Ted Morgan, acclaimed author with a vivid past, dies at 91

Ted Morgan, acclaimed author with a vivid past, dies at 91

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On March 4, 1960, a dapper French count turned American journalist named Sanche de Gramont was working the night rewrite desk at the New York Herald Tribune. A call came in alerting the newsroom that Leonard Warren, a celebrated 48-year-old baritone, had collapsed onstage at the Metropolitan Opera after singing the Verdi aria “Urna fatale del mio destino” (“Fatal urn of my destiny”).

Mr. de Gramont raced to the scene, several blocks away, and then sprinted back to his typewriter. His deadline was less than an hour away. “There was an awesome moment as the singer fell,” he wrote. “The rest of the cast remained paralyzed. Finally someone in the capacity audience called out ‘For God’s sake, ring down the curtain.’ ”

For his “moving account” of Warren’s death, Mr. de Gramont won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting — Edition Time, a category now called Breaking News. The article propelled the career of the young reporter, who became a foreign correspondent dispatched to France, Congo and Vietnam before he embarked on a prolific career as an author.

He fashioned a new name, Ted Morgan, an anagram of de Gramont that he chose over Tom Danger, Rod Magnet and Dr. Montage. Ted Morgan, he once noted, sounded “forthright and practical, incisive and balanced.” And he was tired of seeing his byline misspelled.

Mr. Morgan, who drew acclaim for biographies of author W. Somerset Maugham and statesman Winston Churchill and mined his own remarkable life story in three vivid memoirs, died Dec. 13 at a nursing home in Manhattan. He was 91.

He had dementia, said his wife, Eileen Bresnahan Morgan.

Possessed of intense curiosity, Mr. Morgan wrote his books as if he still faced a newspaperman’s daily deadlines, producing 25 volumes in 50 years. His topics were as varied as the Niger River in Africa, the rise of McCarthyism in America, the history of espionage, the settling of North America, the making of the American West, the trial of former Nazi Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie in France, and the 1954 French military defeat at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam.

His 1980 biography “Maugham” was a finalist for a National Book Award, and his 1982 Churchill book, “Churchill: Young Man in a Hurry, 1874-1915,” was a Pulitzer finalist.

Mr. Morgan also wrote well-regarded biographies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Beat novelist Williams S. Burroughs; two novels; and three books about his life, “On Becoming American” (1978), “Rowing Toward Eden” (1981) and “My Battle of Algiers” (2005).

His Old World family was so fossilized, he wrote in the first memoir, that after a lunch with Marcel Proust, his father handed the novelist a guest book “and with the total disdain of the nobleman for the artist, said, ‘Just your name, Mr. Proust. No thoughts.’ ”

Mr. Morgan renounced his aristocratic title in 1977 when he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

He was born in Geneva on March 31, 1932, as Le Comte Sanche Armand Gabriel de Gramont, a scion of nobility from the Lower Navarre region of France. His family name, de Gramont, dated “to the morning of civilization,” he wrote, and his bewigged ancestors attended emperors and kings. His first name, Sanche, was a contraction of St. Charles.

He grew up shuttling between France and the United States. His father was posted to Washington as the French air attaché in 1937 but returned to France two years later when war broke out in Europe, leaving his wife and three sons in Washington. He died in a plane crash in England in 1943.

The young count was sent to live with a wealthy aunt and uncle in New York, where he attended the French lycée. At his mother’s insistence, he tried a year at the Sorbonne in Paris, but he yearned for the less stuffy environment of America. A family friend arranged for him to meet the president of Yale, A. Whitney Griswold, who invited him to complete his degree there.

He graduated in 1954 and, after a summer writing film gossip for the Hollywood Reporter, received a master’s degree the next year from Columbia University’s journalism school.

He was attracted to journalism, he wrote in his 2005 memoir, because he had “an aversion to causes, however noble. I instinctively sought to remain uninvolved, an observer rather than a participant.” Also, he said, he liked “to snoop.”

After a brief stint at the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram, he was conscripted into the French army in 1956 and entered officers’ training school in an effort to avoid duty in French-ruled Algeria, where he opposed efforts to put down an insurgency. His bid backfired when he was posted as a second lieutenant to a combat outpost south of Algiers, the capital.

He was ambushed and nearly killed on his first official mission: leading colonial troops from Senegal on their monthly visit to an army-approved brothel.

In a protracted conflict that saw atrocities on both sides, French soldiers routinely tortured or killed Algerian captives, while insurgents planted deadly bombs in theaters and restaurants popular with French civilians.

A commander thus shrugged when Mr. Morgan entered into what he called an “altered state” and beat a prisoner to death during an interrogation. The man’s wrists had been tied over a beam so that his feet didn’t touch the ground.

“I was horrified by what I did,” Mr. Morgan wrote 50 years later in “My Battle of Algiers.” “I had killed a defenseless man.” The episode left “a form of inner disfigurement that I’ve had to live with.”

A family friend helped him get reassigned to a military newspaper in Algiers, and he was never charged with killing the unarmed prisoner or, later, helping a French military deserter flee the country. The French ultimately lost the war and withdrew in 1962.

After his military service, Mr. Morgan spent a year with the Associated Press in New York before joining the now-defunct Herald Tribune in 1959, where he worked alongside Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Charles Portis and other soon-to-be literary lions.

The Pulitzer win propelled his career, and he was sent to Paris as a foreign correspondent. He was reporting in Congo in December 1961 when U.N. troops from Sweden mistakenly fired a bazooka at his car, killing one of the occupants. He recalled his friend, author and journalist David Halberstam, telling him, “What do you expect from Swedes? They haven’t fought a war in 200 years.”

Badly wounded, Mr. Morgan was evacuated to a hospital in London but soon was reporting on the growing U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

He was a freelance writer in 1967 when he permanently lost his hearing in one ear covering a French political campaign in subzero temperatures. “Every profession has its occupational hazards, and I caught otitis … stumping in the mountains,” he later wrote.

Although some critics of Mr. Morgan’s popular histories noted his tendency, at times, not to let the facts get in the way of a good story, his work ethic was never in question. Maugham, who died in 1965, had specified in his will that no one should be given access to his letters or papers for a biography, and Mr. Morgan was warned he would get no cooperation from Maugham’s estate or family in England.

Mr. Morgan was undeterred. He interviewed dozens of Maugham’s friends and associates, and did research in 20 libraries from California to England, ultimately uncovering 5,000 letters.

When Maugham’s agent and executor, Spencer Curtis Brown, read Mr. Morgan’s first draft, he decided to ignore his client’s last wishes and granted access to the sequestered material to ensure the biography would be accurate and complete. Maugham’s family soon invited the author to visit.

A Washington Post reviewer, journalist Michael Kernan, praised “a masterful job of reportage” that revealed Maugham as “a complicated man who went out of his way to distort, conceal, and deliberately lie about the facts of his life.”

Mr. Morgan’s marriages to socialite Margaret Chanler Emmet Kinnicutt and poet Nancy Ryan ended in divorce. In 1985, he married photographer Eileen Bresnahan.

Besides his wife, of Manhattan, survivors include two children from his second marriage, Gabriel Morgan of Taos, N.M., and Amber de Gramont of Lakeville, Conn., and four grandchildren.

Mr. Morgan told C-SPAN interviewer Brian Lamb in 2010 that his peripatetic journalistic and literary career was a deliberate riposte to an upbringing he found uncomfortably predetermined.

“The idea in my time was I should marry a rich woman and live off my land,” he said. “We had a castle outside Paris. But … I’d spent too much time in the United States for that kind of life.”

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