NEW YORK (AP) – Jan Morris, the famous journalist, historian, world traveler and fiction writer who became a pioneer in the transgender movement in the Middle Ages, has died 94.
Morris died in Wales on Friday morning, according to her literary representative, United Agents. Her agent Sophie Scard confirmed her death. Morris had been in failing health. Additional information was not immediately available.
The British author lived as James Morris until the early 1970s, when she underwent surgery at a clinic in Casablanca and was renamed Jan Morris. Her best-selling memoir “Conundrum”
“I no longer feel isolated and unreal,” she wrote. “Not only can I imagine more vividly how other people feel: Finally released from the old headgear and flashers, I begin to know how I feel myself.”
Morris was a prolific and prolific writer and journalist who wrote dozens of books in various genres and was a first-hand witness to the story. As a young reporter for the Times, she followed a 1953 expedition to Asia led by Sir Edmund Hillary and on the day of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II broke the news that Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa climber Tenzing Norgay had become the first climbers to scale Mount Everest.
She was so worried that rival journalists would steal her scoop, she used coded language for the shipment at home, forwarded through an Indian military radio post: “Snow conditions bad stop advanced base left yesterday stop awaiting improvement.”
In 1956, she helped the Manchester Guardian break the news that French forces were secretly attacking Egypt during the so-called Suez Canal crisis, which threatened to start a world war. The French and British, who were also allies against Egypt, both withdrew in embarrassment after denying the original reports, and British Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigned within a few months. In the early 1960s, she covered Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem.
Morris went on to receive praise for her immersive travel writing with Venice and Trieste among the favorite places and for her “Pax Britannica” stories about the British Empire, a trilogy beginning as James Morris and ending as Jan Morris. In 1985, she was the Booker Prize finalist for an imaginary travelogue and political thriller, “Last Letters from the Sea”, about a Mediterranean city-state that was a stopover for the author’s worldwide knowledge and adventures, with visitors ranging from Saint Paul and Marco Polo to Ernest Hemingway and Sigmund Freud.
The book was republished 21 years later as part of “Sea,” which included a sequel to Morris and an introduction by science fiction-fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin.
“I read it (‘Sea’) as a brilliant description of the crossroads between the West and the East … seen by a woman who has truly seen the world and who lives in it with twice as much intensity as most of us,” Le Guin wrote.
Morris’ other works included the memoirs “Herstory” and “Pleasures of a Tangled Life”, the essay collections “Cities” and “Locations” and the anthology “The World: Life and Travel 1950-2000.” A collection of diary entries, “In My Mind’s Eye,” came out in 2019, and another volume is scheduled for January. “Allegorizings”, a nonfiction book on personal reflections that she wrote more than a decade ago and asked not to be published in her lifetime, will also be published in 2021.
Born James Humphrey Morris in Somerset, with a Welsh father and English mother, Morris remembered to question her gender at the age of 4. She had a revelation when she sat under her mother’s piano and thought she had “been born in the wrong body and really should be a girl. For about 20 years, she kept her feelings secret, a “cherished” secret that became a prayer as she and fellow students at Oxford University observed a moment of silence as they worshiped in the school’s cathedral.
“During this break, assuming I was asking for forgiveness or enlightenment, I silently inserted every night, year after year throughout my youth, an appeal that was less graceful but no less heartfelt: ‘And be so kind, God, let me be a girl. Amen, ” Morris wrote in his memoir.
“I felt that when I was so fervently and so incessantly translated into a girl’s body, I was only aiming for a more divine state, an inner atonement.”
To the outside world, James Morris seemed to have an exemplary male life. She was 17 when she joined the British Army during World War II, served as an intelligence officer in Palestine and mastered the “military virtues” of courage, dash, loyalty, self-discipline. “In 1949, Morris married Elizabeth Tuckniss, with whom she had five children (one died in infancy).
But privately, she felt “dark with indecision and anxiety” and even considered suicide. She had traveled the “long, well-beaten, expensive and fruitless road” of psychiatrists and sexologists. She had concluded that no one in her situation had ever, “in the entire history of psychiatry, been” cured “by science.”
Life as a woman changed how Morris saw the world and how the world saw Morris. She internalized the notion that she could not fix a car or lift a heavy suitcase, found herself treated as a subordinate by men and a confidentiality by women. She learned that there is “no aspect of existence, no moment of the day, no contact, no event, no answer that is no different for men and women.”
Morris and her wife divorced, but they remained close and in 2008 formalized a new bond in a civil union. They also promised to be buried together under a stone inscribed in both Welsh and English: “Here lie two friends at the end of a life.”
Associated Press author Jill Lawless contributed to this report from London.