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Subject: Novelist Harriet Doerr

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Date Posted: November 26, 2002 12:11:56 EDT

"During your life, everything you do and everyone you meet rubs off in some way. Some bit of everything you experience stays with everyone youíve ever known, and nothing is lost. Thatís whatís eternal, these little specks of experience in a great, enormous river of life that has no end." ~ Harriet Doerr


Harriet Doerr, a late-blooming but highly successful author who submerged her background as the heiress to a railroad fortune and based her books on her experiences as a resourceful resident of rural Mexico, has died. She was 92.

Doerr died Sunday at her home in Pasadena of complications from a broken hip suffered in a fall last month, said her daughter, Martha Doerr Toppin of Oakland.

The silver-haired writer, who published her first novel when she was 74, carefully considered the kaleidoscopic world about her over several decades, chose a few perfect words to describe her observations and wrote three slender gems of literature.

Doerr might have written more, but for failing eyesight caused by glaucoma and the increasing frailties of old age. She envisioned an autobiography -- staunchly denying that her books had been autobiographical, as many readers believed -- that would have been divided into three parts: her early years as wife and mother, her travel and work with her late husband in Mexico and the writing years.

"The words are still there and the stories, but the mechanics are somewhat questionable," she said of her diminished sight in the summer of 1998 while leading garden architects on a tour of the spacious grounds of her Pasadena home. She could describe in detail every rose, citrus tree and clay pot she had collected in her travels, but she did so, she admitted, from memory.

Mexico and a phrase etched into Doerr's consciousness in the years she spent there -- "Consider this, Senora" -- were a magic match.

She used the phrase once in her first novel "Stones for Ibarra," which won the American Book Award for first fiction in 1984, and made it the title of her second novel in 1993.

Her third book was a collection of essays and short stories, "The Tiger in the Grass," which was published in 1995.

In explaining the phrase for The Times in 1993, Doerr said: "They say this when you're having a little discussion -- not angry or anything. Then you consider it, whatever it is, and out comes some rather wise philosophy! This is so typical. This is why you fall deeply in love with the place! Just when you think, catastrophe is here.... Consider this!"

Doerr grew up with a famous name and a privileged background. She was the granddaughter of Henry Edwards Huntington, the railroad tycoon, and played with her siblings at his San Marino estate, which is now the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

But once married, she dropped her maiden name and forbade fuss about her heritage.

"Every so often, I'll be introduced by some well-meaning person as Harriet Huntington Doerr. It makes me want to kill myself and her [the introducer]," Doerr told The Times in 1998. "What is she really saying? She is saying that my grandfather had a lot of money and gave a lot of money to the library. She wants my being related to him to be more important than the books I've written."

The books, and her college degree -- which were related -- came late in Doerr's life. She was the third daughter among the four girls and two boys of Huntington's only son, Howard, and Berkeley piano teacher Leslie Thayer Green. She was born in Pasadena on April 8, 1910, and grew up in a spacious, shingled house off Oak Knoll Avenue with a nanny and a tutor, cooks and gardeners.

The family often summered at Lake Tahoe and gathered for holidays at her uncle's historic ranch in Long Beach, Rancho Los Alamitos, which is now a park. Harriet and her siblings experienced Rachmaninoff in the old Philharmonic Hall on Pershing Square and Houdini at the Orpheum Theater on Broadway, and were always encouraged to express themselves freely.

Her father died when she was 11, of cancer, which later also claimed her mother, five siblings, her husband and a son.

She met her husband, Albert Edward Doerr, a Stanford engineering student from a mining family, at a Christmas party in her parents' home the winter before she went east to attend Smith College. He sent her off on the train with a compartment filled with roses.

Homesick throughout her first year in the cold Massachusetts climate, Harriet transferred to Stanford for the next two years, then dropped out to marry Doerr on Nov. 15, 1930.

The young Doerrs set up housekeeping in a converted 1810 mill in the San Gabriel Valley. They had a son, Michael, and a daughter, Martha, and shuttled between Pasadena and Mexico, where his family had copper mining interests, from 1935 until Al Doerr's death in 1972.

