A Review-Essay of We Met in Paris: Grace Frick and Her Life with Marguerite Yourcenar
Joan E. Howard’s wonderful biography sets the record straight on a love affair and companionship that lasted 38 years. In beginning the book, our long look at Grace Frick, the lesser known of the two women, is its own fascinating story. Then after Paris and beyond, the biography changes and enlarges what we knew of Marguerite Yourcenar, as both a woman and a writer. The author reveals the couple’s extraordinary “marriage,” that previous biographers of Yourcenar mostly have belittled, always underestimating the American Grace Frick. Howard was in fact the translator from the French of Josyane Savigneau’s well-known Marguerite Yourcenar, Inventing a Life (Gallimard, Paris, 1990; University of Chicago Press, 1993.) This title strikes me now as a complete misnomer. We Met in Paris persuasively describes a life created and invented by two women together.
Marguerite Yourcenar was the first woman elected to the Académie Française, France’s highest literary honor, in 1981. A group of 40 at any one time, since 1635, with notable interruptions, the Academy was and is a cultural fortress—writers you may have thought you liked, voted at that time against including women, on principle. But progress or more likely one woman writer’s towering intellect and talent was impossible to deny. Grace Frick (1903-1979) would have been joyous, and unsurprised at the honor, if she had lived just months longer. Yet shortly after, Howard reveals Yourcenar began to refer to her publicly without mention of their relationship. Worse, Yourcenar betrayed both the fidelity of her lover and also fidelity to herself, when in talking about Grace, after her death, we’re told, she referred to her dismissively as “my translator.”
Lots of writers besides Yourcenar have attempted to rewrite their biographies, with events and people switched out or in over time. But in this case the writer’s distressing efforts resulted in veiling the central truth, besides writing, of her long life. In their era, which though it overlaps what we might think of as the modern Gay Liberation period, it’s important to remember that their relationship began in 1937, when both were 34. How either dealt with their love affair when thrust by Yourcenar’s fame into the public arena, is certainly light years from most circumstances now. At one point, the writer had told others that she “didn’t want to be pigeon-holed,” a familiar refrain even today. But anyone who juggles a public life different from her private life inevitably gets found out, only sometimes without consequences.
Not everyone, or anyone, in the 1920s was Gertrude Stein—Yourcenar published her first novel in 1929—who was anyway an outlier (never a disparagement), in both her work and public life with Alice B. Toklas. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was an amazing instance of literary audacity for other writers to consider, and readers to love. Regarding Yourcenar, she was, on the contrary, at the center of literary attention for most of her life, and while for Stein, Paris was an escape to modernism from both her medical school training and American parochialism, for the French writer, it was the place where her family’s long past had deposited her.
Still, perhaps it is more accurate to say about Yourcenar that she told different stories to different people. This includes Joan Howard herself in the 1980s, when she stayed during repeated summer months at the home, Petit Plaisance, that Grace and “Madame” had shared in Northeast Harbor, Mount Desert Island, Maine. In the company of friends, Yourcenar’s talk of Grace continued, anchored in memory, and typical of couples who have cherished their travels, in places both loved. In We Met in Paris, this first biography of Grace Frick, Yourcenar’s veil is indeed lifted, to reveal one of the most detailed and compelling accounts of a life or lives that I’ve read. This is one of the many pleasures the book affords.
In the several countries the two visited in their lifetimes, they comfortably spoke the patois. Both were women of the world, a designation of a by-gone era. Marguerite Yourcenar was French, a thing unto itself. But she was as much European, in part because of her historical subject matters, and in part because she lived on a continent that had experienced over centuries the changing boundaries and cultures that war always brings. As for Grace—the book is a treasury of details—she had grown up in Kansas City, Kansas, the “Paris of the Plains,” and her family, descended from French fur traders, considered travel abroad simply an extension of their lives here. As well, she reveals the particularity of Grace’s scholarship in English literature, first at Wellesley and later as a PhD candidate at Yale, was preparation for even wider horizons.
Yet America became their country, and though you could say that Paris was their hometown, as Stein famously claimed, they eventually moved to and made their home on the rocky upper coast of Maine. This was Grace’s gift to Marguerite, a life beyond her fame, and the way her intellect and presence attracted so many others, in New York and abroad. A real life. Yourcenar may not have realized the unlikeliness of ending up here, or perhaps she did—Europe was devastated by the Second World War, with its obliterated cities and broken nations that Marguerite had once frequented. At any rate, in Grace’s lifetime, and after, she never left their home in Northeast Harbor, except for her continued travels. Yourcenar’s expatriation from a country and continent was not a loss, as many have seen it, but an opportunity she made good on.
