Remembering Jan Morris, 1926–2020
Editor’s note: Jan Morris, the famed Welsh-English writer, passed away on November 20 at the age of 94. Jan was a cherished friend of mine, and of GeoEx. In 2013, she made a special trip to New York to be interviewed onstage for an event sponsored by GeoEx as a benefit for the American Himalayan Foundation. That year was the 50th anniversary of the first successful summit of Mount Everest by the Ninth British Mount Everest expedition. Jan had been the Times journalist assigned to that team, and her daring dispatch announcing the triumphant ascent had been published the morning of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In the spring of 2013, Jan had an extraordinarily busy schedule of commemorations, yet she carved out three days so that she could grace our event with her presence.
Jan was the consummate traveler, and travel writer, and she had a singular effect on my life. I wrote the following tribute the day after she passed away. We present it here in honor of a treasured kindred spirit, who venerated and celebrated the riches of travel as eloquently and poignantly as any writer of our time—and who inspired us all to lead deeper, kinder lives.
Jan Morris, the wonderful Welsh-English travel writer, historian, essayist, humanitarian, and sexual identity pioneer, passed away yesterday at the age of 94. The news was announced by her son Twm.
Jan was one of the greatest travel writers, perhaps the greatest travel writer, of her time. Her writing was encyclopedic in its scope and depth, poetic in its attention to telling detail, enormously open-minded and open-hearted, charged with wit and whimsy, transporting in its mellifluousness, and woven with penetrating intellect and discernment. Most of all, it was infused with her signature sparkling kindness.
Part of me wants to write much more about the extraordinary quality of her work. But my heart wants to simply celebrate my friendship with her, and the role she played in my life. And in this case, as she would surely approve, the heart has won.
Jan was a model and inspiration for me as a writer, traveler, and human being. She was also a great friend. The following notes are very personal, written-in-the-wee-hours thoughts about what Jan meant to me.
If we are supremely lucky in life, we meet someone who becomes a mentor, friend, inspiration, and something more, a kind of magic-maker, whose presence causes extraordinary things to happen in our own life.
Jan was such a person for me. The first time I met her was in the early 1980s, when, as a just-starting-out editor at the San Francisco Examiner Sunday magazine, I was given the chance to put together a special edition devoted to travel writing. This was a dream assignment, and I ambitiously compiled my dream list of writers I hoped would contribute stories. At the top of that list was Jan Morris.
I somehow managed to get the phone number for her home in Wales. Gathering up my courage, I called her from my cubicle at the newspaper. She answered immediately, and I breathlessly launched into the speech I’d prepared about how I was a huge fan of her writing and was hoping she would contribute an article to the special travel magazine I was editing.
When I paused, she said, “I’m very pleased to meet you, but I have to tell you that you’ve caught me in the bath.”
“Oh, my goodness,” I said. “I’m so sorry. I’ll call you back later.”
“Oh no, that won’t be necessary,” she said. “We can keep on talking. I’m quite comfortable here.”
That was the unforgettable beginning of a profoundly life-enriching friendship.
Jan very kindly agreed to write a story for my magazine. A month later, a manila envelope arrived with my name written on the front and her name in the return address in the corner. I remember holding the envelope in my hands as a kind of sacred object, marveling that the great Jan Morris had addressed an envelope to me, had written my name with her own hand!
Then I took out her typed manuscript. My hands literally trembled as I read her piece. Like all of her writing, it was eloquent, intelligent, full of empathy and kindness, wise and moving. As I read it, I occasionally paused and thought, “Jan Morris wrote this for me!” When I finished it, I reread it again. I couldn’t quite believe that my conversation with Jan had somehow conjured this extraordinary story into the world. That was the first moment when I really felt that I could be an editor. Her story was like a stamp of approval from the universe, and I trace the true beginning of my editing career to that day.
A few years later, I became the Examiner’s travel editor, and shortly thereafter, I was able to meet Jan in person when she came to San Francisco on a book tour. We had lunch and I was enchanted by her, her zest for life, her seemingly effortless eloquence, her consideration for others, her world-expanding store of adventures and anecdotes, her humility, her attentiveness. We began to correspond regularly, and she began to send me dispatches from her worldly wanderings, gifts that fired my aspiration to make the Examiner Travel Section something of lasting literary value.
Sometime after that, Elaine Petrocelli, the visionary owner of the Bay Area’s Book Passage bookstore, approached me with the idea of creating a multi-day travel writers conference. After I said I’d love to help organize such a conference, she asked me, “Who should we get to be our guest of honor?”
