Sarton By the Sea
Writer May Sarton was never fully embraced by York, the Maine town that she loved.
Written by Deborah McDermott. Photograph by Rod Kessler
Victoria Simon was a thirty-six-year-old mother of two young children when she moved to York in 1984. Shy by nature, a stranger in town, she found solace reading the journals of the author she called “my” May Sarton.
By that time, Sarton’s works were already legion. Equally prolific as a poet, memoirist, and novelist, the author had written more than forty books, and she knew and was inspired by the likes of Elizabeth Bowen and John Ciardi. She had taught courses at Harvard, Wellesley, and a host of other colleges and universities, and she had received numerous honorary degrees.
Simon was a little intimidated by Sarton’s fame and experience, but she did not find the author’s journals to be remote. Rather, they were intimate, approachable, and deeply meaningful. “She spoke to me through her works,” Simon says. “It was as if she knew me, as if she had some entry to my soul.”
Nine years earlier, Sarton, too, had found her way to York. Dare I write her? Simon asked herself. Would it be impertinent? How would Sarton react? Screwing up her courage, Simon poured out her heart to Sarton, her feelings of isolation, her sense of being sometimes overwhelmed by motherhood, the salve that Sarton’s journals had become. “I spent hours on the letter. I figured I had nothing to lose.”
Within a week, she had a response. In her firm, clear handwriting, Sarton had replied simply, “I too am often lonely in York. Come for tea.”
And so Simon, “heart pounding,” went. Sarton greeted her at the door and offered tea and cookies. They went into the library and sat across from each other. “She said, ‘Well, let’s begin.’ Just like that. She wanted to go deep right away. And we began to share,” Simon recalls.
Thus began a friendship that endured until Sarton’s death in 1995.
By the time may sarton arrived in york at the age of sixty-one, she had already led a remarkable life. She was born in Belgium on May 3, 1912, an only child, and emigrated with her parents to the United States in 1916, settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her mother, Mabel, was a furniture and clothing designer; her father, George, became a Harvard professor and Carnegie Institution for Science research associate known for his work, Introduction to the History of Science. Both parents, especially George, were distant, according to Sarton’s biographer, Margot Peters. Sarton was a “latchkey kid,” who was sent to live with her parents’ friends for periods of time, Peters writes, and she was often lonely.
As an adult, Sarton was mercurial, by equal measures someone who craved and shunned attention, who prized her privacy and needed company, who was extraordinarily kind and loving but could burst into anger seemingly unprovoked, who was both tender and abrupt. Mary-Leigh Smart, who owned the house Sarton rented in York, calls Sarton “a caution,” an old-fashioned term that she feels sums up her friend perfectly. “She didn’t get the attention she wanted as a child, and she craved it,” Smart believes. “When she threw tantrums I do think she was a child calling for help.”
Sarton also was a woman of passions — for Europe, which she visited often, for the theater, for which she forewent a scholarship to Vassar College in order to join the Civic Repertory Theatre, and for people, especially her “muses.” Among them was her longtime partner, Simmons College professor Judy Matlock, with whom she lived in Cambridge. She also was, of course, passionate about writing, often penning one book (and sometimes more) a year. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, about a lesbian poet, is often called Sarton’s “coming-out novel, published in 1960 at a time when the country was still firmly rooted in the post-World War II nuclear-family model. Sarton rejected the label “lesbian writer,” saying her themes about love and relationships were universal. Her novels and many poems were deeply political, reflecting her passion for the underdog and progressive ideals.
Smart, an art patron, and widow of Jack Smart, star of the 1940s radio detective show The Fat Man, met Sarton in 1971 when she accompanied a mutual friend, artist Beverly Hallam, on a visit to the writer’s home in Nelson, New Hampshire. Smart had just purchased forty-six acres on a promontory overlooking the ocean in York, where she intended to build a house at the water’s edge for herself and Hallam. There was already one house on the property, and she asked Sarton if she would be interested in renting it.
As Sarton tells it in The House by the Sea, she had no choice but to move into the three-story house known as Wild Knoll: “Once I stood on that wide flagstone terrace and looked out over that immensely gentle field to a shining, still blue expanse, the decision was out of my hands.”
“This is all fate, you know,” Smart remembers Sarton saying.
Although they always had a loyal following, Sarton’s books didn’t typically sell in large numbers, and she had struggled financially, supplementing royalties with college lectures. When she moved to York in 1973, however, she was coming into her own as a writer. Her works were becoming increasingly popular and her financial stress was lessened, though she would continue to lecture almost until the end of her life.
Her change in fortunes was due in no small part to the women’s movement. In a letter to a reader in 1977, Sarton wrote, “When I was young, it was hard to be a woman poet. Since women’s lib, there is a real sense of sisterhood. More importantly, I came out as a Sapphist (V. Woolf’s word and the only elegant one, I think, for the lesbian) long before it was fashionable, so I am kind of a hero now.”
Wild Knoll was tucked down a country road and not as easy to find for Sarton’s determined fans as her Nelson home had been. “It was absolutely as if laid out for her,” Smart says. “And May really did love it.”
A lifelong and well-versed gardener, Sarton spent countless hours in her gardens — a respite from the writing. She experimented with species reaching the limits of their zone in Maine, and she pored over seed and bulb catalogues. She planted hundreds of daffodil bulbs in the fields behind the house, resulting in a sea of yellow each spring.
“May loved Wild Knoll. She loved the daffies that she planted; she loved the trees and the pathways mowed to her sea,” said Barbara Martin, a schoolteacher who lived in York Beach and became a close friend. “She loved belonging there. I enjoyed walking with her in spring out in the fields.”
