Growing up in the 1970s, Julie Klam heard stories about her grandmother’s first cousins, the Morris sisters. Selma, Malvina, Marcella and Ruth Morris emigrated from Eastern Europe with their parents around 1900, were soon orphaned in St. Louis and eventually made their way to New York City, where they made a fortune. “I was told they were completely crazy, obscenely wealthy, never married, had no children, and all lived together in a house in New York City,” Klam writes in The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters: A True Story of Family Fiction, her sixth book.
In her conversational, often funny style, Klam takes us along on her intrepid search for the truth, near-truth and outright lies embedded in her family’s colorful lore about the Morris sisters. Klam visits older family members to record their conflicting stories and learns a surprising secret about the girls’ mother. She also visits sites important to the sisters’ lives, most affectingly the Jewish orphanage in St. Louis where three of the sisters were sent as children, as well as two small towns in Romania. There, Klam takes in the towns’ abandoned Jewish cemeteries and near-abandoned synagogues.
Along the way, as Klam weaves anecdotes with uncovered records, the sisters emerge as distinct individuals and, yes, almost legendary women. But in the end, The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters isn’t about the sisters so much as it’s about Klam’s search, her wrong turns and dead ends, and the sadder truths that family members papered over. “It turns out that finding the truth in a family can be tricky,” Klam notes, an understatement.
The Almost Legendary Morris Sisters is an entertaining read that offers a substantial meditation on the meaning of family and what our ancestors mean to us, even when we can’t get as close as we’d like to their stories.