Sometimes, it takes just one person to change the course of your life. For Waimea resident Patricia Jennings Morriss, that magical influence was artist Georgia O’Keefe.
The artist stayed with the Jennings family for 10 days in a cottage at their home in Hana, Maui, in 1939 when Patricia was just 12 years old.
The home-schooled pre-teen was given the very adult job of hosting the artist while Patricia’s mother, Marie, was in California and her father, Willis, was working during the day as a sugar plantation manager for C. Brewer & Co.
“It went beautifully,” Jennings Morriss said, reflecting back on the time 75 years ago during an interview with North Hawaii News on April 29. “She was obviously charmed by my father and I think she loved her visit to Hana.”
Morriss’ memories are delightfully woven into her 2011 book with Maria Ausherman, “Georgia O’Keefe’s Hawaii.” The 113-page book brings the childhood encounter to life in great detail backed up by accompanying photos, O’Keefe paintings, and the actual correspondence between O’Keefe and her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. O’Keefe also wrote the young Jennings three letters, one of which survived.
In the book’s introduction, Ausherman gives a description of O’Keefe’s nine-week Hawaii trip, from Feb. 8 to April 14, 1939, that sets the scene for Jennings Morriss’ adventure with the artist.
Jennings Morriss said back then it was common for people to stay with her family in two cottages on the property, since there were few hotel accommodations in Hana.
“We would have friends, and friends of friends, and their friends frequently,” Jennings Morriss said.
O’Keefe knew Robert Lee Eskridge, a well-known artist in Honolulu who was a Jennings family friend. When O’Keefe was offered by Dole Pineapple to fly to Hawaii to do paintings for them, Eskridge insisted O’Keefe stay with the Jennings family. O’Keefe had a reputation of being difficult, so Marie Jennings was apprehensive about the visit. That angst transferred to Patricia.
Her worry turned out to be unnecessary, though. The two got along, with only a few encounters along the way that are described in the book.
“The first place I took her was Wai’anapanapa, and when we got there she immediately realized she needed a hat badly,” Jennings Morriss said.
The two went to the plantation store and a general store where O’Keefe bought a straw sun hat. Jennings Morriss helped her keep from losing it in the wind by adding a silk pale blue and white polka dotted strip of fabric as a tie.
“She left that hat behind when she left,” Jennings Morriss said. “My mother used it as a gardening hat for year and years.”
With O’Keefe driving the family car, Patricia escorted her along the Wai’anapanapa coastline, they visited the “Seven Pools” of ‘Ohe’o Gulch, hiked near Pi’ilanihale Heiau, painted at Wailua Gulch, stopped at an abandoned rubber plantation in Nahiku, traveled along Kipahulu and visited Kula, among other things. O’Keefe also painted a waterfall in ‘Iao Valley.
“The only real chagrin in my life is that she absolutely refused to allow me to take my dog,” Jennings Morriss said of her dog, Lucky. “She would not allow the dog in the car.”
The majority of O’Keefe’s 20 paintings completed in Hawaii were done in Maui while the young Jennings patiently waited from a short distance away, since O’Keefe allowed no one to watch her as she painted. Patricia did get a quick glimpse of her working one time, while O’Keefe painted in the back seat of the car during a rainstorm, according to her book.
Jennings Morriss said she made some life-changing decisions after meeting O’Keefe – one was she made up her mind to have a big family when she grew up.
“I had a very lonely childhood in Hana, I really did,” Morriss said. “Mother taught me at home in the mornings, but it was a lonely childhood; and I think, in fact, I know, I decided right then and there. When I grew up, I was going to have a big family – I wasn’t going to have a lonely child. I now have five children.”
Jennings Morriss’ children include Sally Wooddell, Dr. Virginia “Ginny” Pressler Fisher, Lex Morriss, Richard Morriss and Neil Morriss. She also has nine grandchildren and several great grandchildren.
She said she also learned the importance of fortitude and following through.
“Well, I guess her lesson was, when you start something, you finish it,” Morriss said. “If it is worthwhile, you do it.”
