Edmund Morris, Reagan biographer who upset conventions, dies at 78

Edmund Morris, who wrote an acclaimed biography of Theodore Roosevelt but is best known for his life of Ronald Reagan, in which the author inserted himself as a fictional narrator, a device that baffled and angered some historians, died Friday in Danbury, Connecticut. He was 78.

Edmund Morris, Reagan biographer who upset conventions, dies at 78

His death, at a hospital, was confirmed Monday by his wife, author Sylvia Jukes Morris. He lived in Kent, Connecticut.

Morris’ “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award in 1980. He followed that with two other well-received books on the 26th president, “Theodore Rex” (2001) and “Colonel Roosevelt” (2010).

But “Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan” is the work for which he is best known. Published in 1999 to much anticipation (he had been working on it for 14 years), it was told from the viewpoint of a fictional Edmund Morris, who accompanies the future president from his Illinois boyhood to the White House and beyond.

“I quite understand that readers will have to adjust, at first, to what amounts to a new biographical style,” Morris wrote on the website of Random House, his publisher. “But the revelations of this style, which derive directly from Ronald Reagan’s own way of looking at his life, are I think rewarding enough to convince them that one of the most interesting characters in recent American history looms here like a colossus.”

Some critics found Morris’ approach fitting for a president — and former actor — who occasionally confused reality with cinema. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, writing in The New York Times, praised “Dutch” as highly readable, with passages that were “exciting and at times, even inspiring.”

But some historians and commentators were disdainful. Columnist George Will attacked “Dutch” as “dishonorable,” and writer Joan Didion accused Morris of resorting to the fictional device to conceal his own inadequacies as a fact-gatherer.

For his part Morris readily agreed with those who said he did not deserve to be called a historian. In an interview on C-SPAN several years ago, he said he was not particularly interested in politics and government. Rather, he said, he was interested in “character, narrative, the strangeness of reality.”

The furor over “Dutch” may have hurt the book’s sales, which fell off after an initial spurt. Later, in addition to the second and third books on Roosevelt, he wrote biographies of Beethoven (2005) and Thomas Edison (to be published in October).

Arthur Edmund Morris was born in Nairobi, Kenya, on May 27, 1940, to Eric and May Morris, who were South Africans. He studied literature, art and music at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. He moved to Britain in 1964 and worked there as a copywriter in an American advertising agency.

He married Sylvia Jukes, an English teacher at the time, in 1966. They moved to the United States in 1968. In addition to her, Morris is survived by a brother, Eric, and a sister, Judy Davidowitz.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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