1 December 2016
In this final part, Tim Koch looks at Geoff Morris’ life outside of rowing:
Geoff Morris lived to the age of 85, but only four of those years were taken up with competitive rowing, a time that I have covered in Parts I and II. In Part III, I look at the non-rowing years and make some attempt to understand a very complex character. In this, I am very lucky to have two ‘eye witnesses’ and, with permission, I quote extensively from personal correspondence to me from John Fisher-Smith and Patricia Welsh (née Fisher-Smith), Geoff’s stepchildren from his second marriage, that to Ruth Fisher-Smith. Henceforth, I refer to them as ‘John’ and ‘Pat’. In 1996, Pat published her memoirs, All My Edens and any quotations from this are also acknowledged. At the end of my researches, I was sure that Pat was correct when she wrote: ‘He was more fun to write about than to live with’.
The person that I refer to throughout as ‘Geoff’ had three different names before the age of 24. He was born in Hampstead, London, on 25 July 1899 to Edgar and Elizabeth Bernhard and was first called Morris Keele Bernard (the 1901 census incorrectly listed him as ‘Marrie’). The two Christian names came from the respective maiden names of his paternal grandmother and of his mother. His paternal grandfather, Godfrey, had originally come to Britain from Mecklenburg-Schwerin, then a sovereign state of the German Confederation. He had ‘made good’ as a coal merchant and was naturalised British in 1863. There is an unsupported family assumption that he was Jewish but, even if he was, he married Caroline Morris in a Church of England ceremony at All Saints, Clapham, south-west London, a week after getting his British citizenship.
Geoff’s father and mother, Edgar Bernhard and Josephine Keele, were married in 1896 and three children followed, Geoff in 1899 and two sisters in 1902.
In 1912, after 16 years of marriage, Edgar began divorce proceedings against Josephine, citing ‘Lowenstein’ as the co-respondent. This was rare in the first decade of the 20th century when there was just one divorce for every 450 marriages. A husband could get a divorce if his wife had committed adultery, but a wife could only hope for a divorce based on adultery combined with other offences such as cruelty, bigamy, desertion or ‘unnatural vice’. All proceedings went to the High Court in London, enabling society to be titivated by the personal details revealed. The Bernhards’ divorce was only finalised in 1915 and Edgar remarried, almost immediately, to Elizabeth Allen, a woman that the 1911 census had living in his house as a ‘visitor’. His then wife, Josephine, was not listed as resident.
We can reasonably speculate on the effect that all this had on young Geoff. His mother left the family before he was 12, perhaps to go off with ‘Lowenstein’. While the scandalous long-drawn-out divorce was going on, the woman that his father would eventually marry, Elizabeth, was living in the family home, presumably as Edgar’s mistress. Worse still, she subjected Geoff to (at least) mental cruelty. Pat tells a heart-rending story that reveals Elizabeth to be a very damaged person:
On one occasion, Geoff told me that he had yearned for a particular, very fancy model yacht that he had seen ….. He asked for it for Christmas. The stepmother bought it for him and put it into a top bureau drawer covered with a cloth, folded in a special way. She showed him where she was putting it and told him that he was going to get it for Christmas, but if he dared to open the drawer and look at it before then ….. she was going to put it on a bonfire and burn it. Geoff tried with all his might not to succumb to temptation…. but finally he convinced himself he could just take a peek and she would never know. So he opened the drawer, pulled back a corner of the cloth covering and looked with joy at the yacht. Then he carefully covered it up again. Of course he did not do it quite right and his stepmother knew that Geoff had looked at the toy, so she burned it in front of him.
There can be little doubt that Geoff’s experiences at the hands of Elizabeth detrimentally affected him for the rest of his life. The other great negative influence on him was the result of his German ancestry.
In December 1916, Geoff’s father, Edgar, and his uncle, Edward, changed the family name from the Germanic ‘Bernhard’ to the Britannic ‘Morris’, their mother’s maiden name. The undoubted reason for this was that the First World War was at its height and the hatred of anything even remotely German was an obsession. Even the British Royal Family thought it prudent to change their name from the Wagnerian ‘Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’ to the more Shakespearian ‘Windsor’ (indeed, the change allegedly prompted the German Emperor to make a joke about the ‘Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’). Edward Bernhard produced extra complications for the family as he was a senior executive in the Swiss chocolate company, Nestlé, and there were questions asked in Parliament about its German connections. Thus, at the age of 16, Morris Keele Morris was born. Six years later, he adopted a new first name and, professionally at least, went under the less amusing title of Geoffrey or Geoff Morris for the rest of his life.
