Sylvia Jukes Morris: “As a Biographer, She Was One Hell of a Detective”

From a New York Times obit, by Katharine Q. Seelye, of author Sylvia Jukes Morris:

When Sylvia Jukes Morris was writing her monumental two-volume biography of Clare Boothe 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. . . .

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.”. . .

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