RIP Sylvia Jukes Morris: ‘Lady of Letters’
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Sylvia Jukes Morris on the Charlie Rose Show in 2014 (Screenshot)

If ever there was a match made in heaven, it would have to be the marriage of the late Edmund and Sylvia Morris, two literary biographers who will be sorely missed. He died from a sudden stroke on May 24, 2019; she followed him on January 5, 2020. Whether it be aesthetics, décor, food, or political and cultural viewpoints, the two were one. Even their respective birthdays were just days apart. The Spanish have a phrase for such unions: they were each other’s “media naranja,” the other half of an orange, so well paired that each half forms the perfect blending of the whole.

I met them in 1987, when, for three extraordinary years, I reported daily to their home on Capitol Hill. The first two years were spent helping Edmund research Ronald Reagan, the last with Sylvia for her two-volume opus on Clare Boothe Luce. I still remember how they would call each other from the first-floor office to the upper-story landing: a distinctive whistle of four notes, like a pair of turtledoves. I was in my 20s, and, with what H. L. Mencken called “the sharp eyes of youth,” impressionable enough to be deeply influenced by two original talents, who did so much to form my worldview.

Sylvia Jukes Morris was born in England, where she taught literature. While in London, she met Edmund, who was working as an advertising copywriter and spent his lunch hour playing the concert piano located at the Marylebone townhouse where Sylvia had been renting a room. One evening she cooked him dinner; fourteen months later they married, and by 1968 they had emigrated to the United States. “Immigrants are by definition abnormal,” he later wrote, “but we feel more normal here than anywhere else.”

At first, scraping a living in Manhattan as freelance writers was not easy. They spent long hours at their desks, sitting back to back, writing with fountain pens in their distinctive handwriting, engrossed in their work on Theodore and Edith Kermit Roosevelt. The reward for their labors was a Pulitzer and National Book Award for him and top honors for her. Her subsequent biography was a two-volume masterpiece on the complex Clare Boothe Luce, lauded by Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, who said, “How often does it happen, this coming together of a great subject and an ideal biographer?” It was Sylvia’s sensitive handling of the material, told with humor and objectivity, that made her biography so poignant and profound, “the model biography,” according to Gore Vidal. Her skill at delving deep into sources made her books nothing short of a triumph. They are currently being optioned for a motion picture.

The last time I saw Sylvia Morris was in late August 2019, a few short months after Edmund’s death. I am notoriously given to getting lost even when driving around the block, and years before, when I had announced the purchase of my car to Edmund, his reaction was, “You, who does not know east from west?” But in some mystical fashion I felt guided as I meandered my isolated way through miles of empty hills towards his widow’s home in Kent, Connecticut, through countryside reminiscent of England. Every time I paused before a fork in the road, out of nowhere there suddenly appeared a workman in overalls, who, like some guardian angel, pointed me in the proper direction. Miraculously, I pulled up to the winding driveway at exactly the appointed time. We both agreed that Edmund had shepherded my journey.

That day I noticed Sylvia still retained her infectious laugh, which always made Edmund join in appreciatively, with renewed adoration towards his wife.

He took great pride in her stylish elegance, sensitivity and talent, which he lovingly described in his essay, “Lady of Letters,” reproduced in This Living Hand, published in 2013. She was the realist, forever economizing so that their independent lifestyle and dedication to their craft could be comfortably supported. Edmund rejoiced in his wife’s drive to complete her own books (“She’s got a head of steam on her now to rival that of the QEII,” he wrote me), a testament to the fact that they never felt competitive about their respective projects, but instead edited each other’s works. If there was any friction in their marriage, it never seemed to last more than 24 hours. When she became understandably exasperated with his usual flair for misplacing keys, wallets, and Visa cards, in response he constructed a “Doo-doo Meter” with an arrow that could be adjusted to proclaim whether his daily standing with “Her Majesty” was on “Low” or “High.” When shown the contraption, she shook her head: “How can I remain angry with a man like that?” By evening the two of them were having their dinner by candlelight.

To Edmund, she was his essence. Her femininity drew out the protective nature in him, as he ferried her here and there in the Jag (“You were meant to be driven,” he told her), and gladly complied with other tasks. “The Doo-doo Meter is low these days, since I am helping her (unpaid of course), with internet research,” he reported to me. “She haughtily refuses to venture into cyberspace herself.” But that’s another thing that made this couple so refreshing: to use Edmund’s phrase, no “torrential tweeting and texting” for them, though Sylvia did purchase an iPad as a gift for Edmund.

Gifts of flowers and books pleased her most. She loved freesia, English roses, and tulips, and she made sure that white scented flowers filled both the garden and the interior of her home. Whether it be their Capitol Hill townhouse, a Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park, or their final abode in Kent, Connecticut, each interior was a testament to her superb sense of design — a mix of modernism and tradition, with well-placed antiques and flashes of silver. The windows opened to a beautiful vista beyond; within, the muted tones of cream, taupe, and black were arranged with a sense of beauty and style that made the glossy spreads of Architectural Digest look amateur by comparison. And everywhere: books, books, and more books, all of them cherished by Edmund and Sylvia, so that the witticisms of such favorite authors as Samuel Johnson, P. G. Wodehouse, Oscar Wilde, and Evelyn Waugh punctuated even their most casual conversation.

Friends and family rallied around Sylvia these last six months since Edmund’s death; she was palpably fragile in her grief. “It doesn’t get better; it gets worse,” she confided. The finality of loss became exacerbated with each passing month. Evenings were the worst, when the bright sunlight would no longer glint on his favorite tree, and night descended upon those quiet hills that framed each window. Then the vast nothingness would loom ahead as she faced another evening with no husband to happily cook for, to share projects or music with. She told me she roamed the house, asking the universe aloud the one question that nobody could answer: simply, why?

“It’s the distances in this country that are so great,” she said to me in her melodious British voice after my recent visit. “There are so few people in life that one actually feels close to, or even a kinship with, and those are the ones we lamentably see the most seldom.” She and I had planned to get together this coming spring, and I was looking forward to the reunion. During the holidays I impulsively took her books on Clare Boothe Luce from my shelf and began reading them again, admiring anew the skill that went into her telling of the story, only to learn with shock that Sylvia died on January 5 at her sister’s house in Shropshire, England, where she had been staying for Christmas. I do not know the reason for her final illness. Nonetheless, I fully recognize the physical medical truth that hearts do break without their beloved.

Now, I find myself repeating the same observation she made during my recent visit, as we stood gazing over Edmund’s silent Steinway: what a colossal waste that gifted artists should leave this Earth so soon. It all seems too short a period, only an instant, when I had the good fortune to be in their company, as, once more, the loud and the obtuse overtake the remains of the day.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the biographer of Mencken: The American Iconoclast.

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