The family story is that Geoff was only ‘just acceptable’ to London Rowing Club when he joined it in 1922, four years after the end of the 1914 – 1918 War. This must have been because of his German grandfather. As an example of the anti-German feeling that still existed in peacetime, a rule had been passed at Kensington Rowing Club after the War which barred membership to anyone of German, Austrian or Hungarian descent.
I do not know about (Geoff’s) earlier schooling, he never talked about it. His people seem to have been well to do…… so I’m guessing he was in (private) school somewhere… but under the foreign Bernhard name – and that he never ever spoke of – I’m guessing he could not reveal anything to do with his earlier life because his name was changed for him when he was a boy and British hatred of the Prussian was rife at that time… He never breathed a word about school or early days other than growing up in Kent, and hating his stepmother.
Thus, we can reasonably speculate that there were three major things in Geoff’s early life that made him the man that he became. Firstly, effectively losing his mother at a young age. Secondly, enduring cruelty from a hated stepmother. Thirdly, having to apologise for – or hide – his German heritage.
During the First World War, possibly keen to prove that he was a patriotic Englishman, certainly desperate to escape his stepmother, Geoff joined the Royal Navy in March 1917 at the age of 16 years and eight months (only those over 18 were conscripted). He entered as an officer cadet and after only two months training at HMS Excellent, a shore establishment in Portsmouth, he became Acting Midshipman Morris Keele Morris, Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. He served on two ships, HMS Midge (at Plymouth) and HMS Nizam, but would not have seen any fighting. He was demobbed in January 1919.
When he had joined the Navy, Geoff gave his father’s address, ‘Stone Ness’, Ashurst, near Tunbridge Wells, Kent (sometime described as a ‘small mansion’). On leaving the service, his record shows that he lived in Tramway Avenue, Stratford, London E15. Around this time, he began studying for a degree in organic chemistry at Birkbeck, University of London. In 1922, perhaps still a student, possibly just graduated, Geoff took up rowing and lived in London Rowing Club during 1923. The next four years of his life, ‘the rowing years’, have been covered in the previous two posts. At the end of Part II, we left him in Philadelphia, USA, at the end of 1925/beginning of 1926, selling cars, probably having decided to give up competitive sculling.
Michael Allbrook, a distant relative of Geoff’s by marriage, and who has researched the family history, says that around this time in Philadelphia, he made ‘lasting friendships’ with ‘wealthy women of the horsy set’ including Amory Hare Hutchinson, a noted horse breeder, writer, poet and artist.
I am getting a picture of a someone who was, when at his best, both a ‘man’s man’ who could succeed in the macho world of car sales, and a ‘ladies’ man’ who could charm the opposite sex, notably those with status and wealth. Pat remembers him as ‘handsome and dashing – he looked like a rugged Clark Gable’. John thinks that he had ‘terrific charisma’ and also that he had a Ernest Hemingway-like ‘he-man style’ about him. I have little doubt that Geoff also traded on his ‘Englishness’, something that many Americans still find attractive today.
Geoff was very grandiose and was indeed ‘more British than the British’, sporting that archetypal speech of the posh upper crust Oxford/Cambridge type of male. ‘Come on Goss, let’s have a cup o tea shall we?’ and ‘Bungho chaps, jolly good’.
Perhaps this stemmed from a keenness to prove that he was no German – or maybe it was just eccentricity. John’s sister, Pat, remembers:
he spoke his own unique lingo, a cross between Biblical or Elizabethan English, nautical and pirate language and French slang.
Geoff may have sounded ‘posh’, but he was no ‘idle toff’. Pat:
Geoff was strong and athletic all his life. He didn’t have a lazy bone in his body. I always thought he was very vigorous and healthy with boundless energy. He was able to do very hard physical work for long hours.
A particular woman that Geoff had been charming since at least 1923, when they were pictured together at Henley, was Peggy (properly Marguerite) Emett, a rather glamorous British woman who at some stage ran a fashion business in France. Geoff had gone to America in August 1925 and Peggy joined him there in February 1926. The New York Times of 18 February 1926 reported:
MISS EMETT WEDS MORRIS K. MORRIS; Well-known British Journalist’s Daughter Marries Prominent Oarsman in WM Van Norden’s Home…… 7 West 57th Street.
