Morgan, James 1944–
Morgan, James 1944–
PERSONAL: Born January 24, 1944, in Jackson, MS; son of Leger James and Laura Patti Morgan; married Beth Arnold (a writer), October 21, 1989; children: James, David, Matthew; stepchildren: Blair and Bret Graves. Education: University of Mississippi—Oxford, B.A., 1966, M.A., 1968.
CAREER: Hallmark Cards, Kansas City, MO, editor, 1968–72; Kansas City magazine, editor, 1972–73; TWA Ambassador magazine, editor, 1973–78; Playboy, articles editor, 1978–86; Southern magazine, Little Rock, AR, editorial director, 1986–89; writer, 1989–. Painter and traveler.
AWARDS, HONORS: The Distance to the Moon was named a New York Times notable book.
(Compiler) The Beauty of America: Our Heritage and Destiny in Great Words and Photographs, Hallmark (Kansas City, MO), 1971.
(Compiler) Love Is Now: The Moods of Love Today, Hallmark (Kansas City, MO), 1971.
(Compiler) Poems by the Fireside: A Treasury of Family Favorites, Hallmark (Kansas City, MO), 1971.
(With Virginia Kelley) Leading with My Heart: My Life (autobiography), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1994.
If These Walls Had Ears: The Biography of a House (biography), Warner Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Hot Springs (screenplay), Paramount Pictures, 1999.
The Distance to the Moon: A Road Trip into the American Dream, Riverhead Books (New York, NY), 1999.
(With James Lee Witt) Stronger in the Broken Places: Nine Lessons for Turning Crisis into Triumph, Times Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Chasing Matisse: A Year in France Living My Dream (autobiography), Free Press (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor of articles and essays to periodicals, including the New Yorker, Atlantic, Men's Journal, Preservation, GQ, and Washington Post Magazine.
SIDELIGHTS: James Morgan produced two very different types of biography during the 1990s. In Leading with My Heart: My Life, published in 1994, he provides the as-told-to editorial ear for the life of Virginia Kelley, mother of President Bill Clinton. Two years later in If These Walls Had Ears: The Biography of a House, he details the life story of his own home in Arkansas.
For Leading with My Heart, Morgan compiled a volume that would prove to be a posthumous biography: Kelley died shortly before her story was published. This colorful Arkansas character, who "loved to dance, to drink, to smoke, to play the horses," as Joyce Carol Oates put it in the New York Times Book Review, had a checkered and sometimes tragic life punctuated by the early death of her first husband (Bill Clinton's biological father), her impulsive and stormy second marriage to the hard-drinking Roger Clinton, her dealing with her younger son Roger's cocaine conviction, and her discovery and acceptance of incurable cancer. Still, Kelley demon-strated an indomitable spirit, one she believed she passed to her son, the president. In the pages of Leading with My Heart, Kelley "comes across as outspoken, spunky, impulsive and tough," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Oates called the book "a celebration of the life of feeling. It is not self-reflective, except in the most modest terms."
Morgan took on an unusual subject in his 1996 book If These Walls Had Ears. "All houses are fantasy, constructed as much of desire and dreams as wood and brick," Morgan wrote in the book, which he began after moving his family into a historic bungalow in Little Rock, Arkansas. He learned that eight previous families had lived in the home since 1890, and he set out to find more information on the house's past. Using interviews, photos, and even old diary entries, Morgan effectively wrote the story of 501 Holly, Little Rock. His book opens the door on the everyday lives of its owners. "Young people have courted on the porch," noted Christian Science Monitor reviewer Marilyn Gardner, who continued: "One desperate father painted upstairs windows shut to keep his daughter from sneaking out at night. A wedding was performed in the house, and men in dresses once roller-skated through the living room." Beyond the story of a brick-and-mortar structure, added Gardner, These Walls is "part social and cultural history, part autobiography," offering "a reflection, a meditation, on the idea of home."
In 1999 Morgan published The Distance to the Moon: A Road Trip into the American Dream. The title refers to John Updike's calculation that every seventeen years the average American man drives the equivalent distance from the Earth to the moon. "If These Walls Had Ears was about the search for home," Morgan once told CA. "The Distance to the Moon was about the need to escape from it." Seeking his own highway adventure, Morgan convinced Porsche Cars North America to loan him a prototype Boxster roadster; behind that car's wheel, Morgan chronicled his trip from Miami to California.
