Edmund Morris dies; controversial Ronald Reagan biographer was 78

Edmund Morris, author of “Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan,” poses at Random House in New York in 1999.
(Marty Lederhandler / AP)

Presidential biographer Edmund Morris, who spent years defending his memoir on the life of Ronald Reagan, has died. He was 78.

Morris died Friday in a hospital in Danbury, Conn., a day after suffering a stroke, his wife, Sylvia Jukes Morris, said Monday.

“We at Random House mourn this loss with all who knew him and loved him, and with those who read his remarkable books. Our deepest sympathies are with his beloved wife Sylvia,” read a statement from Andy Ward, Morris’ editor.

Morris was a polished prose stylist whose career took off with the success of his first book, “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980. But what cemented his legacy was “Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan.”


Aides to Reagan, who took office in 1981, thought Morris an ideal candidate for a book on him. Morris received a seven-figure contract from Random House and access most historians would only dream of: ongoing time with a sitting president, from meetings to private interviews, including with Reagan’s family.

“He had the guts to let somebody come in from outside, stare at him, read his mail, go off and talk to his children,” Morris said in 1991. “Whatever you say about Ron Reagan, he has guts.”

But as Morris began work on the book, he realized that Reagan himself was a puzzle — an amiable man unknowable even to those closest to him.

“I went through a period of a year or so of depression because I felt that with all my research, how come I can’t understand the first thing about him?” Morris said of Reagan.

His solution would enrage critics, historians and Reagan associates: Morris inserted himself as a fictional narrator in the story, guiding readers through Reagan’s childhood in Illinois and his rise to the presidency.

Published in 1999, a decade after Reagan left the White House, the book was widely denounced as a grotesque abuse of historiography, blending fact and fiction. Some observers, though, noted that Reagan himself was known for fabricating parts of his past.

Morris also infuriated Reagan supporters by alleging that Reagan was so emotionally distant that even First Lady Nancy Reagan had little access to his inner thoughts.

The book concluded that for all of Reagan’s charisma on the public stage, he was ordinary and shallow in private.

During a book signing tour, Morris made an appearance at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, where he received a frosty reception. Nancy Reagan declined to attend the event.

The memoir, a Los Angeles Times book review concluded, was hasty and haphazard, paying more attention to some of the fictional characters in the book than real-life details.

Morris would long defend his book, saying over the years that readers often told him “Dutch” came closer to telling Reagan’s story than the various conventional biographies.

Morris was born in 1940 in Nairobi, Kenya, the son of South African parents. He was educated in Kenya and attended college in South Africa, according to his brief bio on the Penguin Random House website. He moved to Britain in 1964 and found work as a copywriter in London.

After the success of his Roosevelt biography, he wrote two additional volumes on the 26th president, “Theodore Rex” in 2001 and “Colonel Roosevelt” in 2010. A New York Times critic wrote that Morris’ trilogy “deserves to stand as the definitive study of its restless, mutable, ever-boyish, erudite and tirelessly energetic subject.”

Morris’ upcoming book, “Edison,” is being published by Random House on Oct. 22.

A Times staff writer contributed to this report.