‘The Day Was Hot and Still… …’

Edmund Morris
Edmund Morris; drawing by David Levine

Edmund Morris, who became in 1985 the choice of Michael Deaver and Nancy Reagan for a curious and unprecedented post, that of “in-house historian” at the White House, or official biographer to a sitting president, was born in 1940 in Nairobi, Kenya, the son of a pilot for East African Airways, a self-described “colonial boy” who grew up believing that books were written only in “another, superior hemisphere” and who after two years at Rhodes University in South Africa, opting for that “superior hemisphere,” dropped out without receiving a degree and worked, from 1964 until 1968, as an advertising copywriter in London. In 1968, he moved with his wife, Sylvia Jukes Morris, to New York, where, according to the 1989 Current Biography Yearbook, the entries in which are submitted to its subjects for approval before publication, he “applied his versatile writing skills to a variety of freelance projects…including poetry, travel ar-ticles, science fiction, radio scripts, screenplays, advertising copy, and mail-order catalogs.”

By what seems to be his own account, then, Morris’s previous career was that of a pen for hire, on the go, on the come, scrambling for the next assignment or check or byline, always on the lookout for an idea to sell and a way to maximize the research, amortize the plane ticket. The idea for a project about the young Theodore Roosevelt (“It occurred to me that this period in T.R.’s life would make an excellent screenplay,” Morris later wrote in the Wilson Quarterly, “comprising his cowboy years out West, his conquest of melancholy and ill health, and his discovery that he was destined for the presidency”) led first to the screenplay itself, which its author called Dude from New York, then to a New York Times piece about traveling the Dakota Badlands accompanied (in retrospect, interestingly) by Roosevelt’s ghost. The New York Times piece attracted the attention of a producer willing to option Dude from New York, and when the option was dropped the logical thrifty move (on the maximization principle) was to turn the material into a book.

In 1979, the year he was naturalized as an American citizen, Morris duly published The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, a reassuringly ahistorical example of popular, or “personality,” biography that in 1980 (this was the year that Sylvia Jukes Morris, in another instance of maximizing the material, published Edith Kermit Roosevelt, her own biography of Roosevelt’s second wife) received both the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in biography. His entry in Who’s Who of Pulitzer Prize Winners lists, as “Selected Works,” a Time essay on Theodore Roosevelt, a Time essay on Ronald Reagan, a piece in National Geographic Traveler titled “Romance of Cornwall,” and a New Yorker “Reporter at Large” on the Reagan library at Simi Valley, in which he reported noticing Patricia Nixon’s “ravaged face” during the dedication ceremony and thinking, rather alarmingly, “Woodward and Bernstein should…

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