Writer and transgender pioneer Jan Morris dies at 94

British travel writer Jan Morris was the recipient of many awards. As a journalist, she broke the 1953 news of Edmund Hillary's conquest of Everest.
British travel writer Jan Morris was the recipient of many awards. As a journalist, she broke the 1953 news of Edmund Hillary's conquest of Everest.PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONDON • British travel writer and transgender pioneer Jan Morris, who as a journalist broke the 1953 news of Edmund Hillary's conquest of Everest, has died at the age of 94.

"This morning at 11.40 at Ysbyty Bryn Beryl, on the Llyn, the author and traveller Jan Morris began her greatest journey. She leaves behind on the shore her life-long partner, Elizabeth," her son Twm Morys said in a statement on Friday.

Morris, who first published under the name James, switched to Jan after undergoing gender reassignment surgery in 1972 and was the author of more than three dozen books.

She ranked highly among travel writers, with Publishers Weekly once calling her "one of the most admired and imitated travel writers alive".

Her books include Manhattan '45, about New York in 1945; Venice; the Pax Britannica trilogy, about the decline of the British Empire; and Conundrum, about her transition.

Teacher and trans campaigner Debbie Hayton said Morris' 1974 memoir had been revelatory, coming at a time when the only mention of trans people in the media was salacious headlines.

"Wind the clock back 30 years ago and all we had was Jan Morris' book," Ms Hayton told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "It was such a pioneering book that told her story when there were few other stories like these being told."

A book of essays, Allegorizings, musings on ageing and the complexity of life, will be published posthumously.

In a BBC Artsnight interview with writer and broadcaster Michael Palin, himself a renowned traveller, Morris said her life had been "one self-centred exercise in self-satisfaction".

"I've enjoyed this life very much and I admire it," she said. "I think it's been a very good and interesting life and I've made a whole of it quite deliberately."

Born in Somerset, England, in 1926, Morris and her partner, Elizabeth, had five children - including their son Twm Morys, a Welsh poet and musician.

The couple remained together since their 1949 marriage and lived in North Wales.

In a 2008 interview with Reuters, Morris said she had been "personally concerned with my own death for ages".

"About 30 years ago, I had our gravestone cut," she said.

"It's under the stairs at home; it has been there ever since. It's got my own epitaph, which is 'Here are two friends - Jan and Elizabeth Morris - at the end of one life'."

Morris told Reuters that she was "proud of her books", saying her favourite was Trieste And The Meaning Of Nowhere, which detailed her love affair with the Italian city she first visited as a soldier at the close of World War II.

She spent much of her life in Wales, writing initially for British newspapers before embarking on a career as a travel writer. In 2018, the Financial Times called Morris "perhaps the best-travelled Briton alive".

The recipient of many awards over her long career, she was awarded a CBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours list in 1999.

Tributes about her flooded social media on Friday.

Best-selling author Kate Mosse tweeted that Morris had been "an extraordinary woman".

Mr Paul Jenkins, chief executive of The Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, Britain's leading gender identity clinic, tweeted: "Her beautiful writing touched so many of my worlds. A very special and lovely human being."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 22, 2020, with the headline 'Writer and transgender pioneer Jan Morris dies at 94'. Print Edition | Subscribe