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Book Review: ‘Jan Morris: Life from Each 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 need been an imaginary one with Lord “Jacky” Fisher of Kilverstone, an Admiral of the Fleet who was possibly first to make use of the expression OMG, in a 1917 letter to Winston Churchill. Though she obviously longed for tutorial credibility, a vital drollness and self-deprecation perhaps got in the way in which; greater 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 star in her own right, occurring “The Dick Cavett Show” and drawing the scorn of Nora Ephron in Esquire. Some thought her prose ran toward the purple (“the best descriptive author in our time, of the watercolor kind,” sideswiped Dame Rebecca West in these pages), but her many admirers included Paul Theroux — though he once moderately 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, Enterprise and Horizon sent her to faraway lands and paid her handsomely, though she talked about money as “a continuing worry.”

Just like the finicky cat of yesteryear’s promoting 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 probably the most ineffably boring city on the planet”), zoos and — oddly, considering the way it had helped her — science. “Even evolution was suspect to her,” Clements writes, considered one of the few moments in a really full telling after I desired to know more.

This biography is a boon companion to Morris’s sprawling oeuvre, even when her complex psyche, like her physicality, may be unimaginable to corral. Jan Morris was one woman who “had all of it,” because the old Helen Gurley Brown guide so mythically proposed — but the price to other people is left somewhere within the mist.

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

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