Doris Grumbach, a prolific author with Maine ties, dies at 104

Doris Grumbach at her home in Sargentville in 1994. Staff photo by Jack Milton/Press Herald Archives

Doris Grumbach lived on the Maine coast for almost two decades and wrote some of her best-known works in an old house overlooking Eggemoggin Reach.

But the author, who captured snapshots of her life in the tiny village of Sargentville in her memoirs Fifty Days of Silence and Life in a Day, didn’t consider herself a Maine writer.

“For one thing, I’ve never written about the state except for a tiny corner of it, the bay and my house and small events like trips to the post office and the store a sixth of a mile away,” she told the Portland Press Herald in 2000. ” The bay’s remote three acres and ever-changing moods and seasons have provided me with the necessary climate for inland travel. … I brought my themes with me from a life in other places.”

Grumbach, who wrote about love, sex, religion and aging in her novels and explored LGBTQ issues, died November 4 at her home in a seniors’ community in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. She was 104.

If circumstances had been different — and Maine winters had been less harsh — Grumbach would have chosen to spend her life in her clapboard house overlooking the ocean in Sargentville, a village in Sedgwick, said her daughter, Barbara Wheeler.

“Of all the places she lived, it was the place where she felt the most content,” Wheeler said.

Grumbach survived the 1918 flu pandemic as an infant and grew up in Manhattan, where her father sold men’s clothing and her mother was a homemaker. After graduating from New York University in 1939 and earning her master’s degree from Cornell University in 1940, she married Leonard Grumbach and had four daughters. According to the Washington Post, the couple divorced in 1972.

During World War II, she joined the Naval Women’s Reserve. After the war she settled in Albany and began teaching at a private girls’ school. In the 1960s she taught English at the College of St Rose and began writing novels. Later in her career, she was a literary editor, wrote reviews and essays, and taught at American University, according to the Post.

Grumbach moved to Maine from Washington, DC in 1990 with her partner Sybil Pike, the Wayward Books, the rare book store they jointly owned. They opened the bookstore behind their home in Sargentville, just under the Deer Isle Bridge. She loved the view from her living room and the comings and goings of wildlife.

By then, in her seventies, Grumbach was spending much of her time in Maine writing her six memoirs, including Fifty Days of Solitude, which explores what it means to write, to be alone, and to be with one to deal with mortality.

“Maine inspired a depth of thought that wasn’t possible when she was writing and writing reviews and novels in Albany and Washington,” Wheeler said.

In the winter of 1993, Grumbach decided to stay home while Pike went on an extensive book-shopping trip. She pulled out her phone and didn’t speak to anyone for 50 days. She rose early each day to write and then spent her evenings reading and listening to music. She would slip into the church after the service began and leave when the last hymn was sung.

At first she did not intend to publish her writings from this period. When she heard that a Boston publisher was looking for books by authors different from her previous work, she told her editor that she had some notes on loneliness. She wasn’t sure if it was a book, but the editors knew right away that 50 Days of Solitude was not just a book, it was a good book.

Grumbach believed that to be successful, writers had to stand alone and be a little afraid of a blank page, she told the Press Herald in 1994.

“There was a reward for that deprivation,” she said. “The absence of other voices forced me to listen more intensely to my inner voice.”

Outside of those days of solitude, Grumbach surrounded himself with a large and diverse group of friends, said Allan Sandlin, who first met Grumbach when he became minister of St. Francis by the Sea Episcopal Church in Blue Hill. He and his wife listened to Grumbach’s reviews on NPR for years and knew her voice, but were surprised to discover she was a member of the Church.

“She loved Maine and thoroughly enjoyed all of the characters, from the local lobster fishermen to other retired writers and musicians,” he said. “She didn’t have much time or interest in Maine’s affluent summer residents, but was much more interested in the year-round folks in the community.”

Grumbach is a deeply thoughtful and inquiring thinker with a critical eye and mind, Sandlin said. She was deeply devoted to her family and the Yankees, and loved string quartets.

Grumbach and Pike retired to Pennsylvania in 2008, where they posted photos from their Sargentville home to maintain their view of Down East Maine. They were sad to be leaving Maine, but it was the safest option as they got older, Wheeler said. Pike, Grumbach’s partner for more than four decades, died in 2021.

Sandlin visited Grumbach every year in Kennett Square, and she always asked about Maine and the people she remembered, he said. Her last visit was in September.

“She longed for Maine until she died,” Sandlin said. “Every time I saw her, it was very clear that her heart was still very much there. Of all the places she has lived and the people she has met throughout her long, fascinating life, it was this Maine community that she loved the most.”

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