Sylvia Jukes Morris, Biographer of Clare Boothe Luce, Dies at 84


When Sylvia Jukes Morris was writing her monumental two-volume biography of Clare Booth Luce, she discovered several facts at variance with what Ms. Luce had put forth in the public record.

“I tracked down her New York birth certificate and found that she was born in March, not April, 1903, and that her place of birth was not Riverside Drive but the less genteel environs of West 125th Street,” Ms. Morris wrote in the epilogue of the second volume, “Price of Fame: The Honorable Clare Boothe Luce” (2014).

“As for her father being an aspiring violinist when he met her mother, I told her he had been a patent medicine salesman, and her grandfather had not been a Bavarian Catholic, but a Lutheran,” Ms. Morris wrote.

Ms. Luce’s response, she wrote, “was that I was ‘one hell of a detective.’”

That might serve as an appropriate epitaph for Ms. Morris, who died on Jan. 5 in Shropshire, England, at 84. When she delved into a project, she left no stone unturned: She spent 33 years on the Luce biography, examining 460,000 items at the Library of Congress that stretched 319 linear feet.

Ms. Morris was a prodigious researcher from an early age. While in high school in Dudley, England, in the late 1940s and ‘50s, she investigated the deaths, in the mid-1800s, of thousands of children from unsanitary sewer conditions in the region.

Her first book was a biography of the first lady Edith Roosevelt. While her husband, the renowned biographer Edmund Morris — who died in May — was writing “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” (1979), which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, he told her that little was known about Roosevelt’s second wife. Ms. Morris felt the gauntlet had been thrown down, and she embarked on what became “Edith Kermit Roosevelt: Portrait of a First Lady” (1980), which relied heavily on unpublished letters and diaries.

“Details galore,” Kirkus noted in its review. “Edith Kermit Roosevelt is very much worth reading about, even at the undue length (512 pp.) that Sylvia Morris has gone to.”

But the Edith Roosevelt book was merely a prelude to Ms. Morris’s greatest achievement, her examination of the extraordinary life of Ms. Luce, a brainy, ambitious and seductive woman who overcame a difficult childhood to become managing editor of Vanity Fair, a playwright (“The Women,” 1936), a war correspondent for Life magazine, a congresswoman, an ambassador to Rome and the wife of Henry Luce, who founded Time Inc. Combined, the two volumes — the first was “Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Boothe Luce” (1997) — clocked in at 1,296 pages.

“Both books are models of the biographer’s art — meticulously researched, sophisticated, fair-minded and compulsively readable,” The Wall Street Journal wrote in a typically laudatory review. An exception was one in The New York Times, whose reviewer, Judith Martin, found the books’ tone “censorious,” and said that Ms. Morris had put a negative spin on anecdotes that could have been benign.

But most agreed with Gore Vidal, who wrote in The New Yorker that it was the sort of biography “that only real writers can write.”

A limited television series based on Ms. Morris’s work about Ms. Luce, who died in 1987, is under discussion, Bob Bookman, Ms. Morris’s former media rights agent, said in an interview.

Ms. Morris and her husband became biographers almost by accident. After emigrating to New York in 1968, they found work researching and writing travelogue cassettes for Trans World Airlines. At one point, Mr. Morris’s agent told him that he knew of a publisher “who wants a short, popular biography” of Roosevelt.

“That’s how we drifted into our line of work,” Ms. Morris told “CBS This Morning” in October.

Mr. Morris’s “short” Roosevelt book became a 2,500-page trilogy. It was widely acclaimed, but he became better known for his biography of Ronald Reagan, “Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan” (1999), in which, to the horror of many reviewers, he inserted himself as a fictional narrator. His biography of Thomas Edison, “Edison,” was published last year only months after Mr. Morris’s death, from a stroke.

Friends often called their marriage a perfect union of like-minded literary souls. Writing in The American Spectator, Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, a former researcher for both of them, said of their marriage, “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.”

Both Morrises wrote in longhand, sitting back to back in their office, though in later years they had separate offices. They hosted lively salons and dinners at their Washington home on Capitol Hill and their New York apartment on Central Park South. They later moved to Kent, Conn.

“They were the Nick and Nora of biographers,” Christopher Buckley, the writer and longtime family friend, said in a phone interview.

“One never thought of one without thinking of the other,” he said. “They both had Rolls-Royce minds and total recall. Their stories at the dinner table came out perfectly paragraphed. There was a gaiety to them that was beguiling.”

Sylvia Jukes was born on May 24, 1935, in Dudley, near Birmingham, England, to James Henry and Beatrice (Pearson) Jukes. Her father ran an arms factory, and her mother was a homemaker.

When Sylvia was 9, her mother died of liver disease. Sylvia’s sister, Pauline Pennington, said in an interview that losing their mother had a profound effect on Sylvia, making her an especially private and self-reliant little girl. “If you don’t have a mother to tell things to, you resolve things yourself, you learn to rely on your own capabilities,” Ms. Pennington said. “You grow up to be very, very independent.”

Sylvia won a scholarship to Dudley Girl’s High School, where the historian A.J.P. Taylor read the report she had written on unsanitary conditions in the 19th century and pronounced it brilliant.

“She was always terribly intellectual,” her sister said. But she also played competitive tennis. “She was a very clever tennis player — she beat people with her mind.”

Sylvia enrolled at the University of London, where she studied English and history before dropping out.

At the time, she was living in an apartment in a townhouse where Mr. Morris, a classically trained pianist, was allowed to practice on the grand piano in exchange for doing odd jobs. They met one day while he was scrubbing floors. A few days later, she made him an omelet. They married in 1966.

After her husband died, Ms. Morris was “palpably fragile in her grief,” Ms. Rodgers wrote. Life without him at their home in Connecticut, Ms. Morris told her, “doesn’t get better; it gets worse.”

Ms. Pennington said that her sister had told virtually no one, including her, that she had colon cancer. Ms. Morris went to visit Ms. Pennington at Christmas in Shropshire and died at her sister’s home.

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