Only then did Doerr decide to complete her college degree. She began slowly, with a few classes at nearby Scripps College in Claremont, and then, in 1975, took the big leap to return to Stanford.

She majored in history but took a writing course as a lark and found her metier.

She took additional writing courses on a Wallace Stegner fellowship.

"I found I'm quite happy working on a sentence for an hour or more, searching for the right phrase, the right word," she said, long after earning her American Book Award and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. "I compare it to the work of a stonecutter -- chipping away at the raw material until it's just right, or as right as you can get it."

That literary precision both limited her output and garnered multiple awards -- gold medals and fiction awards from the Commonwealth Club of California, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Assn., PEN Center U.S.A. West and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and the American Book Award for first fiction, all for "Stones for Ibarra." "Consider This, Senora" was a bestseller, placed on the Publishers Weekly best books list and winner of the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award for quality of prose style from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Doerr's body of work, perhaps 600 pages total in the three slender books, has been called lyrical, sweet and spare, conveying in her precise words her feelings about life, death, love and beauty.

Times reviewer Susan Slocum Hinerfeld called the first book "something of a miracle as novels go, a real act of creation ... a work of substance." Jonathan Yardley echoed in the Washington Post Book World that Doerr "has mastered the art of fiction to a degree that would be remarkable in almost any writer of any age.... What really matters is what she has written, and it is very fine indeed." New York Times critic Anatole Broyard likened Doerr's work to that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Katharine Anne Porter "and even Graham Greene."

When "Consider This, Senora" was published, Times reviewer Charles Bowden wrote that it should be savored "like a drink in the evening before a fine fire." A Publishers Weekly reviewer called the novel "exquisitely nuanced, elegant and wise." New York Times reviewer Sandra Scofield said: "The novel captures a time and place as surely as a jeweler sets a stone."

"The Tiger in the Grass" was published in 1995, the year her son died of brain and lung cancer. The first essay, the book's title piece, was her concise memoirs interspersed with italicized comments about his illness. One entry was: "My son called to say he was dying. He had fallen down and couldn't get up."

Times reviewer Susan Salter Reynolds praised the book, noting that it revealed Doerr's "sturdy, good nature, a humble, grateful temperament." A firm believer that an author's collected experiences find their way onto the page, Doerr, as a Stanford writing student, began with pieces about Mexico. Her classmates noticed that she used the same settings and characters in all her "linked stories" and suggested that she turn them into a novel.

"Stones for Ibarra," whose protagonist couple experience many things that Doerr and her husband did in Mexico, including his struggle with leukemia, was not an easy sell. Publisher after publisher rejected the manuscript, often writing "We like it, but what is it?" Then a woman working for Viking chanced to read three chapters, leading to publication and almost instant success.

When Doerr talked to young writers about precise choice of words and about turning life experience into fiction, she reminded them that success is tightly entwined with luck.

Readers and critics alike often saw that Doerr's characters, albeit with different names, shared experiences, lifestyle and even a mining management career with Harriet and Al Doerr. No, the author always insisted, upset when she received phone calls asking if she were Sara (her first heroine).

"The book is not autobiographical," she told The Times shortly after "Stones for Ibarra" was published. "None of the dialogue between the Americans was ever spoken."

"I embroidered a great deal to make 'Ibarra' more interesting. The truth is either so outlandish or so boring," she said.

Despite her dignified shyness, Doerr became a popular speaker among college, book and writing groups.

She always invited questions and one of her favorites, usually from young career-bent women who had difficulty understanding how she had devoted 42 years to the sole occupation of housewife, was:

"Were you happy?"

"I never heard," she would respond with a twinkle in her very blue eyes, "of anyone being happy for 42 years."

Doerr is survived by her daughter.

At Doerr's request, there will be no services.

Her daughter asked that memorial donations be made to La Escuela Primaria "Leona Vicario" T.V. in Asientos, Mexico c/o P.C. Jordan, Rio Nazas 118, Colonia Cuauhtemoc, 06500 Mexico D.F.; or to the Old Mill Foundation, El Molino Viejo, 1120 Old Mill Road, San Marino, CA 91108; or the Los Angeles Philharmonic, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012.

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