Doris Grumbach, a prolific author linked to Maine, dies at 104

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

Doris Grumbach has spent nearly two decades living on the coast of Maine, writing some of her most notable works from an old house overlooking Eggemoggin Reach.

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

“For one thing, I’ve never written about the state except about a little corner of it, the creek and my house, and little events like trips to the post office and the store, to a sixth of a mile,” she said. Portland Press Herald in 2000. “The creek’s three secluded acres and ever-changing moods and seasons provided me with the necessary climate to travel within. … I brought my subject with me from a life lived in other places.

Grumbach, who wrote about love, sex, religion and aging and explored LGBTQ themes in her novels, died Nov. 4 at her home in a retirement community in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. She was 104 years old.

Had circumstances been different — and Maine’s winters less harsh — Grumbach would have chosen to live out his life in his clapboard home overlooking the sea in Sargentville, a village in Sedgwick, his daughter Barbara Wheeler said.

“Of all the places she’s lived, this is the one she’s found the most deeply satisfying,” Wheeler said.

Grumbach survived the 1918 flu pandemic as a child 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. The couple divorced in 1972, according to the Washington Post.

During World War II, she joined the Women’s Navy Reserve. After the war, she moved to 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 served as a literary editor, wrote reviews and essays, and taught at American University, according to the Post.

Grumbach moved to Maine from Washington, D.C., in 1990 with his partner Sybil Pike, who ran Wayward Books, the rare book store they co-owned. They reopened the bookstore behind their home in Sargentville, just below the Deer Isle Bridge. She loved the view from her living room and watching the wildlife come and go.

At the age of 70, Grumbach has spent much of his time in Maine writing his six memoirs, including “Fifty Days Alone,” which explores what it means to write, be alone, and come to terms with mortality.

“Maine sparked deep thinking that wasn’t possible when she was teaching 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 a long book-buying trip. She unplugged her phone and didn’t speak to anyone for 50 days. She rose early each day to write, then spent her evenings reading and listening to music. She would slip into the church after the service had begun and leave as the last hymn was sung.

She did not initially intend to publish her writings from this time. When she learned that a Boston publisher was looking for books by authors different from their previous writings, she told her publisher she had some notes on loneliness. She wasn’t sure if it was a book, but the publishers immediately knew that “50 Days of Loneliness” was not just a book, but a good one.

Grumbach believed that for authors to succeed, they had to face a blank slate alone and a bit scared, 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 carefully to the inner voice.”

Those lonely days aside, Grumbach surrounded herself with a large and diverse group of friends, said Allan Sandlin, who first met Grumbach when he became vicar of St. Francis by the Sea at Blue Hill. He and his wife had for years listened to Grumbach’s criticisms on NPR and knew her voice, but were surprised to find out that she was a member of the church.

“She loved Maine and was very fond of all the characters, from local lobster fishermen to fellow retired writers and musicians,” he said. “She didn’t have much time or interest in wealthy Maine summer vacationers, but was much more interested in people who lived in the community year-round.”

Grumbach was a deeply thoughtful and thorough 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 in 2008 to Pennsylvania, where they hung photos taken from their Sargentville home to maintain their view of Down East Maine. They were sad to leave 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. Their last visit dates back to September.

“She yearned for Maine until the day she died,” Sandlin said. “Every time I saw her, it was very clear that her heart was still there. Of all the places she lived and the people she met in her long and fascinating life, it is this community of Maine that was closest to his heart.

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