"Cross-country journeys have always been curiously powerful inducements to pontification," noted critic Bruce McCall in the New York Times Book Review. "Though he's following in the well-worn tracks of peripatetic truth-seekers from Jack Kerouac to John Steinbeck to William Least Heat-Moon, Morgan altogether avoids the I Travel, Ergo I Am Wise syndrome." Indeed, McCall continued, The Distance to the Moon "contains no 'real' backcountry America, no farmer/trucker/waitress wisdom; his focus throughout remains fixed on the car and our intimate interactions with it." Perhaps too much emphasis on the car, suggested a Publishers Weekly contributor; this reviewer noted that "example after example of people on the road … giving Morgan the thumbs-up sign," makes the book seem like "a long advertisement for the Porsche company." On the other hand, while acknowledging that the story "is not without its irritations," McCall argued that "the human case for the automobile has never been more persuasively presented than Morgan presents it."
Morgan collaborated with James Witt, who served as the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) from 1993 to 2001, to produce Stronger in the Broken Places: Nine Lessons for Turning Crisis into Triumph. FEMA was originally created to deal with nuclear disaster but was later expanded to provide aid to all sorts of disaster victims. FEMA suffered a crisis of excess bureaucracy and inefficiency before Witt took over, but under his leadership it functioned as a vital organization. Stronger in the Broken Places relates stories of heroism drawn from natural disasters, such as Hurricane Andrew, to terrorist attacks, such as the Oklahoma City bombing. The authors offer insight on how to prepare for disasters and emphasize that preparedness is the key. According to Cheryl Runyon, a reviewer for State Legislatures, Stronger in the Broken Places contains lessons that "are appropriate for handling any major event."
In The Distance to the Moon, Morgan made a dream road trip across the United States. He took that idea a step further in Chasing Matisse: A Year in France Living My Dream. The book is an account of his travels with his wife as they follow the trail of French painter Henri Matisse, who journeyed from Paris to Corsica, Morocco, the Riviera, and other locales during the late 1880s. Morgan also did some sketching and painting on his sojourn and includes his art in the book, which was described as "part travelogue, part biography and part memoir" by a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. That writer found the book overly self-referential but praised the author's ability to use secondary source material about Matisse to "enliven and enrich" his personal narrative. Assessing Chasing Matisse in Booklist, Steve Paul commented that the account is "imbued with good humor and intelligence."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Morgan, James, If These Walls Had Ears: The Biography of a House, Warner Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Morgan, James, Chasing Matisse: A Year in France Living My Dream, Free Press (New York, NY), 2005.
Booklist, August, 1996, Alice Joyce, review of If These Walls Had Ears: The Biography of a House, p. 1878; November 1, 2002, David Siegfried, review of Stronger in the Broken Places: Nine Lessons for Turning Crisis into Triumph, p. 463; March 15, 2005, Steve Paul, review of Chasing Matisse: A Year in France Living My Dream, p. 1256.
Christian Science Monitor, October 2, 1996, Marilyn Gardner, review of If These Walls Had Ears, p. 15.
Entertainment Weekly, May 13, 1994, D.A. Ball, review of Leading with My Heart: My Life, p. 54.
Library Journal, July, 1996, Edward B. Cone, review of If These Walls Had Ears, p. 127; May 15, 1999, John J. McCormick, review of The Distance to the Moon: A Road Trip into the American Dream, p. 114; March 15, 2005, Matthew Loving, review of Chasing Matisse, p. 103.
New York Times Book Review, May 8, 1994, Joyce Carol Oates, review of Leading with My Heart, p. 1; July 18, 1999, Bruce McCall, review of The Distance to the Moon, p. 6.
Publishers Weekly, June 10, 1996, review of If These Walls Had Ears, p. 80; May 17, 1999, review of The Distance to the Moon, p. 69: February 21, 2005, review of Chasing Matisse, p. 166.
State Legislatures, February, 2003, Cheryl Runyon, review of Stronger in the Broken Places, p. 4.
Chasing Matisse Web site, http://www.chasingmatisse.com/ (April 19, 2006), biographical information on James Morgan.