Antonia Morgan, who with her husband spirited their granddaughter out of the country in defiance of a court order and eventually settled in New Zealand during one of this nation’s most public and bitter custody battles, died April 3 of congestive heart failure at her home in Washington, D.C. She was 91.
The protracted case between Elizabeth Morgan, then a prominent plastic surgeon, best-selling author and magazine columnist, and her ex-husband, Eric Foretich, a promising oral surgeon, became a cause celebre for both feminists and fathers’ rights groups. But for Antonia Morgan, it was a matter of protecting her granddaughter.
On Aug. 5, 1987, a District of Columbia judge jailed Elizabeth Morgan for civil contempt for refusing to allow her daughter to have unsupervised visits with Foretich. She had accused him of sexually abusing the child, which he adamantly denied.
Shortly afterward, Antonia Morgan and her husband, William, both retired psychologists who had divorced and remarried, packed up the 5-year-old and took her on a 15,000-mile journey. For 2 1/2 years, the couple traveled throughout the world with the child, Hilary, from rural Virginia to the Bahamas, Canada, England and Singapore, with the press increasingly pursuing their whereabouts.
They settled in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1988, and lived in a two-bedroom apartment at a residential motel. Hilary enrolled in school, and the Morgans applied for residency and citizenship in New Zealand.
In October 1989, an act of Congress released Elizabeth Morgan from jail after 26 months. She joined her parents and her daughter in New Zealand in 1990. Soon the child’s location was discovered in the glare of international news coverage.
Antonia Morgan moved back to the United States in 1995. Her husband, who had returned before her, died in 1996. Hilary and her mother returned later after a second act of Congress shielded Elizabeth Morgan from having to share custody with Foretich. That act was eventually ruled unconstitutional, but by that time Hilary was an adult and the custody issue was moot.
Antonia Morgan, once described as “an elegant, white-haired woman with an upper-class British accent,” was a citizen of three countries: the United States, Britain and New Zealand. She spoke six languages -- English, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Maori -- and could write essays in Latin or Greek.
A son, W. James Morgan of New York City, said she had remained convinced of the appropriateness of her actions, particularly in light of her professional experience with children.
“Even though she never did anything else illegal in her life,” he said, “she very much felt that she was doing the right thing by leaving the country with Hilary and my father to find her a stable environment.”
Antonia Mary Farquharson Bell was born Oct. 5, 1914, in Twickenham, near London. She survived the 1918 flu pandemic at age 4 and was home-schooled until she was 10.
At Somerville College, Oxford, she graduated with honors in 1937 with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the classics. She completed a master’s degree in education from the University of London in 1938. In London in 1941, she won a national English-Speaking Union scholarship that included a speaking tour of 30 cities in the United States to explain the British war effort.
While on tour in the United States, she met with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and was the guest of Andrew Carnegie’s daughter in New York City. After the Pearl Harbor attack, restrictions on travel left her stranded in Texas, where she taught for a semester at the Hockaday School in Dallas.
She returned to London in 1942 and worked as a teacher. On her way by train to visit her parents, she met William Morgan, an American paratrooper and officer in the Office of Strategic Services. They married in 1944 and settled in Washington in 1946.
In addition to her daughter Elizabeth, of Los Angeles, and son James, survivors include son Robert Morgan of Cabin John, Md., and five grandchildren.