Sarton placed a premium on having fresh flowers in her home, no matter the time of year. Her birthday, May 3, “was like another holiday for us, we got so many flower orders” from friends and fans alike, says Phoebe Foster, who owned Foster’s Flower Shop in York, where Sarton was a valued customer. Foster would space out the deliveries over weeks, so that Sarton could fully enjoy the flowers in turn. When the shop, which also housed Foster’s Downeast Clambake, a seasonal restaurant run by Phoebe’s husband, Bill, was destroyed by fire in 1979, Sarton sent the couple a letter. “Like the phoenix, you will rise again from the fire,” she wrote.
Such thoughtfulness was typical, friends say. “She loved animals and wrote about her dog and her cat,” says hairdresser Donna Koestner, who gave Sarton a wash and set every week of her life in York. “When my cat was killed, I was distraught. She went home and dug out one of her books about a cat she had lost and gave it to me. She could be very caring like that.”
Sarton also nurtured budding talent when she saw it. Cape Neddick poet Roger Finch was a graduate student in linguistics at Harvard when he met Sarton. He’d been writing poems since he was a teenager but had never published any. Sarton became a mentor of sorts. “She was very encouraging, and she really did give me a lot of advice,” says Finch, who this year won the Angels Without Wings Foundation’s Maine Senior Poet Laureate award. “I kept at it because of her. I could tell she wanted to have serious conversations about literature, and I’m not sure she knew a lot of people in York with whom she could have that kind of relationship.”
Arguably her best friend in town was a nursing professor, Janice Oberacker, who believes Sarton likely nurtured that friendship because she was not part of the literary world. “I wasn’t part of her public life at all. I never asked her for anything, and I think she appreciated that. I knew a side of her no one else knew, the side of an ordinary person leading an ordinary life. She needed to talk to someone who would not go public, and she had that person in me.”
Yet Sarton knew little about Oberacker personally. She wanted the conversation to be focused on her, and she found other subjects — including Oberacker’s life — wanting. “We were at opposite ends politically,” Oberacker says. “She was a Democrat and my family was very Republican. But she never knew that. She never asked. She didn’t know a lot about me. She needed to have her life discussed, not mine. But she gave me a great deal back. She really told me what she thought about everything. I don’t think I’ve known anyone else in my life like that.”
Sarton’s tempestuous side would appear without warning and may explain why she had difficulty being accepted in some York circles. Koestner says Sarton puts her in mind of the famous line from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s nursery rhyme: “When she was good, she was very, very good and when she was bad, she was horrid.”
Once, Koestner says, Sarton swept into her beauty salon without an appointment and demanded a wash and set. “I told her I’d get to her as quickly as I could, and she said, ‘Don’t you know who I am? Don’t you know how important I am?’ ” Koestner remembers. “She could reduce you to tears. After she had tantrums, she’d feel terrible and feel she had to make amends. And the next minute, she’d be praising you to kingdom come.”
Friends tell of restaurant dinners disrupted when Sarton became angry and left in a huff. Smart recalls police responding to neighbors’ complaints about one of Sarton’s outbursts. “She tried to become a member of a community of gardeners and they rebuffed her. The library also rebuffed her,” Oberacker says. “She felt rejected. It’s a shame because the community of York could have had so much more from her.”
It was that sense of loneliness that Sarton tapped when she wrote to Simon. “She felt like she wasn’t welcomed in York,” Simon says. “Who were her friends besides Janice and the people who worked for her? This was a person who lived intimately, and New Englanders aren’t like that.”
Sarton was aware of her flawed nature. “I am an impossible creature,” she writes in Journal of a Solitude, “set apart by a temperament I have never learned to use as it could be used, thrown off by a word, a glance, a rainy day or one drink too many. I go up to heaven and down to hell in an hour.”
As she aged, Sarton was beset by illness and disease. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1979 and had a mastectomy. Her subsequent journal, Recovering, brought many more readers into her fold. She suffered from pneumonia more than once, and a collapsed lung. In 1986, she had a stroke, from which friends say she never really recovered, and in 1990, she was diagnosed with lung cancer (she was a lifelong smoker). Still, she kept writing, publishing several books of poetry and fiction, as well as keeping a journal. According to biographer Margo Peters, by the last years of her life, Sarton was making a significant income — one hundred thousand dollars “in a good year,” much of which she gave away to friends. In 1993, she had another stroke, and yet another in 1994.
That year, she was referred to Dr. Patricia Hymanson, a neurologist. Sarton was having pain in her arm, which Hymanson diagnosed as cancer-related. “I told her that to go further in treatment would be very disabling and the quality of her life would sink to a real low,” says Hymanson.
“We had conversations about that, about preserving dignity and her mental sharpness,” Hymanson continues. “She was forthright and direct and provocative. She would put out little zinging statements, and you could react — or not. She was elderly and frail and feisty and was annoyed at her pain. She didn’t want to be old and sick. She wanted to be better and restored.”
Then at one of their appointments, when Hymanson again patiently explained Sarton’s options, she saw the author make the transition from wanting to live to accepting death. “Her shoulders went down. She took a deep breath. And then I saw her make up her mind,” Hymanson remembers. “She didn’t want to be overwhelmed by the treatment so that she would be diminished in her abilities to live life until the end.”
That end came not long after, in July 1995, at York Hospital.
Never fully embraced by the seaside town that she loved, May Sarton nevertheless left her imprint here, and she continues to be a presence in the lives of those who loved and accepted her as the intelligent, generous, passionate — and complicated — person that she was. “I felt like I was in a book when I was with May,” Victoria Simon says. “Maybe it was the way she spoke. There was such intimacy. Maybe it was because I read the journals. She would talk to me, and I could see it in her writing. What was coming out of her mouth would look so beautiful on the page. It was such a gift. I felt as if one of the reasons I was in York was to be her friend.”