Jennings Morriss also said in her book reflections that after O’Keefe left, she asked her father if she could attend Punahou on Oahu rather than continue to be home-schooled until high school. Her father agreed, and Jennings left for Oahu, beginning her own life of adventure.
Jennings Morriss also had other pivotal points in her life. She was a sophomore at Punahou on Dec. 7, 1941, during the attack of Pearl Harbor.
“I was not at the dorm on the night of Dec. 7 because it happened to be the same week that the sugar planters had their annual meetings, which always took place the first week of December,” she said.
She was staying with her parents at the Royal Hawaiian when the bombings began that Sunday morning. Because she was only there for a weekend, the young student only had a small suitcase of her clothes with her.
“I was in an adjoining room at the Royal that morning and mother was sitting up in bed and she was absolutely furious. She said, ‘They are dropping bombs right in the water off Waikiki.’ She said, ‘People swim there!’” said Jennings Morriss, recounting the event. “We had felt the percussion from the bombs and heard the planes and all of that. In fact, in the 11 o’clock attack, which wasn’t as big as the earlier one, we were actually up on the roof of the Royal Hawaiian and we could see the planes coming in. We saw enough that we knew we were ready to get off Oahu.”
Jennings Morriss said the event was the only time in her life that she saw her father cry.
“We just stood up there and we wept as we looked out at Pearl Harbor,” she said.
She said her family managed to get on the first commercial flight out of Honolulu on Dec. 11.
“As we got out (on the airfield), the engines were going on the plane, my father was standing at the end of the folding steps that were going up to the plane at that point. And he was saying, “Come on! Come on!” And we go dashing off for it. I will never forget this one sentry who turned to mother and said, ‘Look, if you get on that plane, you’re crazy. Those boys are trigger happy – they’ll shoot you down for sure.’” She said. “And with those reassuring words, we got on the plane.”
The flight that day was filled with Army engineers who were stopping in Maui, then over to Hawaii Island, though they had no way of communicating with the airport in Maui to announce their arrival.
“They could take a shot at us I suppose, except I don’t really think they have anything to shoot with,” Jennings Morriss said. “We flew, if you can believe it – and it is like you are skimming the water. We flew at 500 feet all the way over to the old Puunene Airport over on Maui. Anyway, we got there.”
She spent the rest of the school year on Maui, then returned to Punahou for her final two years at Punahou.
Her life changed rapidly after graduating from Punahou, and Jennings married her husband William Morriss, a Navy pilot, and moved to St. Louis for 17 years before returning to Hawaii. They moved to Waimea in 1967, after five years in Spreckelsville on Maui. Once here, they managed and invested in a macadamia orchard in South Kona and purchased the Waimea General Store in about 1976, after Patricia managed it for several years.
Eleven years after her husband died, Jennings Morriss married Allan Campbell in 1989 and moved to Australia where she lived for 17 years before returning to Waimea in 2006.
Discovering inner beauty
The other lesson Jennings Morriss said she learned from her encounter with O’Keefe, was that for the first time, she realized that a woman didn’t have to be physically striking on the outside to be beautiful.
“It was sort of a revelation to me,” she said of O’Keefe’s beauty. “To me, if someone was attractive or beautiful they looked like Betty Grable or Hedy Lamarr or somebody like that.”
She said that despite wearing no make up at all and wearing basic brown shirt dresses, she saw that O’Keefe was attractive and charismatic.
“I realized she really is beautiful in her way; there was no question about it, this charm came really came out,” Jennings said.
Still a natural beauty herself today, Jennings Morriss carries herself with grace, yet has the strength and tenacity to interview for two hours straight without a sip of water, remembering every detail from childhood until today without a pause.
In her book, Jennings Morriss said that the deepest gift O’Keefe gave her back then was the experience of being listened to for the first time in her life.
“That influenced the way I raised my children and helped me through the rest of my life,” she wrote.
“Georgia O’Keefe’s Hawaii” may be purchased at the Waimea General Store in Parker Square or online at www.waimeageneralstore.com.