CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Edmund Morris pauses when posed the question, then does the math. How many years did he spend researching and writing his acclaimed trilogy on Teddy Roosevelt's outsize life?
"It's a 35-year span, but 16 years of those were on other books," he says via telephone from his New York City apartment.
The other books were his controversial biography of Ronald Reagan, "Dutch," which took 14 years. Then, a modest two years taken up with the short bio "Beethoven: The Universal Composer" for the Eminent Lives series.
So, the answer is 19. Which raises another question: What was it about the life of Roosevelt that was worth two decades of the British-born biographer's own creative life?
"He once said, 'I've enjoyed life as much as any other nine men I know,'" Morris responded. "He, in effect, lived nine lives, and that's why it was so much fun writing about him, because of the variety of those nine lives."
"The Nine Lives of Theodore Roosevelt" is the title of the talk Morris will give when he delivers the annual McCreight Lecture in the Humanities at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25 in the Culture Center Theater. Admission is free to the West Virginia Humanities Council event.
The multitudinous lives of America's 26th president are told in "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" (1980) -- which won Morris a Pulitzer Prize and is considered one of the finest biographies ever written -- the bestseller "Theodore Rex" (2001) and finally "Colonel Roosevelt" (2010).
It's hard to briefly summarize all TR (as Roosevelt was nicknamed) did with his life in the 60 years from his birth in 1858 to dying in his sleep of heart failure in 1919.
A sickly child, he reinvented himself as a vigorous governor of New York, a New York City police commissioner, an assistant secretary of the Navy, a colonel in the Rough Riders, a rancher in the Badlands and sheriff's deputy in the Dakota Territory, a founder of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, a Nobel Prize winner, a vice president, and then a reform-minded president of the United States who almost single-handedly created the modern conservation movement.
Given all that, what did Morris learn during his long research on Roosevelt that surprised him?
"What surprised me -- how funny he was, number one," he said. "He had this delicious, lifelong sense of humor. And secondly, what I discovered in the last volume was how literary he was."
Roosevelt authored about 40 books and wrote something like 150,000 letters, which recalls another notable world figure whose life straddled the 19th and 20th centuries -- Winston Churchill.
"Roosevelt and Churchill are a very good comparison in being men of action, politicians and statesmen, and men of letters," said Morris.
So, what is a caricature of TR's persona held by the public that Morris found not to be the case?
That would be Roosevelt as wild-eyed leader of the flag-waving Rough Riders in the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, ready to roar up hills in the Spanish-American War. "The caricature of the flamboyant Rough Rider was the general impression when he accidentally became president," Morris said.
Roosevelt -- famous for the line "Speak softly and carry a big stick" -- very quickly proved himself to be a statesman and strong executive president, said Morris. "He was actually an extremely subtle and sophisticated diplomat who won the Nobel Peace Prize -- and a political intelligence of the first order."
Upon the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, Vice President Roosevelt became America's youngest president when he was sworn in at age 42. (By comparison, John F. Kennedy was 43 when he took office.)
Perhaps more revealing than the "big stick" line might be Roosevelt's description of his foreign policy as "the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis."
"Decisive action" also describes how rapidly Roosevelt took on Wall Street, which if anything wielded as much, if not more, clout in TR's day than it does today.
"Within months of being president, he launched a massive antitrust suit against the second-biggest corporate conglomeration in the country," said Morris. That corporation was the Northern Securities Co. and "anything that was bigger than that was Standard Oil."
Two years later, the suit was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Roosevelt had secured a victory and earned a foe. "From that moment on, Wall Street was united against him," Morris said.