The Morrises

One writer likes to listen to stories of another, but when they’re coming from Pullitzer Prize and American Book Award winner Edmund Morris, ears upshift to a different plane.

A great storyteller, like the presidents he’s written about.  (Thornwillow Press photo)

Morris gave a book talk last Friday night in New York for members of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, something my daughter and I had looked forward to attending for several months.  The author spoke about his new collector’s volume, Nine Lives of Theodore Roosevelt, exquisitely produced by Thornwillow Press.  Who but Edmund Morris to choose nine categories profiled by Theodore’s writings?  Who but the creator of the trilogy The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt, which total 2,500 pages?  Morris oughta know the essence of the twenty-sixth president: He spent thirty years of his life studying the sixty of TR’s.

In person, as in print, he didn’t disappoint us — my favorite story was of Margaret Thatcher quoting TR’s “Man in the Arena” impromptu at a party for the Reagans.  Morris described the speech as “catnip for other orators,” a metaphor which put me in mind of the times our old housecat escaped to a patch of the stuff out by the barn.  Catnip for orators!  I love his words, even the ones that keep me from speed reading his books because I have to look them up.

This Living Hand and Other Essays (Random House, 2013), is a chronological collection of Morris’s work from 1972 to 2003.  Most of them have been published elsewhere, a few haven’t, and some are talks he’s given.  He chose images for the beginning of each piece which represent his thoughts as he was composing.  You need to read this.  He was pleased to hear that I had, when I got to speak with him after the presentation.



Random House photo

One of the essays in Living Hand is “Lady of Letters,” a tribute to his wife, Sylvia Jukes Morris.  She was also at the Friday event and also a joy to speak with.  Sylvia, whose Edith Roosevelt biography is a classic, just published Price of Fame (Random House, 2014), the second half of the life of Clare Booth Luce.  I told her I had started it but that it was taking me some time to absorb.  She said, “Yes, she had so much depth, and so many layers, didn’t she?”


Sylvia Jukes Morris ( photo)

Mr. and Mrs. Morris’s depth in literature, wit and audience appeal is hard to match.  They are distinguished and down-to-earth.  I could listen to them every Friday night, but I guess I’ll have to be satisfied with reading their books.  That will not be hard.

1861 Day

Today was 1861 Day at my favorite school, Lincoln Elementary.  It’s a yearly chance to go back to the “old days and old ways” of the Civil War, and study how Abraham Lincoln showed leadership and compassion toward others.

In previous years I had appeared as Elizabeth Grimsley, cousin of Mary Lincoln; and Mary Custis Lee, wife of Robert E.  This time I concentrated on Margaret Barnhill Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s paternal grandmother.  Rather than strictly impersonating her, I tried to tell the story through her eyes and experience.  She was a Pennsylvanian, a Quaker, married into a Dutch family.  Her husband was an importer of plate glass in New York City, and her sons worked in the business too.  They were all grown by 1861, with families of their own.  I taught the children the nursery song in Dutch that she’d sung them: “Trippe Trippe Tronjes, Kippen en da Bootjes.”  We sang it together, and then the English translation: “Peep, peep, peep, chickens in the beans.”  I had to wing it on the melody, though.


In the 1600s the Dutch, they learned, bought Manhattan Island from the Lenapi people for sixty guilders.  What was a guilder?  I showed them some silver cardboard replicas I’d printed from the Internet.  The Dutch called their settlement “New Amsterdam.”  About forty years later, the English renamed it “New York.”

Then I served them little pieces of pound cake, which Grandmother would always have ready in her cupboard for guests.  She sat next to the fireplace in their large home on Broadway Street, smiling, so I did that too.  I had some of the children help me wind the ball of yarn from my workbasket.  I brought in roses the gardener had cut from our large backyard garden, and told how the yellow ones were my son Theodore’s favorite.  I talked about him, and his brothers, and how we had told them that with wealth comes responsibility to others.  The children listened intently as I described the thousands of poor immigrants in the city, and the Newsboys’ Lodging House and Children’s Orthopedic Hospital which helped make their lives better.


Oh!  They didn’t think it was right for the Bulloch family in Georgia to own slaves, even though they treated them well.  They thought it was OK for the New York Roosevelts to employ servants, though, as long as they paid them and they could find another job if they wanted.  Then they thought about the dilemma my son Thee was having.  Should he do his duty and fight with the Union?  Some said no, and some said yes, even though his wife’s brothers were fighting on the other side and might meet him in battle.

We talked about the marvels of the 1860s, the telegraph and the steam locomotive.  I showed them photographs of my family from a studio, which wouldn’t have been around thirty years before.  I had pictures of one of my grandchildren, Teedie, an ornery boy who suffered with asthma.  We were worried about his health.  “I hope he turns out well.  He’s always getting into mischief.”

Students in Grades K-5 also went to sessions about cooking, spinning, farming, and soldier life, in indoor and outdoor areas of the school.  It came to a close with a “base ball” game played by the rules of 1860.  Many thanks to my friends who organized the event, and gave young citizens a chance to experience a bit of their country’s history.