There was no question in my mind. “Jan Morris!” I said.
“Oh!” Elaine said, “If you can get Jan Morris to come, that will guarantee the success of the conference!”
I called Jan again—happily not catching her in the bath this time—and despite her extremely busy schedule, she said she’d be honored to attend. That summer she presided over our gathering with elegance, eloquence, and grace.
Thirty years later, the Book Passage conference is still going strong. It has become one of the most cherished parts of my life, and again, I attribute its creation and success to her presence that first year. She instantly conferred credibility on our fledgling dream. Through the years, she returned as guest of honor many times, and even when she wasn’t there, her presence was always in the air.
Thinking of Jan now, countless happy memories swirl in my mind. I recall long, delightful dinners with Jan and my wife, Kuniko, in San Francisco; illuminating conversations onstage and off at Book Passage and elsewhere; long, leisurely, laughter-rich lunches. One of my most cherished memories is the trip I made to visit her at her home in Wales in 2013. We had lunch at the Pen-Y-Gwryd Pub, the atmospheric place that was used as the base camp when she trained with Sir Edmund Hillary and the other members of the 1953 Mount Everest expedition team. After a tour of the lush and picturesque countryside, we had tea at her book-lined cottage, and then dinner with Twm and Jan’s gracious life-partner, Elizabeth, at nearby Portmeirion. Jan exulted in showing me the minute riches of her home in Wales just as she exulted in showing readers the riches, large and small, of our earthly home.
Earlier that year I had the pleasure and honor of interviewing Jan at the New York Times Center, in an event sponsored by Geographic Expeditions as a fundraiser for the American Himalayan Foundation. Happily, a recording of that conversation is still available on YouTube, and I watched it again today in celebration. If you never had the good fortune to meet Jan, watching this will give you some sense of the extraordinary stories she lived, and the intellect, humor, humility, and brilliance she brought to telling those stories. And if you were lucky enough to meet Jan, I hope that watching this will kindle your own warm memories.
Tears filled my eyes as I watched that interview, and they fill my eyes now as I think of her. How can you possibly summarize the meaning of someone who has played such a crucial role in your life? I learned more from her than I can possibly put into words, about writing, about traveling, about how to tread lightly but deeply through life, and how to do your best to make the world a better place.
If Jan read these words, she’d laugh and say, “Oh, Don, that’s all a bit much, isn’t it?”
But the truth is: It isn’t enough. There’s no way to convey how wonderful she was and how much her presence meant to me.
On November 17, three days before Jan passed away, a friend of mine in Singapore wrote to me in an email that she had fallen in love with the Welsh word hiraeth. It’s a wonderful word that essentially means “longing for a home that can never be revisited, and that perhaps never even was,” and Jan and I had often talked about it. When I read my friend’s email, I immediately sent an email to Jan.
This is what I wrote. (Before you read this, I should add that one more thing Jan and I shared was a passionate devotion to the exclamation mark.)
Hello from America!!!!!
A friend of mine in Singapore just sent me an email in which she mentioned that she had recently fallen in love with the word hiraeth, and you suddenly blazed into my mind, and I had to write to you to say hello!!!!!
Hello!!! How are you?
I hope you are wonderfully well!
I so wish I could grow wings and fly to Wales right now and have tea with you!
I just wanted to write to say how very, very much your friendship has meant to me ever since we first met all those years ago when I was a young editor at the San Francisco Examiner.
You have been an inspiration and a model in so many ways, your delightful life-spirit, your all-transporting prose, your embrace and worship of kindness, your encyclopedic knowledge and inexhaustible intelligence, your—well, everything!
Your friendship!!!!! I have been blessed and enriched beyond measure by your presence in my life. Thank you!!!!!
That’s all I wanted to say!
With much, much love!!!!!
Now, I shake my head and think: That was no coincidence: Her energy is always within and around me, but it was especially potent that day.
I like to think that Jan read my email and had it in her mind and heart when she passed away. And if that didn’t happen, I like to think that she is reading it right now, today.
Thank you, dear Jan, for all the gifts you brought me, and all the truths you taught me. Thank you for inspiring us to journey through life with open hearts and minds, to appreciate the treasures we encounter, great and small, and to seed and nurture kindness in all.
I think of you in your beloved home in Wales, and can’t quite comprehend that you’re no longer there—but the more I think of your effect on me, and so many others like me, I know: You’re still at home in Wales, and now you’re home in everywhere.
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If you have a memory of Jan Morris, or a favorite passage of hers that you’d like to share, we’d love to hear it! Please share it in the comments section below. Thank you!