Book Review: ‘Jan Morris: Life from Both Sides: A Biography’


Though Morris wrote that her marriage was “open,” Clements keeps things strictly PG, whether out of discretion or lack of dirt. Her most passionate affair might have been an imaginary one with Lord “Jacky” Fisher of Kilverstone, an Admiral of the Fleet who was possibly first to use the expression OMG, in a 1917 letter to Winston Churchill. Though she obviously longed for academic credibility, an essential drollness and self-deprecation perhaps got in the way; more than once she dismissed herself as a “flibbertigibbet,” one in a lexicon of favored “ricochet” words that included “harum-scarum” and “razzle-dazzle.”

As a cub reporter, Morris had interviewed Cary Grant and Irving Berlin, and later became a celebrity in her own right, going on “The Dick Cavett Show” and drawing the scorn of Nora Ephron in Esquire. Some thought her prose ran toward the purple (“the finest descriptive writer in our time, of the watercolor kind,” sideswiped Dame Rebecca West in these pages), but her many admirers included Paul Theroux — though he once rather crudely compared her appearance to Tootsie’s — and Tina Brown, who commissioned Morris to profile Boy George for Vanity Fair. Long-faded glossies with names like Holiday, Venture and Horizon sent her to faraway lands and paid her handsomely, though she talked about money as “a constant worry.”

Like the finicky cat of yesteryear’s advertising who shared her name, Morris had strong likes and dislikes, enumerated here with savor. Yes to: maps, marmalade, music (she also favored the adjectives “melancholy,” “myriad” and “magnificent”); Elon Musk, battleships and wine. No to: complainers, Washington, D.C. (“perhaps the most ineffably boring city on the planet”), zoos and — oddly, considering how it had helped her — science. “Even evolution was suspect to her,” Clements writes, one of the few moments in a very full telling when I wanted to know more.

This biography is a boon companion to Morris’s sprawling oeuvre, even if her complex psyche, like her physicality, might be impossible to corral. Jan Morris was one woman who “had it all,” as the old Helen Gurley Brown guide so mythically proposed — but the cost to other people is left somewhere in the mist.

JAN MORRIS: Life From Both Sides: A Biography | By Paul Clements | Illustrated | 608 pp. | Scribe | $35