From Everest to Conundrum: the indomitable life of journalist, travel writer and transgender pioneer Jan Morris
A trailblazing journalist and travel writer, Jan Morris’s life intersected numerous significant junctures of the 20th Century. In 1953, Jan scaled to fame with the team that successfully conquered Mount Everest.
The rest of the 1950s she travelled the world as a journalist, interviewing key figures such as Che Guevara (“sharp as a cat in Cuba”) or Guy Burgess (“swollen with drink and self-reproach in Moscow”), and reporting from Israel, Algeria, South Africa, Hong Kong and Japan for the BBC. In the decade that followed, she turned her focus to travel writing, authoring books about cities and countries, before undergoing gender reassignment in 1972, chronicling her transition in her seminal 1974 autobiography Conundrum.
Born 2 October 1926 in Somerset, England, Jan married Elizabeth in 1949 and the couple lived together until Jan passed away November 2020 aged 94. At the end of WWII, Jan was posted to the Free Territory of Trieste, eventually serving as an intelligence officer. In 1951, Jan returned to Oxford, receiving a BA, whilst editing the Cherwell magazine.
Writing for The Times after WWII, Jan accompanied Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary's 1953 first (Western) Mount Everest ascent. Worried other newspapers might steal her story (one of the great journalistic scoops of the 20th Century) Jan perilously scrambled down Everest to deliver her coded despatch that made news of success of the expedition appear to be news of failure: "Snow conditions bad stop advanced base abandoned yesterday stop awaiting improvement".
In 1964, Jan began her transition to life as a woman as one of the first high-profile individuals to do so. In 1972, she was forced to travel to Morocco to undergo sex reassignment surgery because British doctors refused to allow the procedure unless Jan and Elizabeth divorced, which they refused to do. However, they later divorced, remaining together until becoming civil partners in 2008. After transitioning, she went on to author more than three dozen books.
A leading reporter and author of her time
In 1956, Jan’s reporting from Cyprus on the Suez Crisis for the Manchester Guardian produced the first “irrefutable proof” of collusion between Britain, France and Israel in the invasion of Egypt. Winning a George Polk Award for journalism in 1960, Jan reported on the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of unrepentant Nazi henchman Adolf Eichmann.
Jan authored numerous books on travel particularly to Manhattan, Venice and Trieste. Jan's Pax Britannica trilogy on the decline of the British Empire and one of the few histories to tackle Britain's brutal colonial past received much praise. Her 1985 novel Last Letters from Hav, an "imagined travelogue and political thriller" was shortlisted for that year's Booker Prize.
A fellow of Christ Church, Oxford and the Royal Society of Literature, Jan received honorary doctorates from the Universities of Wales and Glamorgan. In 1992, Jan was elected to Gorsedd Cymru – a society of Welsh-language artists. In 1996, she received the Glyndŵr Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Arts in Wales. A Welsh nationalist republican at heart, Jan accepted her CBE in 1999 "out of polite respect". In 2005, Jan was awarded the English Golden PEN Award. The Times named her the 15th greatest British writer since the War in 2008. She won the 2018 Edward Stanford Outstanding Contribution to Travel Writing Award.
Jan documented her transition in Conundrum, an international bestseller in 1974 and one of the first autobiographies to discuss a personal gender reassignment. Describing the process that led Jan to a clinic in Casablanca and her adjustment to life as a woman, it generated enormous interest around the world, featuring on The Times' 100 Key Books of Our Time" and the New York Times' "50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years
A pioneering story of transitioning
“It is a powerful and beautifully written document, from which Jan and her lifelong partner Elizabeth emerge as heroines of a sort.”
“It might be of its time but it is also ardent, musical, poetic and full of warm humor — a chronicle of ecstasies. Best remembered as one of the first accounts of gender transition, “Conundrum” is a study of home in all its forms — of finding home in one’s body, of Morris’s native Wales, of all the cities she possesses by dint of loving them so fiercely.”
Jan in Conundrum described “identity” as “a trendy word I have long distrusted, masking as it often does befuddled ideas and lazy thinking. … To me gender is not physical at all, but is altogether insubstantial,” “It was a melody that I heard within myself.”
Drawing comparisons to transgender pioneer Christine Jorgensen's book A Personal Autobiography, Conundrum was, however, also met by hostility: Nora Ephron belittled Conundrum as “a mawkish and embarrassing book. . . . Jan Morris is perfectly awful at being a woman; what she has become instead is exactly what James Morris wanted to become those many years ago. A girl. And worse, a 47-year-old girl.” By contrast, trans campaigner Debbie Hayton affirmed Conundrum had been revelatory: “Wind the clock back 30 years ago and all we had was Jan Morris’s book. It was such a pioneering book that told her story when there were few other stories like these being told.”
Jan epitomizes both intrepid intellect and indomitable spirit. Her creative and prolific writing served a higher cultural and invaluable social purpose.