Morris goes from flop house to Montgomery House

by Andrew Allport | 2/9/99 6:00am

Edmund Morris, the story goes, used to work for peanuts. Actually, he didn't even have it that good. During a particularly hard period of trying to make a living as a writer, he remembers longingly looking at a packet of peanuts but not being able to buy them.

"I had enough for the peanuts, but not the sales tax," said Morris, the fourth in this term's series of six Montgomery Fellows.

Morris comes to the College as an expert and authorized biographer on the life and presidency of Ronald Reagan, whose biography he plans to publish this spring.

Still, Morris said yesterday in an interview at the Montgomery house, he kept it up. "I wrote newspaper articles, criticism, wine articles -- anything that would pay the rent."

Morris was born and educated in Kenya, growing up in the atmosphere of British colonialism present in the country's capital, Nairobi. Later in his life he moved to Great Britain, but found it "a very dreary place."

"The whole structure was against individual efforts," he said. And if Morris -- who has written articles on topics ranging from golf to classical music -- is anything, he is an individual. So in 1968, he and his wife Sylvia Jukes Morris moved to New York.

"It was the worst year anybody could have possibly come," he said, half-way between a laugh and a grimace at the memory. It was the defining year of the turbulent 1960s: Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been shot, and Robert Kennedy would be assassinated soon after they moved in.

In fact, on the day the Morrises arrived in New York, Columbia University was overtaken by a group known as Students for a Democratic Society, who took over the campus in protest. Morris said, however, that this encouraged him as a sign of "a country that recognized the need to change."

"I knew it was a place that rewarded hard work," he said.

He tried applying himself as an advertising copywriter, but found the corporate life not suited to his creative interests. The main problem, as he put it, was that he "kept getting fired."

So "out of desperation," he wrote a screenplay, choosing what he felt was a quintessential American subject -- Theodore Roosevelt. His concept was a movie about the early days of the future president in the American West.

However, after he was offered money to turn the idea into a biography, he immediately accepted, amazed at the prospect of such a large amount of money -- $7,500.

"And he didn't get it all at once," added his wife, herself an accomplished author of the biographies of Edith Kermit Roosevelt and Clare Boothe Luce. The couple had to live on the small $1,500 advances while Morris finished his book.

After publication in 1980, "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" won high praise, as well as the Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award.

Although his forthcoming book, a biography of President Reagan, might be mistaken for the second work of a political writer, Morris said he is really "not very interested in politics."

"I am interested in character," he said, adding that he found Reagan to be "tantalizing" in that it was impossible to get the President to open up about himself. "He kept his tricks to himself," he said. Morris may have learned some of those tricks, however -- he will be speaking today at 4:00 p.m. in Cook Auditorium on his knowledge gathered from research and interviews with Reagan.

The prize-winning author has lectured on biography and the arts at Harvard and Brown Universities, the New York Historical Society, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Library of Congress.

Morris has also written extensively on literature, music, travel, and the American immigrant experience in "The New Yorker," "The New York Times," "Harper's," as well as the occasional random article on British golf for a Wisconsin periodical.

"I don't know the first thing about golf," he said, " but whatever pays the bills..."