As to Yourcenar’s and Frick’s eponymous “meeting in Paris,” each woman had a memory of that 1937 evening and the few days after. Add to these remembrances, their friends’ later versions of what they heard from the principals—and there is no one story. Instead, Howard gives us a set of facts and suppositions: Seated at a nearby table in the dining room of the Agwam Hotel, on the rue de Rivoli, Grace overheard Marguerite say she wanted to visit the United States. This prompted Grace to lean over to make a disguised offer of herself as guide. Or not. Then, on that same night, or in the next few days, one of them, or both, fell in love at first sight. There was also the matter of Yourcenar’s large gray-blue eyes in the hotel bar, and the matter of a note Grace sent Marguerite, via hotel staff, to come see the birds that had alighted on a nearby rooftop. Then the professed avian enthusiast walked from her room in the Agwam to Grace’s, to accept the invitation.
As happens, the two left the hotel together. Not to travel to the United States—that would come later. Instead, they visited cities in France and Italy, before their ultimate destination of Sicily. When on their way, they were to take a ship from Genoa, Marguerite got so dizzy when facing the gangplank that she couldn’t make it up. According to Grace, she was then blindfolded and successfully led on board. Looking back, even Yourcenar found this funny. Grace’s gift of laughter continued throughout their lives.
Until I read Joan E. Howard’s fascinating account of the couple’s years together, I had never dropped Marguerite Yourcenar’s surname in my life. But the revealed intimacy of the pair invites us in. It parallels the experience of so many of their friends, who paid visits over three decades to Petit Plaisance, where the women would cook a special dish or throw a party for one of the many American and French holidays. Howard’s account is transporting. They would share their favorite places and views, at the Atlantic coastline or in in a woods or garden. At home, dressed in togas or ghost costumes at Halloween, they entertained the neighborhood children, most often celebrating European customs with European foods and rituals. There were lessons, in square dancing, essay writing, and the recitation of poems—the teacher in Grace and the storyteller/historian in Marguerite combined to make such days memorable for all. With mostly Grace’s daybooks in hand, Joan Howard allows us entry to these lives with such detail and intention that we experience the scenes as if we were there. And how we wish it.
At the same time, they lived in private the lives of two women of letters. One of them a well-regarded novelist and classicist, and intellectual historian; the other a scholar of English literature, also educated in the classics, and an important pioneer of women’s education. Their reading was various, including newspapers—the two were engaged by world and local news, also politics and international discourse. While, as people of their time, both wrote and received frequent personal letters, they would handle all Marguerite’s professional correspondence together. More important, they would discuss drafts of Yourcenar’s French manuscripts, all rewriting left to Grace, who each time, after changes, would make a clean copy (no Xeroxes, no digital files), to be marked up yet again. The same would be true of their meticulous translations into English. These portraits of dailyness are literary gold, and women’s historical gold.
Meanwhile, Yourcenar was in the most creative stretch of her life, thanks in part to the weeks or months planned just for writing. Then and later, some journalists and biographers would criticize Frick for what may have been her greatest gift to Yourcenar: time alone to write. In fact, from outside, this solitude was often read as a demanding person’s necessity to have her partner to herself. In Paris, after all, she might have had a madcap social life and so many literary friends! So sad that there she was stuck for 38 years in Maine! As if Marguerite Yourcenar could be made to do anything she didn’t want to. Every writer should be so lucky as to share her life with someone so prepared and able to help shepherd her life’s work to its finish. Memoirs of Hadrian, her most widely read novel, was written, and translated soon after, in this period with Grace. Later came The Abyss, considered by many serious readers the great literary achievement of Yourcenar’s life.
Grace Frick was born in 1903, in time to witness her country’s amazing half century of industrialization, invention, and general possibility. In spite of two World Wars and the Depression, the middle class was created (by same) to share in the bounty of robust economies of trade and industry and commerce, alongside an intellectual evolution, in part revolution, which among other things, inspired the growth of education, libraries, and social services in the growing city slums. These were the fields that women tackled—the vote was won only in 1920, after a long and grueling suffragists’ battle—maybe with the notion that horizons were limitless, before running into the by now familiar patriarchal determination to block the view. In broader terms, it was a time when more of the middle-class than not, felt they could fix their own and America’s problems. But by the 1980s, enthusiasm for what some people called the American Dream had expired before anyone quite got their money’s worth. And if not then, to jump ahead, September 2001 would mark the beginning of an unrecognizable decade, and beyond. The terms of the 20th century no longer applied, a sea change that would travel over much of the world.
