Alice Koller, author of the solitary life, dies at 94

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Alice Koller, author of the solitary life, dies at 94
Koller died on July 21 in a hospital in Trenton, New Jersey, at 95. Cherie Koller-Fox, a niece, confirmed her death. She did not know the cause.

by Penelope Green

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- At 37, Alice Koller was unsettled. She had a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard, a résumé of small-bore jobs in and out of academia, and no fixed address. She was bright and educated, yet had floundered.

In the winter of 1962, she rented a house on Nantucket, bought herself a German shepherd puppy and set out to interrogate her life. The stakes were high: As she later wrote, she was fully prepared to end it all should she not succeed.

The book that recorded her experience, “An Unknown Woman,” was eventually published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1982. It attracted devoted fans who were inspired by Koller’s self-reckoning, a feminist’s Walden. As her life was reduced to small essential acts — making coffee, walking on the beach and caring for her puppy — she found they were enough to sustain her.

“I know who I am a little bit more each day,” she wrote.

Koller died on July 21 in a hospital in Trenton, New Jersey, at 95. Cherie Koller-Fox, a niece, confirmed her death. She did not know the cause.

In the years after she left Nantucket, Koller would continue to live in the margins. Koller-Fox said her aunt rented in various towns, including Ithaca and Washington, D.C., supported by modest gifts of money from friends and government assistance, and was estranged from her family. (Her brother, Kenneth, died in 2018; her sister Muriel Cooper, in 2019.)

In a story for the Washington Star in 1977, reporter Judy Flanders found Koller unemployed in Warrenton, Virginia, owing two months’ rent and in debt for lawyers’ fees for a suit she pursued against an animal hospital when her German shepherd died in its care and having sold her furniture to pay it down. Over the years she had worked at Mademoiselle magazine, as a speechwriter, a medical writer and as an academic for a few months at the University of California, Santa Barbara, filling in for a professor on leave.

As she wrote in “An Unknown Woman,” “I was always working toward something, but I never, ever got there.”

Koller was born Sept. 13, 1925, in Akron, Ohio. Her father, Andrew, ran a hardware store. Her mother, Sarah, was a homemaker. She was valedictorian at her high school, after which she attended drama school at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, and then the University of Chicago.

It took eight years to get her doctorate in philosophy from Harvard, which she earned in 1960 — hard won, as she labored to pass her exams after a medical leave. Her father, whom she adored, suffered from early onset Alzheimer’s disease and was cared for at home by her mother, whom she resented.

When she completed her dissertation, she brought it to her father, already in the cloud of his disease, and placed it in his hands. As she wrote in her book, he said, “I don’t care about that,” and pushed it away.

There were other hurts: a therapist who was killed in a car accident; affairs with men who slipped away; the casual slights of sexist professors, including one who told her, when she asked a question in class, “Yours was a voice out of the bedroom.”

After “An Unknown Woman” was published, Koller contributed five essays to the Hers column in The New York Times, lyrical pieces about a life alone with her dogs, and the pleasures of the natural world. In one, in which she delights in the courtship of a pair of cardinals, she writes, “Do you still think I live alone in the country?”

In 1990, she published a second book, “The Stations of Solitude,” a manifesto for and primer to the solitary life. Writing in The Times, Judith Shulevitz found each of its chapters “a beguiling rest stop on the road to self knowledge,” but felt that its author “lingers longer than she should on a rehash of the events that led up to her hermitic existence.”

“She was a complicated woman,” Koller-Fox said. “The idea that the solitary life brought one happiness didn’t really hold true in her life.”

It is a paradox that her life provided inspiration for so many, even as she continued to struggle. In 1991, Bantam republished “An Unknown Woman,” now a sought-after title on Amazon.

“The default situation for most writers is that they’re going to be forgotten,” said Brad Bigelow, editor of the Neglected Books Page, a website devoted to out-of-print authors. In 2015, Bigelow exhumed “An Unknown Woman,” likening Koller as many have, to Henry David Thoreau.

“It takes deliberate acts of remembering to keep them from being lost,” he wrote. “Her book deserves to be read and studied as much as anything by Virginia Woolf.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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