The Extraordinary Life of Jan Morris, Travel Writer and Pioneering Trans Person
In her masterful 2002 book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Jan Morris writes of how the northern Italian city always evoked in her a vague but powerful yearning. “My acquaintance with the city spans the whole of my adult life, but like my life it still gives me a waiting feeling, as if something big but unspecified is always about to happen,” she writes.
A twilight book, published the year Morris turned 75, it is about the port city of the former Habsburg Empire and how the city’s essence lies in its long and layered history as a generally felicitous meeting of cultures and peoples, languages and empires. But it is also a book about returning to places we knew in the past, and how travel lets us take the measure of ourselves as well as of our destinations. “The allure of lost consequence and faded power is seducing me, the passing of time, the passing of friends, the scrapping of great ships!” she writes of the city. “It is as though I have been taken, for a brief sententious glimpse, out of time to nowhere.”
That description is pure Morris. So is the exclamation mark. There’s nothing mournful or lugubrious here, but exuberance, vivacity, a piercing clarity of vision that characterizes all of Morris’ work. I also can’t help but read Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere as somewhat autobiographical—an account of a city that, like Morris herself, is a palimpsest of lives, that contains multitudes and layers and does so with dignity, clarity and self-awareness.
Morris died in late November at age 94 after an extraordinary life. Born James Morris, she (then he) sang in the boys’ choir at Christ Church, Oxford, served in the British Army, scaled two-thirds of Mount Everest to report on Sir Edmund Hillary’s triumphant ascent to the summit in 1953, became a foreign correspondent who broke news of French involvement in the Suez crisis in 1956, wrote dozens of brilliant works of history and travel reportage—and then, after years of hormone therapy, underwent a change of sex in Casablanca in 1972, emerging as Jan.
Her 1974 autobiography, Conundrum, begins: “I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl.” The book is notable for its matter-of-fact lucidity. “I never did think that my own conundrum was a matter either of science or of social convention,” Morris wrote in a 2001 introduction to the book’s reissue. “What was important was the liberty of us all to live as we wished to live, to love however we wanted to love, and to know ourselves, however peculiar, disconcerting or unclassifiable, at one with the gods and angels.”
That same spirit of self-knowledge informs the works in which Morris captured the spirit of a place with a few seemingly effortless brush strokes. Deeply learned, Morris was more a student of history than a teacher—always an enthusiast, never a pedant. I particularly love the dispatches she wrote for Rolling Stone between 1974 and 1979—socio-anthropological portraits of cities. (They were collected in a 1980 volume, Destinations.)
On Johannesburg in 1976, after the start of the township riots that would years later help bring down the Apartheid regime: “There it stands ringed by its yellow mine dumps, like stacks of its own excreta, the richest city in Africa but altogether without responsibility.” And Istanbul in 1978: “There can never be a fresh start in Istanbul. It is all too late. Its successive pasts are ineradicable and inescapable.”
Morris was fascinated by what makes cities work—their geographies, the source of their wealth. “London is hard as nails, and it is opportunism that has carried this city of moneymakers so brilliantly through revolution and holocaust, blitz and slump, in and out of empire, and through countless such periods of uncertainty as seem to blunt its assurance now,” she wrote in 1978. In 1976 she visited Los Angeles, stayed in the Chateau Marmont, and examined the city’s celebrity industry. Of New York in 1979, Morris observed: “Analysis, I sometimes think, is the principal occupation of Manhattan—analysis of trends, analysis of options, analysis of style, analysis of statistics, analysis above all of self.”
Although Morris is more often generous of spirit, her dispatch from Washington, D.C. in 1976 is cutting. “Nowhere in the world, I think, do people take themselves more seriously than they do in Washington, or seem so indifferent to other perceptions than their own,” she wrote. In her visits to all three American metropolises, she was struck by their peculiar combination of global power and extreme provincialism.
In this era of Instagram stories and this pandemic season of armchair travels, I have found great pleasure in reading Morris’ dispatches. They offer rich, complex pictures, not individual pixels. But it’s still her Trieste book that hits me deepest. It is a vision of a city fully aware of itself and its historical obsolescence, yet that nevertheless endures. “To my mind this is an existentialist sort of place,” she writes. “Its purpose is to be itself.” So was Morris’. Her work lives on.