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Doris Grumbach: A remembrance

"...the literary world lost a grand talent, a vital spirit, and a crackerjack mind with its vast photogenic memory, the likes of which I never encountered in anyone else in this life." -- William Kennedy

Doris Grumbach, novelist, memoirist, biographer, literary critic, and essayist, died earlier this month at the age of 104. Her connections to Albany and the NYS Writers Institute run deep. We offer a short remembrance of Grumbach, a longtime friend of Writers Institute Founder William Kennedy, followed by the obituary published in the Albany Times Union.

Doris Grumbach moved to Albany in the 1950s with her family -- husband Leonard Grumbach and their daughters -- and began teaching at the Albany Academy for Girls. In 1960 she took a position as professor of English at the College of Saint Rose where she worked for 11 years. It was during this time that Grumbach began her writing career. Her first books, The Spoil of the Flowers, and The Short Throat, The Tender Mouth, were published in 1962 and 1964, respectively.

Doris Grumbach, right, autographs copy of her novel The Spoil of Flowers in 1962 at an event in Albany. (Times Union Historic Images)

In 1971 after raising her children, Grumbach spent a year in Saratoga Springs, helping to set up the external degree program at Empire State College. She then accepted a position at The New Republic as literary editor. Moving to Washington, D.C., she worked for the magazine for two years writing a column entitled "Fine Print."

When the magazine was sold she lost her job. She remained in Washington, however, and accepted a position as professor of American literature at American University. She also began a nonfiction column for The New York Times Book Review, and her column "Fine Print" was picked up by the Saturday Review.

Her connection to Kennedy dated back to the early 1960s. She and other activists protested the fact that there was no garbage pickup in the city's South End, so they decided to dump their garbage on the lawn of Albany Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd. "He was covering the story and I was transporting garbage in my car," she told Eleanor Koblenz in a 1987 story published in the Schenectady Daily Gazette.

She later reviewed Kennedy's Billy Phelan's Greatest Game in the New Republic and nominated Kennedy for the National Book Critics Circle Award, which she presented to him at a ceremony in New York City in 1983.

Grumbach returned to Albany as a NYS Writers Institute writer-in-residence in 1986 and taught one of our first Community Writers Fiction Workshops in 1987. She was also a guest on "The Book Show" radio program with the late Tom Smith hosting in 1991 and with Douglas Glover hosting in 1994.

NYS Writers Institute Director Paul Grondahl recalled Grumbach from his earliest days in Albany:

Grumbach delivered the keynote address in 1984 for a multi-day, citywide celebration of Kennedy titled “O Albany! O Kennedy!” after he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction that year for his novel Ironweed.

In her remarks, Grumbach pondered the ways that Albany captured Kennedy’s imagination and mused: “Why was Albany rich and fertile for Kennedy and not for me?”

Grumbach’s remarks are published in the 2018 collection, Bootlegger of the Soul: The Literary Legacy of William Kennedy, published by SUNY Press. She wrote:

“No one in Kennedy’s Albany mythology disappears or is forgotten. Everyone is part of a history that flows everlastingly into the long and loving memory of the present.”

“We always kept in touch, long hiatuses to be sure, but we maintained the connection,” Kennedy wrote in a letter after her death to Grumbach’s daughter, Barbara Wheeler, former president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City.

From Kennedy's letter:

"Doris was a grand old friend of mine, and we kept in touch after she left the area via phone calls and letters through the end of her life. She stopped writing a few years back, and her eyesight became so impaired she could no longer read. But her voice remained strong, and her mind as well, though maybe she didn't think so.

We'd met in the 1960s, down in Albany's South End when she was part of the civil rights movement, working with Black neighborhood groups and I was a reporter writing about it all for the Times Union. That was before I published any of my books. She was the first to bring me into a college class to talk about writing -- in 1969 when I published The Ink Truck.

She wrote several first-class novels. Chamber Music was outstanding, and she became a strong and meaningful voice in American letters, working as an editor or columnist for The New Republic, Saturday Review, the Times and other journals. When her age silenced her, the literary world lost a grand talent, a vital spirit, and a crackerjack mind with its vast photogenic memory, the likes of which I never encountered in anyone else in this life."

In her reply to Kennedy, her daughter concurred. “She had full recall of almost every book she had read,” she wrote.

Chamber Music, the novel for which Ms. Grumbauch first gained wide attention, published in 1979, was the memoir of an aging widow who had fallen in love with a woman after learning her husband was gay. The Magician's Girl, another of her best-known novels, published in 1987, was the story of three Barnard College roommates and their troubled lives.

“The most lamentable loss in the elderly spirit is the erosion of hope. 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.’ 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'':

Estragon: I can't go on like this.

Vladimir: That's what you think.

A poster promoting Doris Grumbach's 1987 writer-in-residence event hangs in the NYS Writers Institute office at the University at Albany.

Doris Grumbach at the College of Saint Rose in Albany in 1968. She died at a retirement community in Pennsylvania on Nov. 4, 2022, at age 104. (Bob Paley/Times Union Historic Images)

Prolific lesbian writer, former Albany resident Doris Grumbach dies at 104

Author taught at Albany Academy and The College of Saint Rose before going on to career as acclaimed literary critic and author spotlighting LGBTQ lives

by Steve Barnes, Albany Times Union, November 9, 2022

Doris Grumbach, a prolific writer, literary critic and scholar who lived and taught in the Capital Region for 18 years starting in the early 1950s before going on to write novels that sympathetically portrayed lesbian characters as well as literary criticism and memoirs about aging, died Nov. 4 at a retirement community in Kennett Square, Pa. She was 104. Her daughter Barbara Wheeler confirmed the death to news outlets but did not cite a cause.