It is noted by Howard that, while Yourcenar inherited money from a family descended from the quasi-aristocracy (long on names—Yourcenar is an imperfect anagram of her almost dozen—short on cash), Frick was financially launched by profits from her uncle’s printing business. Toledo, Ohio, where he started, was, at the beginning of the century, a hub of commerce, a destination for railroad goods and passengers, and a port on lake Erie. Like many men of his era, George La Rue had bet upon his own enterprise and won. It’s notable also how open-minded he was for his era, allowing Grace as a woman to set her own course. What that course would be is striking—Grace Frick and her colleagues essentially invented women’s higher education. In many cases, they became professors in the curricula and programs they’d designed. Wellesley College, Grace’s alma mater, became a center for highly educated women, taught by women, who after graduating distributed themselves to other women’s colleges and a variety of professions. It was an era in academia, at least for women, when new ideas within such institutions were encouraged… something you would be hard-pressed to find on most campuses today. This rich accounting foregrounds the lives of American women heretofore unmentioned, with the exception of the other women writers, in redefining the movement of the twentieth century, the meaning of the describing the sweeping expanse of the twentieth century.
In reading They Met in Paris, we are convinced by the broad sweep of Howard’s attention, that Grace’s sorority of educated women crucially effected lasting gains of the 20th century. Many would become lifelong friends of Grace and Marguerite. As a group, they were committed to social change, economic justice, and racial equality, alongside the many concrete professions to which they gave their all. This was not naivete. Howard effortlessly narrates the larger story of these women’s feminist (my word) perspectives, alongside details of Grace’s life. Her contemporaries included single women, couples that were heterosexual and married, and lesbian couples, which in beginning didn’t seem to matter much to anyone, including their employers. (Many feminist writers and scholars live in such circles today.) But soon enough, the coupling of two women, clearly a lesbian relationship, became more charged and even odious to contemplate for public consumption. Sexologist Havelock Ellis had written at the nineteenth century’s end about “inversion” in both men and women. Its effect was to break open a silence, for better and worse. An example of worse was the not-long-after hunting to ground of Oscar Wilde. Later, in Britain and the U.S., important lesbian books were banned, and writers’ private lives were juggled their public roles.
It was in this context and others, that Yourcenar and Frick began their relationship in Grace’s home country. But there was still Paris, which in its history, grandeur, and literary zeal was the flip side to American puritanism. A memorable fixture of Paris nightlife was Natalie Barney’s literary salon, hosted over decades, as a meeting place for women writers, lesbian and gay authors, and modernists. Several writers inhabited two, even three, of these categories. This biography casts a world of people, places and predicaments—a women’s world—that leaves an indelible mark.
The two women’s lives were rich, thanks to their educations (Yourcenar, self-educated) that continued all their lives. They made enough money to support themselves, first by teaching, Marguerite at Sarah Lawrence and Grace as dean at Hartford Junior College; then later, by living modestly in a small town, where they were at home to their cherished friends in all the arts and letters. Later, they took frequent overseas travels to see their European and expatriate friends and to attend to Yourcenar’s professional interests in Paris. As well, they visited favorite places in Europe and beyond. In 1947, the French writer became an American citizen, which to her meant taking on the history and present of yet another country. She and Grace were witnesses to the eventful 1960s. Stung by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, another of the extraordinary moments in the book, Yourcenar wrote her astute conclusion, days later, to Natalie Barney. Howard quotes her: “Just as Proust marveled that Rasputin’s death was such a “Russian” crime, we cannot get over the fact that the details of the tragedy in Dallas were so “American.”
Howard enlightens us with facts we wish we had always known, and confirmation of suppositions and imaginings. Her two heroines, our heroines, do not disappoint.The couple’s commitment to American society included working for social justice, especially for African-Americans, and protesting the Vietnam War, armed with placards! Also, they worked towards animal rights and preserving the natural world. Both were indeed citizens of the U.S. The two seem almost prescient, now, though they were simply our shining forebears. Like Woolf, Stein, and James Baldwin, they were also citizens of the world, a designation with a new meaning toward the second half of their century, when saving the planet was added to their responsibilities. Joan E. Howard provides both the microscope and ground of a vast treasury of details about Grace and “Madame,” their literary lives, their friends, and of the time in which they lived. This extraordinary biography sets a very high bar for anyone who might write about Grace Frick, or Marguerite Yourcenar, in the future.
Joan E. Howard was born and grew up in Augusta, Maine. She studied psychology and French at the University of New Hampshire, then earned her M.A. and Ph.D. at the Universities of Rhode Island and Connecticut, respectively. While teaching at her undergraduate alma mater in the 1980s, she met and spent several summers with the subject of her doctoral dissertation, Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987). Howard is the English translator of two biographies by the French journalist and writer Josyane Savigneau: Marguerite Yourcenar: Inventing a Life” and “Carson McCullers: A Life. Since 2000, she has served as director of the Marguerite Yourcenar house museum, Petite Plaisance, in Northeast Harbor, Maine. Her recent book, We Met in Paris: Grace Frick and Her Life with Marguerite Yourcenar was long-listed for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography in 2019. Joan is working on a memoir of her time with Madame Yourcenar.