Mr and Mrs Warner M Van Norden were described as Peggy’s friends. Warner was the son of a very wealthy banker and he dedicated himself to spending his family’s fortune. I do not know how typical this was of the circles that the newlyweds moved in.
How were the new Mr and Mrs Morris to make a living in the United States? Peggy’s background in French fashion probably made her very employable and, at one stage at least, she worked for Bergdorf Goodman, a high-end Manhattan department store. As to Geoff, John suggests, ‘My guess is that [he] learned fashion illustration, pen and ink and watercolor, from Peggy as that is what he was employed at when I first met him’. Illustration may have been Geoff’s entry into fashion but is was to be through photography that he was later to make his name in the industry. Pat:
Geoff became a highly skilled fashion photographer..… He had great artistic talent and was brilliant both in the field and in the darkroom, using special techniques such as Bromoil (where the silver image in a black and white print is replaced by an ink image).
Geoff used Bromoil when creating artistic black, brown, or sepia, print photographs, such as those he made for Vogue Magazine and later on for movie stars in Hollywood……. Because of the difficulty and skill required in its application, only a few very artistic photographers used it. The great benefit was that this procedure lent a ‘handmade’ look to the final photograph almost like a painting.
(Geoff’s chemistry degree) is what prepared him to enhance the Kodak solutions he used in his later career. He earned the distinction of being one of the top five print-makers in the fashion industry in New York in the early 1940s. He did much of his own darkroom work, and supervised his lab assistants closely. The subtleties of black and white photography were critical to his success, leading later into color.
Pat, in All My Edens:
Geoff (gained) a reputation as one of the best outdoor fashion photographers in New York. He did regular work for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines and got contracts for the covers and opening pages – the only ones in colour – of Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs…..
A look at this and also at one of Geoff’s earlier photographic assignments will show how highly he was regarded.
In the early 1940s, Geoff’s contract to take fashion photographs for the Sears Roebuck catalogue, which was published several times a year, was ‘a big deal’. For more than 100 years, the catalogue was an American icon, providing Internet-style shopping in a pre-computer age. It allowed Americans to buy everything they could imagine from the comfort of their own homes. Unfortunately, the perfectionist Geoff was found to be ‘difficult’ and he eventually lost the lucrative assignment. Pat:
As Geoff’s fame grew, he became increasingly temperamental and jobs sometimes slipped through his fingers.
His perfectionism sometimes meant he was late on deadlines and being the best at what he did, and knowing he was the best, made him constantly demand more money.
It is an overused word, but another, earlier, ‘iconic’ work that Geoff did the photography for was the long running ‘truncated legs’ campaign for the well-known British menswear company, DAKS. The campaign was conceived in 1935 by his friend, Ashley Havinden, an important pre- and post-war graphic designer. It ran for many years in both Britain and the USA. John remembers:
Geoff brought the DAKS account with him to America. I frequently modelled the DAKS tailored waistband trousers for him ……I got to keep the trousers and the wingtip shoes!
Sometime in the early 1930s, Geoff and Peggy returned to Britain. If it was specifically for the purpose of divorce, I do not know, but this is what happened in August 1934. Ten months later, Geoff married Ruth Fisher-Smith, a socialite from a titled and once wealthy family that had been made poorer by the economic depression of the 1930s. Previously, Ruth had been married to Emerson Fisher-Smith. He was an old friend of Geoff’s, but Emerson did not allow the change of matrimonial arrangements to spoil his close relations with his children, his ex-wife – or her new husband.
As previously noted, Ruth brought two children into the marriage, John, then aged 9, and Pat, then aged 6. Today, the siblings live in California where Pat is a well-known broadcaster, writer and speaker on gardening, particularly that appertaining to Southern California. Her Wikipedia page gives more details of her and John’s exotic family history and of her work and ideas, as does her video on YouTube.
In 1936, while they were living in North London, Ruth gave birth to Geoff’s only child, a boy, Peter William (‘Bill’). A new addition to the family was not the only change occurring. In her book, Pat recalls that when Geoff came into her life:
along with his motorcycle, his tweed jackets, his pipes, and the gold-plated Diamond Sculls cup he’d won at Henley, Geoff brought with him a model of….. Columbus’s flagship. Unbeknown to the rest of us he’d already elicited a promise from Mum to emigrate to America.
