Doris Grumbach, Storyteller

Published in: May-June 2023 issue.


DORIS GRUMBACH, a long-time resident of Maine, died on November 4, 2022 at the age of 104, at her home in the Kendal retirement community of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

            Preparing to teach a summer school course on lesbian studies at the University of Maine, I wrote to Doris many years ago saying that I would like to meet her. After consulting with local lesbians, she invited me to dinner in Sargentville, a coastal village near Blue Hill, and we became good friends, though not close ones. Doris’ partner, Sybil Pike, ran a wonderful used book store, Wayward Books, in a converted garage next to their house. Doris wrote memoirs, mistakenly described in the New York Times obit as “rambling.” Doris did not ramble. Her fine prose has an 18th-century quality of concision. Her novel Chamber Music, her finest in my view, is notably compact.

            When I reviewed Chamber Music in 1980, long before any thought of meeting the author, I asked Gay Community News’ book editor Amy Hoffman if I could say that the author was obviously a lesbian, because the relationship of the main characters was so beautifully done. We decided against speculating. Another time, Doris mentioned that she had begun a biography of Willa Cather, a writer she loved, but had abandoned it because of Cather’s anti-Semitism. She did write introductions to Cather’s fiction that show her skill as a literary critic. She also reviewed books for NPR. I had never met anyone so immersed in literary life.

Doris Grumbach in 1994.

            Doris was an impressive storyteller, so good that I didn’t mind hearing them several times. One of her favorites featured Gypsy Rose Lee. Doris was a last-minute replacement for a scheduled interview. They met at Stouffers, the favorite lunch spot of Westchester matrons in town for a matinee, according to Doris. She hoped for a quiet rear table. But Ms. Lee wanted a center table, from which she disclosed in a loud voice some insider lore: before chorus girls went onstage, they put their breasts in very cold water to make them stand up, a trick they called “soaking the Bordens.”

            While her novels dealt with incest and other topics, she’s best remembered for her lesbian themes. The Ladies, for example, based on a true story, depicts two women from wealthy Anglo-Irish families who ran off to Wales to live together. They entertained notable visitors, including the Duke of Wellington and Edmund Burke. I wasn’t sure how “out” Doris was, despite the evidence in her novels, until she told me that she had agreed to be the grand Marshall of the Minneapolis gay pride parade.

            Doris and May Sarton were good friends, each giving the other less than total praise in their memoirs. Doris told hilarious stories of May’s outrageous behavior. But she really liked Margot Peters’ biography of May Sarton. In an odd, perverse development, the Women’s Review of Minnesota printed Doris’ praise of Peters as a sidebar to my long, very negative review of the book. I thought Peters’ accounts of Sarton’s tempestuous lesbian relationships were belittling. Embarrassed by the juxtaposition of the two opinions, I never told Doris about it. I would never have disagreed with her in print.

      I wish I had disagreed with her about aging, though. Her extremely negative view, often elaborated in essays and memoirs, seemed narrow-minded. Did she appreciate the irony of disparaging old age and then living to 104? On her 100th birthday, I sent Doris a card calling her a “centurion,” a mistake that must haven amused her. She put a joke from me into one of her memoirs. When I asked for a copy of her Fifty Days of Solitude at the bookstore in Bar Harbor, the clerk said that the shop didn’t have that book, but would I like 100 Years of Solitude instead?

            One of Doris’ favorite places in Maine was Schoodic Point on the mainland part of Acadia National Park, where waves crashing into high cliffs create an impressive show. Sybil and Doris would come to our house, and my partner Donna and I would drive up to nearby Winter Harbor to pick up food. Then we would find a place on the rocks for our picnic and watch the waves. Doris’ intent focus impressed me. We were all amused by a Park sign identifying “black dykes,” which are rock formations on the shore.

            Doris could be curmudgeonly, a persona I think she enjoyed, but she was fundamentally kind and generous. She mourned friends lost to AIDS. She visited John Preston when he was dying. She massaged his feet. “You have beautiful feet,” she said. “I know,” he replied.


Margaret Cruikshank’s most recent book is an anthology titled Fierce with Reality: Literature on Aging (2017).


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