Doris Grumbach, versatile novelist and literary critic, dies at 104

Doris Grumbach, a wide-ranging author and literary critic who wrote about love, sex, religion and aging, explored gay and lesbian themes in hers and earned critical acclaim novel for her humorous, plain-spoken memoirs about the frustrations of old age, died Nov. 4 at a retirement community in Kennett Square, Pa. She was 104.

Ms. Grumbach liked to note that she was one of only a few people to survive the coronavirus pandemic and the 1918 influenza pandemic, which spread when she was an infant. “No one else has had these kind of experiences — the president should put me on some kind of task force,” she joked to her daughter Barbara Wheeler, who confirmed the death but did not cite a cause.

A versatile and observant writer with a voice that was by turns graceful and cantankerous, Ms. Grumbach published seven novels, six memoirs, a children’s book and a biography of author Mary McCarthy — a full shelf of books, although she got off to a late start.

Her first published work, a novel called “The Spoil of the Flowers” ​​(1962), was released the year she turned 44, and it would be another 17 years before she gained attention as a novelist for “Chamber Music” (1979), Presented as the memoirs of a famous composer’s 90-year-old widow.

Loosely inspired by the lives of composer Edward MacDowell and his wife, Marian, the novel told the story of an unsatisfying marriage, a fatal case of syphilis and a lesbian relationship that offered extraordinary late-in-life comfort. Reviewing the book for the New York Times, John Leonard wrote that Ms. Grumbach “handles incendiary materials with such cool authority, such metronomic precision, such unobtrusive care that the effect of the prose is subversive.”

“I am tempted,” he added, “to say that the book is all bone; Instead, it is all strings — gut and nerve — and each vibrates.”

In addition to writing novels and memoirs, Ms. Grumbach taught English literature and worked as a literary critic, contributing to publications including the Times, the Saturday Review and Commonweal. She was also the literary editor of the New Republic for two years in the 1970s, a book reviewer for NPR’s “Morning Edition” and PBS’s “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” and the co-owner of a Washington bookshop, Wayward Books, with her partner of nearly five decades, Sybil Hillman Pike.

But Ms. Grumbach was perhaps best known for her novels, which examined the triumphs and frustrations of women struggling to assert their independence and burst through the confines of a chilly marriage, an exploitative business world or a society that was intolerant of lesbian relationships.

Many of her characters were drawn from real people: “The Missing Person” (1981) chronicled the rise and fall of a movie star reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe; “The Ladies” (1984) was inspired by the romantic relationship between two Aristocrats in 18th-century Ireland; and “The Magician’s Girl” (1987) featured a Diane Arbus-style photographer and a poet modeled on Sylvia Plath.

“I write fiction to make sense of the world I have known in my eighty-two years of life,” Ms. Grumbach told the reference work Contemporary Novelists in 2000. “I use the people I have known, the ones I have thought might have existed, and myself, as I imagine myself to have been or to be, as characters. … There is no lesson in any of these seven novels, unless it is the lesson that life is infinitely varied, that characters (persons) are never typical, and that place/setting is always filtered through the vagaries of memory.”

In her 70s, Ms. Grumbach began to focus on the difficulties and disappointments of aging. Her first memoir, “Coming Into the End Zone” (1991), also served as a way for her to come to terms with the loss of writers, editors and other friends who were dying from AIDS, and to memorialize their lives in print.

She had never thought of herself as “a major talent,” she told Publishers Weekly — more like “a second-string writer and critic who made a certain wave but not a great splash” — and it was dismaying to see herself live while others died prematurely.

“I think writing is an act of healing,” she added. “It’s an exorcism of sorts, to put into words and symbols this almost inexpressible anguish. That was why I started, to try and alleviate the despair.”

The older of two children, Doris Muriel Isaac was born in Manhattan on July 12, 1918. Her father sold men’s clothing, and her mother was a homemaker.

Ms. Grumbach excelled in the classroom, skipping several grades and entering high school at 11 before losing her confidence, developing a stammer and taking a year off school, according to biographical information from the New York Public Library, which holds her archives. By the time she graduated from her all-girls Manhattan public school, she said, she had “amassed the highest total of unexplained absences in the records of Julia Richman High School.”

Ms. Grumbach received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1939 from New York University and a master’s degree in medieval literature from Cornell University in 1940. The next year, she married Leonard Grumbach, a fellow Cornell student who was working toward a PhD in neurophysiology.

They moved to New York, where Ms. Grumbach wrote subtitles for Hollywood movies that were distributed overseas and worked as a proofreader for Mademoiselle magazine. As part of the job, she wrote captions accompanying undergarment photos. She was fired after declaring that a girdle would “make you look positively uncanny.”

During World War II, Ms. Grumbach served as an officer in the WAVES, the women’s branch of the Navy Reserve. She and her husband later settled in the Albany, NY, area, where he taught at a medical school and she taught English at a girls’ preparatory school and then at the College of Saint Rose, a Catholic school.

Raised in a largely nonobservant Jewish household, she had become a Catholic in the late 1940s. She wrote her first chronic articles for Catholic publications before adopting a “secular spirituality,” her daughter said, as part of a religious journey that sheled in memoirs including “The Presence of Absence” (1998).

Ms. Grumbach first gained notice for her biography of McCarthy, “The Company She Kept” (1967), which was drawn in part from interviews she conducted with the author at McCarthy’s home in Paris. The book argued that McCarthy’s fiction was essentially autobiographical — a premise that infuriated the subject, who saw the galleys and threatened to sue Ms. Grumbach until she agreed to “minor deletions, some revision, a little paraphrase here and there,” according to an essay Ms. Grumbach wrote for the Times.

After Ms. Grumbach’s marriage ended in divorce in 1972, she moved to Washington with Pike and taught at American University. She and her partner started Wayward Books in the basement of their home in the Barnaby Woods neighborhood, later moving the shop to a two-story building near Eastern Market, over the objects of friends who insisted that people on Capitol Hill never read. The store sold used and “medium-rare” books, with a large selection of feminist, LGBTQ and African American literature.

In 1990, Ms. Grumbach and Pike packed up the bookstore — as well as their own personal library, which included a 16-volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary — and moved to a house overlooking a cove in Sargentville, Maine, where they ran the bookshop until retiring to Pennsylvania in 2008.

Ms. Grumbach’s other books included “Fifty Days of Silence” (1994), about her attempt to live in solitude, and “Life in a Day” (1996), about the events of a single day at age 77, which won a Lambda Literary Award . She received the Publishing Triangle’s Bill Whitehead Award, a lifetime achievement honor for LGBTQ writers, in 2000.

Her daughter Jane Emerson died in 2011, and Pike died in 2021. In addition to her daughter Barbara Wheeler, survivors include two other daughters, Elizabeth Cale and Kathryn Grumbach Yarowsky; Pike’s four children, Christopher Pike, Susan Pike, Carol Ann Pike Kostecki and Mary Pike Azam; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Ms. Grumbach worked on several unfinished projects over the years., including a biography of author Willa Cather, and said she had little interest in publishing for publishing’s sake.

“What I care about is the time and thought it takes to produce a book,” she told Publishers Weekly in 1991. She added: “You do what you want and do it the best that you can. If it makes it, then you celebrate with it, and if it doesn’t — well, you haven’t wasted your life.”

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