In 1937, the couple, minus children, went back to America, launching a fashion-photography business in New York. In an interview for her old college’s website, Pat neatly summed up the following years:
I grew up in England during the ’30s when our peaceful and apparently secure life was rudely interrupted by the threat of war. My parents said ‘stiff upper lip!’ to my brothers and me, left us in England, and sailed to America to make a foothold, only sending for us a year and a half later when war was breaking out. My family bought a farm, then we came to Hollywood, and gradually went from riches to rags, but we got by and life was exciting. Living confidently, courageously, and hopefully was the only way to survive.
By the beginning of 1939, Geoff, wife Ruth, and the three children, John, Pat and Bill, were together again in the United States. With the outbreak of war in Europe in September, Geoff was technically liable for conscription into National Service in Britain until he reached the age of 41 in mid-1940. However, this did not happen but, when America entered the war in December 1941, he tried to enlist in the U.S. Navy, only to be rejected because of his age. The family avidly followed the progress of the war that was taking place far away. Pat, in All My Edens:
We never forgot we were English, but we adored our adopted country and the principles for which it stood.
The family spent most of the war years working a farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Although Geoff had to spend the weekdays living and working in New York City, it was on the land that he was in his element. Organic farming and gardening were a lifelong passion of his, this at a time when most people assumed that the use of pesticides could only be for the good. John:
Geoff loved gardening and the soil, he was very earthy…. He adored all of that life of growing food, animal husbandry and seemed familiar with the life of a country gentleman. He had a soft spot for Kent as ‘breadbasket of England’.
Strangely though, taking on running a farm was not Geoff’s idea, it was his wife Ruth’s, the glamorous former socialite and actress from a wealthy background. Pat:
(Ruth) thought of the farm as a way to take care of her children and provide a home and healthy food for the family during the war and help bring in money during wartime when fashion photography might not be so lucrative, all of which she succeeded in doing. She thought she could do it because there had been a farm on her parent’s estate, Hoyle Court, in Yorkshire…. Thus she thought she already knew something about animal husbandry and she genuinely enjoyed the subject.
All the family worked very hard on the farm and regarded the food that they produced as their contribution to the war effort.
Possibly as a result of losing the Sears Roebuck contract, in 1944, Geoff suddenly demanded that the family sell the beloved and thriving farm and move to Hollywood where, according to Pat’s memoir:
Geoff got the impression that he could make a fortune…. He’d bowled everyone over at a Hollywood party, and Producer David O. Selznick had promised him a flood of work.
Selznick had produced Gone with the Wind, so it is not surprising that a promise from him could turn heads. Geoff began work as a publicity photographer in the film industry and opened a photographic studio at 8622 Sunset Boulevard.
One of Geoff’s most successful commissions in Hollywood was to take the publicity photographs for Selznick’s 1946 picture, Dual in the Sun, staring Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Gregory Pack, Lillian Gish and Lionel Barrymore. The critics did not like the movie but the public did, possibly attracted by its nickname, ‘Lust in the Dust’. Further, Geoff’s pictures were, according to Pat, ‘a hit’.
Unfortunately, as Pat’s memoirs noted, in Geoff’s business, ‘you had to be affable, make your deadlines, and understand Hollywood politics’. He could not be consistent in any of these and his commissions started to fall off. At this, the ever resourceful Ruth opened an antique shop called “Morris of London” in the front of Geoff’s studio on Sunset. Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart became good customers, as did Cary Grant, but, sadly, some of Ruth’s family treasures brought from England were included in the stock. It was literally a case of ‘selling the family silver’ to keep solvent.
Even without the mounting economic pressures, life with Geoff had always had its ups and downs. Pat, in All My Edens:
Geoff was a bohemian, a sailor, a world champion rower, and a fine artist. He was also a bundle of opposites – by turns angry or ebullient, rude or charming, strict or indulgent. You never quite knew where you stood.
In correspondence to me, Pat wrote:
Geoff was….. often an angry and a difficult man. He complained of having had an unhappy childhood and cruel stepmother….. Luckily, I got along with him pretty well……… I deeply appreciate many things about him. For example, he encouraged me as an artist…. He was an avid gardener and encouraged my brother and me to follow in his footsteps….. Geoff cared deeply about education and chose excellent schools for both John and me…. After my mother and he were married he was shocked to discover I had had no religious education so he sent me to a Sunday school because he thought the head of it was an outstanding woman…… In many ways Geoff is with me still. I think I am still trying to please him. He gave John and me the idea we should be ‘great’. How can anyone live up to that…..?