Grumbach moved to the Albany area in 1953 when her then-husband, Leonard Grumbach, a physiologist, was hired by Sterling Drug Co. in Rensselaer. Doris Grumbach taught English at Albany Academy for Girls from 1958 to 1960 and, as a member of the English Department at The College of Saint Rose in Albany from 1960 to 1971, taught American literature and creative writing. She left following her role in what was described in media accounts as a faculty insurgency to force the college's president to resign.

In 1971, after the four children she had raised with her husband were grown, Grumbach left a marriage that began 30 years prior. She moved to Saratoga Springs for a year, where she helped launch the external degree program at Empire State College, and started a relationship with Sybil Pike, who would be her life partner until Pike's death in March 2021 at 91. Grumbach returned to the Capital Region over the years for literary events and was the New York State Writers Institute's writer-in-residence at the University at Albany in spring 1988.

In fall 1987, Paul Grondahl, then a Times Union reporter and now director of the Writers Institute, wrote a review of Grumbach's latest novel The Magician's Girl, calling it "brilliant." Set in part in New Baltimore, the story follows three women struggling for independent identities and against sexist societal constraints in mid-20th-century America.

Saying that in the novel Grumbach "has achieved the level of the fully mature artist at the height of her literary powers," Grondahl wrote, "The writing is lyrical yet concise and she can summon up intense emotions with the one- or two-sentence compaction of the best short story writers. Her style is so effortless and readable that she can have us smiling and rooting for her characters in one paragraph, and in the next pull the narrative rug out from under them — and us — with a sudden tragedy."

Grumbach was best known for her 1968 biography of the writer Mary McCarthy, The Company She Kept, based on Grumbach's research and archives McCarthy shared with Grumbach, and for the 1979 novel "Chamber Music." Set in Saratoga Springs and dealing in part with an artists community modeled on the real-life Saratoga retreat Yaddo, the novel is written as a memoir of the widow of a composer and the nurse who becomes the widow's lover.

Reviewing the novel in The New York Times, the critic John Leonard wrote, "Chamber Music is a marvel of what to leave out of a novel. There is specification, but no redundant groveling. ... I am tempted to say that the book is all bone; instead, it is all strings — gut and nerve — and each vibrates. The silences are intervals in which to think before the music starts again. Every note evokes and fades."

Grumbach was lauded in some circles, criticized in others, for her frequent inclusion of LGBT characters and her matter-of-fact portrayals in her seven novels of lesbian women in the 1950s and 1960s. For some, she was an important part of a contingent of mid-century women writers exploring non-heterosexual lives; for others, she was insufficiently feminist, employing stereotypes of women trapped in marriages before facing families and a society hostile to lesbian relationships.

In an appreciation published in the Times Union in 1986, Grumbach appraised the significance of the French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, whose 1949 book, The Second Sex, had deeply influenced Grumbach. Writing a week after de Beauvoir's death, Grumbach said of the book, "It profoundly affected the burgeoning women's liberation movement in the United States in the 1960s ... (by providing) women with a past and a context for their new ideology, a background from which to understand their feelings of impotence, failure and dependency."

Born July 12, 1918, in Manhattan, Doris M. Isaac was raised there as one of two children. After receiving her undergraduate degree from New York University, she went on to earn a master's degree in medieval literature from Cornell, where she met and later married Leonard Grumbach. In the first half of the 1940s she worked as a magazine editor and served in the women's branch of the Navy Reserves, later moving for her husband's career for much of the next decade. Their youngest child was born following their arrival in Albany.]

After Grumbach's departure from the Capital Region, she and Pike lived in Washington, D.C., for almost 20 years, where Grumbach held positions including literary editor of The New Republic magazine, books columnist for The New York Times Book Review and Saturday Review, reviewer for National Public Radio and TV's "MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour" and professor with posts at American University, the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa and at Johns Hopkins University,

In 1990, Grumbach and Pike, who had opened a bookstore in Washington's Capitol Hill five years earlier, moved to coastal Maine, where Pike ran a bookshop and Grumbach, then in her 70s, continued to write, turning her attention to challenges and indignities of aging. In 1994's Extra Innings, one of six memoirs, she views being old as the "single great limitation upon potentiality. There is not time to become anything else. There is barely enough time to finish being what it is you are. ... (P)rojects that once were vital and promising now seem too much, too late, too untoward, too unlikely." The couple moved in 2008 to a Quaker retirement community on the Pennsylvania-Delaware border.

Leonard Grumbach, who was a professor at Albany Medical College after leaving Sterling Drug and lived for many years in rural parts of Albany County, died in 1999 at age 85. His and Doris Grumbach's daughter Jane Emerson died in 2011. Survivors in addition to Wheeler include two other daughters, Elizabeth Cale and Kathryn Grumbach Yarowsky, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

First published in the Albany Times Union. Reprinted with permission.

Tom Smith's handwritten notes for his "Book Show" interview with Doris Grumbach. (NYS Writers Institute archives)


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