Editor’s Note: The following piece is excerpted and adapted from the pages of the author’s forthcoming book, “We Met in Paris”: Grace Frick and Her Life with Marguerite Yourcenar, to be published later this year by the University of Missouri Press.
IN JANUARY 1981, I was preparing for my doctoral oral exams in French literature at the University of Connecticut when The New York Times Magazine ran a lavishly illustrated article on the imminent induction of a woman—the first one in 350 years—into the Académie Française. That woman was Marguerite Yourcenar, author of such distinguished works as Mémoires d’Hadrien (Memoirs of Hadrian) and L’Œuvre au Noir (The Abyss). I also learned, astonishingly enough, that she was living on an island in my home state of Maine with her American companion, Grace Frick. One question I undoubtedly would be asked at my orals was on what or on whom I planned to write my dissertation. I knew immediately upon reading Mémoires d’Hadrien what the answer to that question would be.
Over the following months I read everything of Yourcenar’s that I could get my hands on, finally zeroing in on the subject of “sacrifice” in the French author’s novels and plays. After a brief exchange of letters in the summer of 1982, Mme Yourcenar graciously allowed me to come speak with her in person. On August 17, I found myself knocking on the door of her home, “Petite Plaisance,” in the Mount Desert Island village of Northeast Harbor. I arrived with piles of notes, hoping to show that I had found the key to her work. I soon realized that Madame, as she preferred to be called, would not be easy to convince. Sacrifice had a role in her works, to be sure, but in her view not a terribly important one. So we spoke of other things, laying the foundation of a friendship.
In June of 1983, Mme Yourcenar invited me to spend what ended up being the better part of the summer with her, a routine that repeated itself over the next two years. Sharing a house for months at a time with the subject of one’s dissertation is without a doubt highly unusual, and it certainly did not contribute to the speedy completion of my own. But it was the first in a series of events that aroused my interest in Grace Frick. The second occurred on the morning of July 13, 1983, when Mme Yourcenar offered me a garment that she had removed from her living room closet. It was a floor-length, hooded wool cape in the ancient paenula style that had belonged to Frick, one of many she had owned over the previous decades. She had bought it not long before her death and worn it only a few times. Mme Yourcenar turned to me and said, “You’re very tall, like Grace, who was taller than I am. Would you like to have this cape? It’s quite elegant. If you do a lot of walking, it’s practical.” I was deeply moved, and I have felt a connection to Grace Frick ever since that day.
Joan E. Howard, director of Petite Plaisance in Northeast Harbor, ME, is the author of the forthcoming Grace Frick and Her Life with Marguerite Yourcenar.