“Sturge: A Memoir” is a curious item indeed. It’s a compendium of documents and photographs culled from the scattered journalistic remains of Sturgis Haskins, a Down East native who left an unmistakably deep mark on”¦ it’s hard to tell what, exactly.
Haskins grew up in Sorrento and lived there most of his life, with sojourns in New York City, Boston and Orono where he was an on-again, off-again student at the university. As a teenager in the 1950s he gained a reputation as a skillful sailor, and sailboats were the focal point of his life and local identity.
One night in March 1971, he got a frantic call for help from his neighbors. A small boat had overturned on Frenchman’s Bay, and so he rowed through choppy waters and pulled one gasping man to safety from a ledge, but was unable by himself to save five others. His reputation gained him sailing students such as Norman Mailer, Dr. Benjamin Spock and former governor John McKernan, among other famous people, native and summer.
He participated in various capacities in local government much of his life. He founded the Sullivan-Sorrento Historical Society. In 1972 he ran unsuccessfully for the Maine Senate. He apparently never held a permanent job for long. In 1984, the hepatitis he’d contracted years before in Boston took a bad turn, and while in a Bangor hospital he was given the wrong drugs, nearly died, and suffered brain damage, which, fortunately for all concerned, afterward improved.
Why it was “fortunate for all” that Haskins lived to the age of 72, dying suddenly in September 2012, is the part that editor and Haskins’ lifelong friend, Sanford Phippen, intends the book to clarify.
For in addition to sailing (writing, rug-hooking, scrapbooking and taking photos, much of which he donated to the Maine Historical Society and other similar institutions), he was a co-founder, with Karen Bye and others, of the University of Maine Wilde-Stein Club in 1973. He helped organize the first Maine Gay Symposium in 1974. He was present at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village the night in June 1969 when the gay rights movement erupted in a riot.
Later he became a frequent contributor to Gay.net, where his musings gained a significant, sometimes controversial, reputation. “Sturge: A Memoir” collects a good deal of this writing, along with correspondence and Haskins’ occasional works of boating and arts journalism from five decades. In these writings, his mark emerges. For he was what in more genteel times was called “a wit”; no particular body of work, or even social activism, distinguishes him, but instead the meaning is in the force with which he lived and expressed his life.
One journal entry recounts, for example, in hilarious Down East understatement, a boating expedition with Norman Mailer, his secretary Mary Oliver (later a well-known poet) and others, in which Mailer insists on directing operations while the experienced sailor Haskins obediently stands aside and watches disaster transpire. He writes with racy perceptivity of “sexcapades,” of small-town politics and of everyday excursions. In a Maine Gaynet posting, a memorable passage:
“After my expensive spree at Staples, in Bangor, I wandered to Border’s Book Store. This might have been my first visit in a year and things were considerably re-arranged. I could not find the gay book section (if, indeed, there is one now). For an interim I sat at coffee musing at the assortment of very odd people—rather reminded me of a day care center for eccentrics. …
“Stephen King wandered in. I recognized him at once. Someone near me said, ‘There is Stephen King.’ He disappeared for an interim, returning into view at the coffee counter. Here he ordered a bag of sweets. As the two leather chairs adjacent to me were unoccupied, I imagined him soon seated next to me. An engaged conversation would surely follow. A long friendship would be certain.
“But alas, sweets in hand, he left. Rather pale faced for someone who winters in Florida.”
This gorgeous passage evokes the presence of mind that affected the lives of countless people, gay and straight, in untold social, aesthetic and maritime ways in Down East Maine. This presence flowed to the last day of his life when he suffered a stroke and was told by a doctor that the required surgery had only a 40 percent chance of success. He replied: “You must not fail, and if you do, I want a big monument.”
Carl Little in his preface accurately calls “Sturge: A Memoir” that monument, and the sheer length of the list of contributors, compilers and assistants that Phippen, Janet Pearson and Diana Paine assembled for the project in a way attests to force of personality that impelled it. This book can be perused, read, opened at random, and what results is no single defining event, but a sense of a life lived from moment to moment with a kind of Renaissance exuberance and excellence that insurance companies no longer allow.
“When you saw Sturge in any sailboat,” Phippen said recently, “there was a man.” In response, here is his monument. It’s available by writing to Sanford Phippen, 566 East Side Road, Hancock, ME 04640, or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dana Wilde is a writer, editor and former writing professor. He lives in Troy.