The best-selling memoirist talks with DAME about the fascinating lives of her rumored-to-be "man-hating" Romanian-born, New York cousins who inspired her latest poignant work, 'The Legendary Morris Sisters.'
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Julie Klam, native New Yorker, New York Times best-selling memoirist, and DAME’s first advice columnist, grew up regaled by family tales of “the Morris sisters,” her grandmother’s Romanian cousins whose lives were full of intrigue and who lived independent of men at a time when it seemed impossible to do so. After immigrating to the United States, as the stories went, one Morris sister became a successful Wall Street trader and advised President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Another allegedly had an affair with banker J.P. Morgan. The rumors further suggested that none of them ever married because they “hated men”—and instead lived together in New York City, with only each other for company.
The tales her family shared about Klam’s legendary cousins never left the writer’s imagination, charmed and haunted by the idea of women balking at almost every societal suggestion about how they should live and behave. The pull became so great that Klam interviewed family members to corroborate the stories she’d heard for most of her life, delved into genealogical records, traveled to Romania, and began the process of piecing together what would become her new book, The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters.
While it turned out that some “facts” were conflations meant to keep important secrets, ranging from mental illness to infidelity, the actual truths about these women were far more complex and compelling than she could have imagined. The Morris sisters did not hate men, for example; they loathed depending upon them, having felt abandoned by their father. One sister, Ruth, even married.They could not help their mother, who struggled with mental and physical illness. And they struggled to adapt to the U.S.’s unfamiliar culture. To deepen her understanding of these defiant women, Klam flew to Romania, where she not only gained more insights into the sisters, but faced the painful truth about Romania’s Jewish population: Almost none survived.
What Klam learned about the Morris sisters changed her understanding of family, the stories we tell, and ultimately, herself.
We all have those family stories we’ve heard but wondered about. What made you think there could be a whole book in the Morris sisters’ story?
Julie Klam: From what I heard, the stories about them were really interesting, like meeting with FDR, an affair with J.P. Morgan, stolen screenplays. These four women made millions of dollars with no men in their lives, all in the 1920s and 1930s. My plan was to write the story of how this happened. It totally changed when I started digging in.
Your book really explores how a lot of family stories are as much mythology as truth, and that we often hang onto ideas that sound exciting but aren’t factual. Were you more disappointed or relieved (or insert other emotion) to find out what was true and what was a confabulation?
JK: I was fascinated to learn the reality. I was disappointed when I couldn’t find something, but not [disappointed] in their story. They had reasons for hiding things and other people in the family just sort of played a long game of telephone where facts were twisted. I was mostly interested in the incredible struggles they overcame as women in the 1920s.
Talk about your sense of place and why you needed to visit the locations where the Morris sisters lived. I was particularly moved by the passages in Romania, where you found out what happened to Romanian Jews.
JK: I had always planned to travel [for] this book, because people aren’t going to want to read a book that is ‘I googled this and found it and then I googled this and didn’t find it, then I got a glass of water and tried again.’ I was concerned with the boringness of writing about everything happening to me in my NYC apartment. Traveling was meant to expand the story but it, in fact, it changed me in ways I didn’t imagine. I mean if you want to get in touch with your roots, wow, going to the small town your family is from, where no Jews are left—it’s pretty profound.
I find it fascinating how the sisters managed to keep themselves mostly unattached from men. Do you find that unusual for women of their era?
JK: It seemed like from childhood, Marcella, the brilliant financier, was like “fuck everyone, I’m doing this and I don’t need men.” I mean you could see she was having none of that in her high school yearbook. The thing is, the trope in my family was that they hated men. I don’t think they hated men; I think they just couldn’t depend on them, and they could depend on themselves. That truly is so striking to me.
What do you chalk up Malvina’s success as a Wall Street trader to in a time when nearly no women held such jobs?
JK: I think she slipped in as someone’s assistant and ended up getting her own trading account and she was so good, she made so much money, no one could say she couldn’t do it.
Of all the sisters, I was most fascinated by Ruth, who also has an interesting coda. Why do you think she was so different from her sisters, including being the only one to marry?
JK: I love Ruth. Bohemian, free-love espousing, she was great. The big difference between Ruth and her sisters was that she was born in the United States and they were born in Romania. So she was a ‘modern’ girl. She was also the youngest and had the least amount of time with their mother.
I also loved this quote: “They were the complete opposite of the conventions and attitudes of my mother’s family. And somehow, I feel as if I’m a quilt made from them all.” How did your own perceptions of yourself, your family, your identity shift the more you learned about the sisters?
JK: My friend Barbara and I used to joke about the things our mothers told us about “us.’ Like my mother would say to me ‘we are very fertile’ and ‘we don’t have a lot of body hair.’ And Barbara’s mother told them the women in their family had no upper body strength. So, these notions are placed on us and it’s ours to change. With the Morris Sisters story, I suddenly had these man-free, brave women to draw from.
There’s a quality to the genealogy research that feels like a thriller at times as new information is uncovered, often after a dead end. Did you find it almost addictive at times? What do you think is behind that need to know about our ancestors?
JK: It is totally like a thriller—you are searching for clues, losing the trail, picking up some shocking new bit of information where suddenly things make sense in a way you cannot believe. We place ourselves in the world connecting to our ancestors. Things that happen to them help define us and our future generations. I think it’s incredibly important.
Can you expand on what this quote meant to you and how it played out in your search? “With genealogy, you rarely get proof, but you often get evidence.”
JK: Well, it’s just impossible to find every piece of a puzzle when so many records are lost to history, so you find what you can and sew it together and think what the missing piece would probably have been based on the other facts. Like you see your ancestor had come through Ellis Island, but you don’t know how they got to the Yukon, and there are no records. You start looking at the possibilities and knowing what you know about your ancestor can make a guess. It’s like that.
Talk to me about the “makeup” of genealogists as a type of person—they seem so incredibly detail-oriented. It seems like something I’d want to do … in theory, at least.
JK: Ha! I think of them like the PreCogs in [the movie] Minority Report. They are completely of a different makeup than me. But the thing is, when you are researching your own family, you are suddenly driven by a need to know and so you become like a Terminator (wow, two action movie references in one answer) like I will keep going until I find what I need.
What do you most want people to take away from reading this book?
JK: Talk to the people in your life while they are still alive, take notes, put information on the back of photos, leave a trail for your future generations. I think after a year and a half of being so far from family, I want people to feel good about their family connections and explore them further. Also be really entertained. And maybe cry and then say, “Brava!”
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