August 5, 1938 – March 25, 2021
John Livingston Hopkins ’60 — “Hoppy,” as he was affectionally called by his Princeton chums — loved adventure.
“Hoppy was a pretty exotic character,” says his college roommate, Ivy clubmate, and lifelong friend Anthony Pell ’60. “He had made an early decision that he was not going to live a conventional life.”
In that, he succeeded: From Peru to Tangier, Hopkins traveled the globe as a diarist and writer, eventually settling in England, where he died in March.
The stepson of a wealthy businessman, Hopkins grew up in the well-heeled New Jersey town of Far Hills, attending the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut before landing at Princeton to pursue an engineering degree. By sophomore year, however, he had dropped engineering in favor of the liberal arts, with a particular interest in writing, says Pell. “Gradually he decided that his future lay in being a writer.”
Upon graduating from Princeton, Hopkins and his friend Joe McPhillips ’58 headed to Peru, with the aim of becoming coffee farmers. During their two months in South America, Hopkins began keeping a diary, in which he described crossing the Andes by jungle bus and floating down the Amazon on a balsa raft: “Cane fields, green hills and red earth. … The hazy peaks of the Sierra Madre Occidental in the distance, where Humphrey Bogart sweated for gold.”
When their coffee plan didn’t pan out, the two friends headed for Italy, where they got jobs reading to blind English writer Percy Lubbock, a friend of Edith Wharton and Henry James. Lubbock challenged Hopkins to seclude himself on an offshore island for 24 days and write what came into his head; Hopkins took up the challenge and said he “became a writer that day.”
Soon after, McPhillips and Hopkins headed to Munich, where they bought a white BMW motorcycle they dubbed the “White Nile” and decided to trek with it across North Africa for five months.
In those days, “young Americans really thought they could do anything and go anywhere — the world was their oyster,” Pell says. “We all felt that way.”
Their trip was anything but easy — the two were shot at by soldiers in Libya, suffered through 120-degree heat in the Sahara Desert, and each caught pneumonia — but their appetite for adventure was only whetted. Hopkins and McPhillips ended up getting jobs teaching at the American School in Tangier, Morocco, during the city’s 1960s heyday as a bohemian escape for artistic-minded expats.
“Tangier is a lax place,” Hopkins wrote in his diary. “Food is fresh, booze is cheap and rents are low. In other words, paradise!”
Hopkins stayed in Morocco for 17 years, becoming part of the literary circle there that included Paul and Jane Bowles, Tennessee Williams, William Burroughs, and Brion Gysin. For several years he lived without a telephone or electricity in a mud hut in Marrakesh.
Hopkins achieved literary success in France, where he was considered an important existentialist writer. “He worked extremely hard” at his writing, Pell says. “He was writing until he died.” He published eight books, including five novels; his best known were his memoirs The Tangier Diaries 1962-1979 (1997) and The White Nile Diaries (2014), about his journey with McPhillips. “A lot of his books have to do with the desert,” Pell says. “He had a real feeling for that. The isolation, the solitudes, the sheer beauty of the desert all resonate in his books.”
Hopkins met his wife, artist Ellen Ann Ragsdale, in Tangier. When the couple was expecting their first of three boys in 1979, they moved to London, and later settled in Oxfordshire. In the second half of his life, Hopkins became interested in traditional English field sports, taking up pheasant and grouse hunting, and was a devoted father to his boys, who played rugby. His zest for life never left him. “John loved attending the rugby matches,” Ellen recalls, “and often embarrassed his sons by running onto the pitch in his enthusiasm.”
Agatha Bordonaro ’04 is a freelance writer and editor.