Doris Grumbach: Her Novels, Essays, and Literary Criticism Explored the Social and Psychic Hardships of Women

From a New York Times obit by Robert D. McFadden headlined “Doris Grumbach, Author Who Explored Women’s Plight, Dies at 104”:

Doris Grumbach, who in novels, essays and literary criticism explored the social and psychic hardships of women trapped in repressive families or disintegrating marriages, and who, as modern feminism came of age in the 1970s and ’80s, portrayed lesbian characters and themes in a positive light that was then unusual in mainstream fiction, died on Friday in Kennett Square, Pa. She was 104.

Ms. Grumbach’s daughter Barbara Wheeler said she died at Kendal-Crosslands, a retirement community. She noted that her mother had survived two pandemics: the Spanish flu, into which she was born in 1918, and the Covid-19 of recent years.

Ms. Grumbach was as prolific as she was versatile. She wrote seven novels, six memoirs, a biography of the writer Mary McCarthy, and book reviews and literary criticism for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The American Scholar and other publications. She was also the literary editor of The New Republic and a commentator on NPR and “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” on PBS.

She was perhaps best known for three novels: “Chamber Music” (1979), the memoir of an aging widow who had fallen in love with a woman after learning her husband was gay; “The Ladies” (1984), about two 18th-century women who escape repressive Irish families and become reclusive lovers in Wales; and “The Magician’s Girl” (1987), about three Barnard College roommates and their troubled lives.

Critics disagreed sharply about Ms. Grumbach’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Some said her portraits of lesbian and gay characters and themes were unrealistic, even stereotypical. But others found them lifelike and praised her for unflinching portrayals of women who were engulfed by intolerant social conventions or caught in loveless marriages, and of families unsympathetic to female friendships that ripen into love.

Ms. Grumbach was a scholar of medieval and modern literature, the wife of a neurophysiologist for 31 years, the mother of four daughters, an officer in the Navy women’s branch during World War II, and a professor of literature and creative writing at several colleges and universities. After she divorced in midlife, she and Sybil Pike, a bookseller, were partners for more than four decades.

Ms. Grumbach, a native New Yorker who had also spent much of her life in Albany and Washington, retreated in her 70s to a small coastal town in Maine. Ms. Pike set up a rare-book store there, and Ms. Grumbach began a new burst of writing, producing her autobiographies and a collection of essays on growing old.

“The most lamentable loss in the elderly spirit is the erosion of hope,” she wrote in an opinion article for The New York Times in 1998. “Still, despite my dire description, we elderly persist with our canes, in our long-term care and miserable nursing homes and ‘rehabilitation’ centers, and in our seats confronting the idiocies of the tube. In the short run, so to speak, we are all characters in ‘Waiting for Godot.’”

Doris Isaac was born on July 12, 1918, in Manhattan to Leonard and Helen (Oppenheimer) Isaac. Her father sold men’s clothing. She and her sister, Joan, grew up in Manhattan.

In elementary school, Doris skipped some grades and, after a brief unhappy experience at Hunter High School, entered the all-girls Julia Richman High School.

Socially unprepared, she developed a stammer, lost confidence and had poor grades. She remained an indifferent student, but she excelled in theater and creative writing. She graduated in 1935.

At Washington Square College, then the Greenwich Village campus of New York University, she majored in philosophy, studying under Sidney Hook, and avidly read medieval literature. She graduated near the top of her class in 1939 and earned a master’s degree in medieval literature at Cornell University in 1940.

In 1941, she married Leonard Grumbach, a Cornell graduate student. The couple divorced in 1972.

Ms. Grumbach’s sister, Joan Danziger, died many years ago; her daughter Jane died in 2011; Ms. Pike died in 2021. Besides her daughter Ms. Wheeler, Ms. Grumbach is survived by two other daughters, Elizabeth Cale and Kathryn Grumbach Yarowsky; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

During World War II, Ms. Grumbach’s husband was drafted and she joined the Naval Women’s Reserve, commonly known as the WAVES, an acronym for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. After the war the Grumbachs settled in Albany, where he taught at a medical college and she taught at a private girls’ school.

From 1960 to 1971, Ms. Grumbach taught English at the College of St. Rose in Albany. She also began writing. Her first novels, “The Spoil of the Flowers” (1962) and “The Short Throat, the Tender Mouth” (1964), attracted little notice.

Her literary biography of Ms. McCarthy, “The Company She Kept” (1967), drew wide attention. Much of it, however, was hostile.

Ms. McCarthy and Ms. Grumbach had been friends, but Ms. McCarthy filed a pre-publication lawsuit, forcing Ms. Grumbach to delete material she had relied upon for her thesis that Ms. McCarthy’s fiction was thinly veiled autobiography. Ms. McCarthy scoffed at that idea, and so did many critics. Ms. Grumbach later acknowledged that it was naïve.

Her later novels included “The Missing Person” (1981), about a Hollywood actress seemingly modeled on Marilyn Monroe, and “The Book of Knowledge” (1995), about the unfulfilled sexual identities of two boys and two girls who meet at a beach community.

She was literary editor of The New Republic from 1973 to 1975 and wrote book reviews and a column on books for The New York Times from 1976 to 1983. In the 1970s and ’80s, she also wrote reviews and essays for many other publications and taught at the American University in Washington, the University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins University and the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.

Ms. Grumbach and Ms. Pike moved to Sargentville, Maine, on Penobscot Bay, in 1990. There Ms. Grumbach wrote her memoirs: “Coming Into the End Zone” (1991), “Extra Innings” (1993), “Fifty Days of Solitude” (1994), “Life in a Day” (1996), “The Presence of Absence: On Prayers and an Epiphany” (1998) and “The Pleasure of Their Company” (2000). In 2005, she and Ms. Pike moved to Kendal-Crosslands.

In her writing, Ms. Grumbach reflected on a similar time. She recalled writing correspondence with a fountain pen, of preferring black-and-white photographs and of patronizing a greengrocer, a bakery and a butcher shop. She described the sheer enjoyment of wasting time, and mourned the passing of leisurely Atlantic crossings on ocean liners.

Reviewing “The Pleasure of Their Company,” Library Journal said: “She quotes from favorite books, gossips about fellow authors, and writes candidly about her loving relationships with her longtime lesbian helpmate and her ex-husband. This collection of wise ramblings reveals a vibrant and perceptive older woman who has lived the fullest of lives and delights in sharing her surprising and meaningful observations.”

Robert D. McFadden is a senior writer on the Obituaries desk and the winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting. He joined The Times in May 1961 and is also the co-author of two books.

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