Harriet Doerr, who died five years ago at age 92, was a literary late bloomer. Her first novel, Stones for Ibarra, was published in 1984, when she was 74. It came upon the world like a great chrysanthemum firework and was on best-seller lists for months. She was instantly famous because of the book's wonderful evocations of Mexico and of what it's like to be an aging woman in a world that does not treat aging women very well.
I first met her at her home in Pasadena some years ago; I had gone to visit her before a reading from her work in San Francisco. Harriet suffered from glaucoma, and she was concerned that she wouldn't be able to read properly from her manuscript. So she asked if someone would read for her and, through Paul Signorelli, director of volunteer services at the San Francisco Public Library, I agreed.
The granddaughter of railroad magnate Henry Huntington, she lived in a large home at the top of a slope in one of those remarkable neighborhoods for which Pasadena is known.
A very small, very white-haired woman answered the door, shook my hand and told me, "I'm Harriet Doerr." She gave me a quick tour of the house. I gave her a book of mine. We went over the materials for her reading quickly, and she felt that I'd do just fine as a reader of her work. But I had a question: How had she managed to begin writing in her early 70s, without any prior wish to do so? And how had she written so well?
"Oh, well, you know, I dropped out of Stanford in 1930 because I wanted to get married," she said. "I raised a family. And then my husband, Albert, wanted to go to Mexico in the 1950s, to resuscitate a mining business that had been in his family for some time. And we lived there for several years.
"That's where I got what finally became Stones for Ibarra, I guess.
"And then my husband died in 1972, and I was at a loss as to what to do. But my son Michael told me that I ought to go back to school, to finish what I'd left at Stanford. So in 1975 I entered Scripps Institute, with the idea that I'd major in history or something."
She smiled. She was wearing a pearl necklace the whiteness of which almost matched that of her hair.
"That first semester, I had chosen all the courses I wanted, and I still had room for a three-unit elective. I didn't know what I wanted to take . . . an art course or something. Music appreciation. But my children had been looking through the catalog, and they'd seen this creative writing course. They urged me to take it."
Harriet smiled again, nodded and sat back in her chair.
"And the first time I was to go to that class, I panicked," she said. "Here were all these 20-year-olds . . . you know, these children going into the classroom, and I was standing out in the hallway petrified. An old woman in a cloth coat. Me? Write? Then the professor came, and he was almost as young as the students!
"The door closed behind him, and I was all by myself in the hallway. All by myself, convinced that I should turn around and never go into that class."
Harriet sipped from her coffee and looked out into her garden.
"But then I thought about Bob Gibson."
Bob Gibson? A Hall of Fame pitcher for the Saint Louis Cardinals, Gibson had retired at the end of the 1975 season after a long career. He gave the impression of being a mean-spirited man who liked nothing better than to punish a hitter. If you'd gotten a home run off him, the next time you came to bat, you were sure he was throwing the ball right at you with the intention of injuring you. He was famous for it. He was feared for it.
"You see, I'd heard him say on the radio once," she said, "that what he did as a pitcher was to just hum that mother in there, to see what would happen."
She began laughing, a high and suddenly very youthful-sounding outburst of glee.
"And I thought, well, if it's good enough for Bob Gibson, it's good enough for me. So I opened that door, and I walked into that class. My plan was to hum that mother in there, and I did!"
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