, sending that coded telegram to announce the news to the world, securing one of the great journalistic scoops of the 20th century. Morris:
”It altered my life so much. And now I’m the only surviving member of the expedition, and I miss them all.”
When Hillary died, in Auckland, New Zealand, in 2008, the New Zealand government flew Morris and her wife to mark the significance of their shared history.
Morris left the Times because of the conservative newspaper’s position on the Suez crisis of 1956, yet Suez led to his other major journalistic scoop: an exclusive report that the French and the British were engaged in a covert attempt to invade Egypt under the guise of a mission to maintain peace between Egypt and Israel. Having seen first-hand the fighting in the Suez Canal Zone, Morris flew to Cyprus to escape Israeli censorship and file his story. There he got into conversation with French pilots who admitted that they and the British were flying missions against Egyptian forces. The Guardian bravely printed his incendiary story. The British and French were shamed into withdrawing their forces, and Anthony Eden resigned as prime minister.
Morris was also the first to report on the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” as the nasty Nazis put it. He was tasked with facilitating and managing the logistics involved in the mass deportation of Jews to extermination camps in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe during World War II. Eichmann was in Argentina in 1960 and found guilty of war crimes in a trial in Jerusalem, where he was executed by hanging in 1962.
Then, a different sort of fame came in 1972 when, after a lifetime of feeling trapped inside a body that felt as if it belonged to someone else, Morris traveled to Casablanca and had gender-reassignment surgery. She was 46 years old. It was an extraordinarily bold thing to do. Few people at the time understood what a transition entailed, let alone knew anyone who had one.
”I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body and should really be a girl.”
She wrote a personal account of that journey, Conundrum (1974), a worldwide bestseller, it describes the process that led to a clinic in Casablanca, and the adjustment to life as a woman. It is a powerful and beautifully written account.
Morris began producing lyrical non-fiction books about places: Hong Kong, New York City, Venice, Trieste and Oxford, among others. She also wrote about history, including Pax Britannica, a three-volume history of the British Empire.
The biggest constant in her life has been Elizabeth, who was first her wife and then her ex-wife (same-sex marriage was illegal in Britain in 1972) and then civil partner. They have been a team for more than 70 years. The couple live outside a village in North Wales; she mostly stayed home with Morris traveling and writing and then traveling again. Today Morris cares for Elizabeth who suffers from dementia.
She has lived in her little spot in North Wales, a three-hour train ride from London, and then another 45 minutes by car, for most of her life. She spent the first half of her life as a man and the second half as a woman. She has joked that when she dies, her obituary’s headline will read: ”Sex-change author dies”.
This summer Morris published Thinking Again, a melancholy collection of essays. She writes of the current political scene where she calls the American president ”grotesquely crude”, adding:
”He states his political case, whatever it is, boldly and unpretentiously to his own particular audience, and to hell with everyone else. It is an All-American way: America First! Make America Great Again! As one with a sneaking sympathy for patriotism, whatever flag it flies, I respond to this approach as instinctively as any redneck bigot. He is like some baffling missile from outer space, sweeping in and out of our terrestrial atmosphere and leaving chunks of radioactive substances lying around.”