John (once built) a dog house and was very proud of it and went to get Geoff to look at it…. Geoff inspected it and then without saying a word he kicked it apart and told John to build it again stronger….. (So he) got to work and built that dog house so strongly that you could have dropped it from the top of the barn and it would not have broken. All his life since then John has been a perfectionist in building and…. he became an architect. Recently John reminded me of this story and instead of pointing out how mean Geoff was, he said ‘He taught me to build things right.’
(My sister Pat) and I agree we benefited a great deal from the generous fathering and love we received from Geoff, in spite of his tumultuous unpredictable sudden mood changes.
Some of Geoff’s eccentricities were more lovable than others, Pat and John remember a few.
Geoff was highly eccentric and colorful…..
Geoff was a gourmet cook. He believed in good food and drink. He always gave me a glass of wine or Dubonnet before dinner, beginning when I was about 13, and when I was in college, he brought me a bottle of whiskey as a gift, not the usual thing to give a college kid. I buried it in a nearby vacant lot so I wouldn’t be expelled! Geoff just didn’t understand such restrictions…..
He seldom, if ever, went to doctors and preferred healing himself with health foods, vitamins, herbs and peculiar regimens like black strap molasses and home made yogurt for breakfast.
In 1944, I turned 18 and was drafted into the U.S. Army. Geoff wanted to give me a sex talk before I left……. he reached for the modern family bible…. turned to Deuteronomy and proceeded to read me the ancient Jewish laws on sex.…. I was mystified…… I can only assume that’s what his father, Edgar, read to him.
After 18 years of marriage, Ruth could take no more and she and Geoff were divorced in the United States in 1951. In common with much of his generation, Geoff drank heavily, at least for parts of his life, and there were various times when this became a problem. Further, in Pat’s view, ‘these two talented, charismatic people hadn’t the vaguest idea of how to get along with each other’. Geoff and son Bill returned to London to live, but throughout the rest of his life he kept affectionate communication with stepchildren, John and Pat.
Back in England, Geoff was re-elected a member of London Rowing Club in 1952, being proposed by rowing journalist, Hylton Cleaver. The New Rowing magazine of January 1955 reported that ‘Morris, who recently came home from America, had ordered himself a new sculling boat from Eric Phelps of Putney, the son of his old trainer, “Bossie” Phelps’. Julian Ebsworth, now the London RC archivist, remembers that when he first joined the club in 1963, he would see Geoff going out sculling.
In 1955, at the age of 56, Geoff married for the third time, this time to Jenny, whom Pat described as ‘a young, aristocratic lawyer’. Clearly, his charm had not deserted him, nor his taste for high-achieving and upper-class women. Sometime after 1974, he moved to the rural county of Norfolk, in the east of England, back to his beloved country living. There, in his 85th year, he died, a widower, on 27 January 1984. An inquest decided that the cause of death was ‘poisoning by an unidentified agent’. He had been self-medicating with alternative medicine and herbal remedies (something that he had done for much of his life) and accidentally overdosed on one or more toxic substances. It was an extraordinary end to an extraordinary life.
His obituary in London Rowing Club’s newsletter concluded:
‘MK’ (as he was known at LRC) paid regular visits to the Club for many years after the Second World War. He was a professional photographer and did much to increase the Boat Fund through his photographs of a bevy of beautiful models on (the Putney Embankment). A jolly, extrovert character with a hearty laugh that echoed through the Clubhouse, he was a respected and popular member.
I look upon Geoff as having been an extremely talented person from whom I received many worthwhile life lessons. Though, watching some of what was happening around me might have been a bit painful at the time, I learned a great deal from it. Personally I feel I had an amazingly enriching, adventuresome and—God knows—unusual childhood. Life was never dull and never has been for me.
Robin Morris, who has researched his family’s history, notes that:
The Morris’s tend to be polymaths, sometimes with a touch of eccentricity (some would say creativity).
Robin seems to be describing Geoff, an athlete, artist, agriculturalist and individualist. Geoff had serious faults, but, as with most people, the sum of his imperfections should not produce the definition of who he was. His early years were not happy, but when he discovered rowing and the talent that he had for it, his life changed for the better (though the legacy of his childhood stayed with him). For whatever reason, Geoff did not pursue the sport, but he already had his place in the history of rowing assured. I suggest that his epitaph can be a simple one: all our lives would be much poorer and much duller without people like Geoff Morris crashing through them, leaving both havoc and hilarity in their wake.
My thanks to Pat Welsh, John Fisher-Smith, Michael Allbrook, Jeremy Fisher-Smith, Robin Morris, Sean Morris and Julian Ebsworth for their help with my researches.