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Harriet Doerr 1910-2002

Novelist Published First of 3 Gem-Like Books at Age 74

November 26, 2002|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

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.

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