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 be here to check out their handiwork.”
This is not an unfamiliar kind of c.v., but neither is it a conventional c.v. for an official biographer of a two-term American president. The exact process by which the inner circles of the Reagan administration came to see Morris as their ideal chronicler remains obscure. There are no references to either his selection or his presence (or for that matter his existence) in the memoirs of Donald Regan, Helene von Damm, or Larry Speakes, nor are there, more interestingly, in those of Nancy Reagan or Michael Deaver. “Don’t blame me, this was Mike Deaver’s idea,” White House aide Robert Tuttle told Morris after his appointment. “We were playing tennis one day, and I told Mike, ‘What the President needs is an in-house historian.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s already done.”’ Selwa Roosevelt, a granddaughter-in-law of Theodore Roosevelt and at the time U.S. chief of protocol, appears to have played an early role: it was she who arranged an initial 1981 lunch with Nancy Reagan and it was she who gave the Reagans a copy of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, which, given its insistence on the primacy of “character,” would have presented itself as encouraging evidence that its author could be trusted to carry through on the personality-focused “morning in America” version of events preferred by the administration. At a 1983 dinner at the Georgetown house of Senator and Mrs. Mark Hatfield, the President “lit up,” Morris tells us, when Hatfield introduced him as the author of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.
“Oh!” he breathed, warmly resting his left hand on my right hand engulfed in his other hand, “I read that. And Nancy was reading your wife’s book about, uh—“
“Edith Kermit Roosevelt, sir.”
“Yes. Those first few months in the White House, we would lay in bed and read ‘em side by side!”
“Happiness,” Morris tells us, “suffused my heart.”
There appears to have been a distinct and prolonged courtship of Morris by the White House. There had been, in 1981, the lunch with Nancy Reagan. There had been an invitation to a state dinner. There had been, Fred Barnes wrote in The New Republic in 1986, certain discussions between Michael Deaver and Richard Darman, who was concerned that future historians might not see a way to let “the ‘real Reagan’ come through, the guy who changed the nation’s sense of itself by the strength of his personality.” There had then been the Hatfields’ dinner, to which not only Morris but a number of more academically grounded biographers and historians, including Daniel J. Boorstin, Frank Freidel, George Nash, and Arthur Link, were invited. “It was not until some time afterward,” Morris tells us,
that I learned that the real purpose of the Hatfield dinner had been to set me up as Reagan’s “chronicler.” So that was why Mrs. Reagan had stared so hard over her volaille de poulet aux champignons. That was why Richard Darman, the Administration’s resident intellectual, had invited me to the White House for a follow-up discussion. Presumably, I was expected to offer my pen to the Reagan Revolution.
Presumably, I was expected, offer my pen. The maidenly constructions here are worth noting. There is over much of Dutch an odd erotic cast. “He was deeply tan” is the way Morris renders an imagined moment in the life of the young Reagan as lifeguard, previously identified as he of “that hard, splendid body, those bruising arms and knees.” “He began to read. The day was hot and still. Presently he shrugged off the top of his damp suit. The loops fell away, leaving behind pale ghosts of themselves. Midges sang.” Reader, that day we read no more: this nagging undertone makes it difficult to gauge the extent to which Morris encouraged or even pressed the courtship. He tells us in Dutch that he did not.
> I was at work on another volume of the life of Theodore Roosevelt, and had reason enough to keep my distance. Ironia ironorum, that I of all people should be charged with rescuing the old Lifeguard from the chill current of history!
Still, two years later, in March of 1985, he and his wife are present at “a private dinner upstairs” at the White House, a seductive occasion of “tall white freesias and tall white candles” during which Deaver “glared a message through the fragrant flames: You blew it at the Hatfields’, buddy. This is your last chance.” How Morris blew it we are not allowed to know, but on the way home that night, in “the luxury of a limousine,” he pictures himself again wrestling with temptation. There was the sight of the Capitol, which in Morris’s eyes “wavered whitely, like some Tennysonian vision. Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful. Never had Washington looked so beautiful, so full of promise.” It would be two months later, when Reagan was on his May 1985 visit to Bitburg and Bergen-Belsen, before Morris would finally succumb: swept away, he tells us, by CNN, less by watching the President on screen than by hearing, on the soundtrack, a skylark.
That bird called not only around the curve of the world separating me from Reagan in his agony, but back and back through all our years. Primarily, I suppose, it sang of loss. Loss, the biographer’s torment: longing for treasures unrecoverable, hardly assuaged by the recovery of trifles—an oar or a floating hat, after everything else has gone over the weir. Private loss, too. So many other “last chances.” Budding opportunities unblown, breasts not cupped in my hand, scripts unfilmed and books unfinished, a marriage in ashes, a boy gone underground. Loss of youth, of middle age, of Time itself. Sydney Ann. Gavin. Father. And before them all, before everybody who ever lived, young and beautiful and wise, Bess—lost, too!—singing Schubert in our big music room on Lake Shore Drive in the spring of 1919.
Well, there we are. Five pages into Dutch and already careering helplessly into its famous peculiarity, the fancy that biographer and biographee share a minutely detailed, and entirely invented, common history, bit players in each other’s lives. “Bess,” a.k.a. “the Kentish Skylark,” is the biographer’s imaginary mother, a student of lieder in Dresden and bel canto in Milan before her marriage to the equally imaginary “Father,” who spends the considerable income from the imaginary family firm (“Chicago’s leading cattle feeder, with a thirty-acre plant at Racine and Twenty-third”) on philanthropy and the Republican Party. “Sydney Ann” is the biographer’s imaginary first wife, a moody first violist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “Gavin” is the biographer’s and Sydney Ann’s “son,” and emerges in some ways as the most interesting and realized figure in the book.
“Gavin,” who was born, as Morris was, on May 27, 1940, would seem from one angle to be the author’s idealized alter ego, even his cautionary tale: there but for a deadline at National Geographic Traveler went un homme engagé. “Gavin” does not merely write or read history. Gavin is history, so ubiquitously on the scene that he could seem crafted to answer any reader of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt who happened to notice that its 886 pages remain entirely unsullied by reference to the social and intellectual movements that shaped America during its subject’s lifetime. In Dutch, by way of filling any such possibly perceived lacunae, we have Gavin, who no sooner graduates from Berkeley (summa cum laude, in philosophy and French) than he is plunging into the thick of it, off first to Port Huron to help Tom Hayden found SDS, then to Algeria to discover (before it is translated) The Wretched of the Earth. Back in Berkeley, Gavin hooks up with Mario Savio for the Sproul Hall sit-in, finds time to send his “father” prescient observations on Ronald Reagan, and, on the evening the Berkeley Academic Senate votes 824-115 in favor of “complete political freedom” at Berkeley, calls the “father” collect to play “Blowin’ in the Wind” on his harmonica. “Piper, pipe that song again!” the father/biographer reflects. “Sweet yet inevitably spending itself, it resounds across time as the very note of doomed youth.”