'Don't worry about remembering the history - it's 90% wrong'

Truth trumps fiction in family mythbuster on quirky turn-of-the-century sisters

In ‘The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters,’ Julie Klam travels the globe to separate the truth from the lore about her grandmother’s 4 philanthropic chain-smoking millionaire cousins

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

From left: Marcella Morris as a young woman; Ruth Morris in her high school yearbook; Selma Morris as a young woman (Courtesy of Julie Klam)
From left: Marcella Morris as a young woman; Ruth Morris in her high school yearbook; Selma Morris as a young woman (Courtesy of Julie Klam)

Bestselling author Julie Klam begins her new family memoir by sharing everything she knows about the four Morris sisters, her grandmother’s wealthy and eccentric cousins who captivated her family’s imagination for a century.

Then she admits that almost all of it is untrue.

“Don’t worry about remembering any of this, because it’s 90 percent wrong,” she writes at the end of the first chapter.

Klam doesn’t intentionally lie to her readers. In fact, she herself had no idea that nearly all of what she had been told her whole life about Selma, Malvina, Marcella and Ruth Morris was false.

For the rest of “The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters: A True Story of Family Fiction,” Klam takes readers along for the journey — at times humorous and at others heartbreaking — as she works to separate fact from the many fictions about these women. That journey ends up taking Klam halfway around the world — and though to reveal her findings would be to spoil the book, piecing the true story together with Klam, bit by bit, is what makes the quest so compelling.

In a recent Zoom interview from her home in New York, Klam, 54, told The Times of Israel that it was comforting to know that hers is not the only family that spins erroneous tales about relatives.

“I thought we were unique, but it turns out to be quite universal,” she said.

Nonetheless, the number of fabrications and misapprehensions about the Morris sisters surely exceed the average.

It isn’t uncommon for family lore to change slightly as it is passed from person to person down through the generations. But what Klam discovers about the captivating Morris sisters wasn’t just a little dramatic embellishment here and there. She ends up busting open major myths her family created about the women — and the myths they created about themselves to survive, and even thrive, in the best ways they knew how.

‘The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters: A True Story of Family Fiction’ by Julie Klam (Riverhead Books)

In the book, published August 10, Klam recounts how she met these elderly relatives only once, when she was a girl.  Four decades later, she decided it was time to learn more about them. Klam labored for several years to learn as much about the Morris sisters as was possible with the historical and genealogical evidence available to her.

Her plan was to find the documentation to support the family lore. Little did she know that the evidence she dug up would disprove so much of it.

The starting point for Klam’s deep dive into her research was what her parents, grandparents and cousins had told her.

First and foremost, they remembered that the sisters, despite living to ripe old ages, were inveterate chain-smokers to the point that their home was filled with a permanent haze and the walls were stained sepia.

From left: Marcella, Malvina and Ruth Morris as young girls. (Courtesy of Julie Klam)

As the family told it, George and Clara Morris and their four children, Selma, Samuel, Marcella and Malvina left Bucharest, Romania, in 1900, bound for New York. Shortly after arriving in the Big Apple, they headed west toward Los Angeles, where George wanted to become a director in the movie business. Along the way, in St. Louis, Clara had another baby, Ruth, and died in childbirth. George put the children in an orphanage and continued west, promising to send for the children.

The story continued that George did not make good on his pledge, and the children stayed in the orphanage. Marcella, supposedly the oldest and brightest of the bunch, made enough money to extract her siblings from care and move them to New York. There, the sisters lived together in an apartment in Greenwich Village and in a house in Southampton, Long Island. Marcella became an exceedingly successful trader and the first Jewish woman to hold a seat on the stock exchange on Wall Street. She earned millions and made huge donations to Brandeis University.

Building that was once the Jewish orphanage in St. Louis, where three of the Morris sisters lived for a number of years. (Courtesy of Julie Klam)

And apparently, somewhere along the way, she had an affair with J.P. Morgan.

That last bit didn’t take much to disprove, given that Morgan died in 1913, when Marcella was a 12-year-old living in a St. Louis orphanage — no one in the family had bothered to do the math.

Klam, who writes with plenty of quippy humor, had no idea where to start her project. She was sure, however, that wherever her research led, her intention was to tell the sisters’ story, not to make a scandal out of them.

The long-dead siblings themselves apparently tried to ensure the same, conveying their wishes via a psychic medium Klam visited.

Morris sisters in photo from family bar mitzvah, 1966. Malvina, Ruth and Selma are seated in front row, second, third and fourth from left. (Courtesy of Julie Klam)

“The sisters asked me not to make them sound crazy,” the author writes.

Klam conducted the rest of her research in more conventional ways, consulting historical records and visiting sites in New York, St. Louis and Romania associated with the Morris ancestors.

“The librarians and archivists who helped me are generous and wonderful teachers. I went into this with no knowledge of how to access records, and of what is and is not available,” Klam said. “Every time I saw proof of their existence, I was really excited.”

By all accounts, the sisters were indeed characters. With no husbands or children to care for, they lived unconventionally for their generation. Although brother Sam was mainly out of the picture, the sisters remained uncommonly close despite their stark differences in personality. Marcella’s ample income enabled the sisters to travel and enjoy their later lives.

However, the unfortunate circumstances of their younger years left a stain of sadness as indelible as the layers of tar on the sisters’ walls.

Julie Klam, author of ‘The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters: A True Story of Family Fiction.’ (Jonas Gustavsson)

In truth, George Morris did not continue on to Los Angeles from St. Louis, and his wife Clara did not die in childbirth. To reveal more would spoil the narrative.

When Klam discovered the truth about the sisters’ lives, it was for her more than a matter of plugging holes in a story. “It became about bearing witness,” she said.

Family lore can be so powerful that sometimes it can be crushing to be presented with contradictory evidence.

For Klam it was the contrary. The more contradictory evidence she found, the more she began to love and admire the Morris sisters.

“I definitely didn’t feel disappointed. I think they became fully fleshed-out human beings, and though the story was different, I found everything I did discover about them to be as or more interesting as I thought,” Klam said.

“And they really were chain-smoking millionaires!” she said.

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