Phyllis Grosskurth 1924 - 2015

Canadian Biographer

Phyllis Grosskurth was born in Toronto, Ontario and was the eldest of four children. Her father was one of the founders of Imperial Life Insurance Company. Throughout her early years she lived a “charmed life,” complete with servants and luxury. Young Patsy, as she was called at the time, attended St. Clements School in Toronto for elementary and high school where she was an excellent student. She continued her studies and received a Bachelor of Arts degree, honours English from the University of Toronto, a Master of Arts degree from the University of Ottawa and a Doctor of Letters from University of Trinity College.

While studying at the University of Toronto, she met the charismatic Robert Grosskurth. They married in 1948. His job as a naval officer dictated many moves to different posts. Robert was away from home for long periods of time in South Korea and other places. She met the challenges of single parenting while pursuing her interests.

In 1960, they moved to London, England where Robert Grosskurth was stationed at the Canadian High Commission. It has been written that Phyllis was not the typical traditional naval wife. At this time, she worked on her doctorate in literature at the University of London, and juggled family life.

She found the London attitudes very stuffy but had a fascination with all things Victorian. It was in early 1960 that she found the unpublished letters and documents of John Addington Symonds. He wrote the book Male Love: A Problem in Greek Ethics and Other Writings. Mr. Symonds was married, had four daughters, and was also gay.

Dr. Grosskurth became fascinated with the research of the era and Mr. Symonds. She wrote a remarkable biography about him for which she won the 1964 Governor-General’s Award. This was her first book and it was followed by other well received biographies. It is interesting to observe that her writings were about people who were advocates of male love (homosexuality), human sexuality, psychoanalysis, and child psychology. They were poets, cultural historians, and social reformers of the 1800s.

In the mid-1960s, Dr. Grosskurth became the first female professor in the University of Toronto’s English department. Bronwyn Drainie, former editor of the Literary Review of Canada, who was a student in Dr. Grosskurth’s class, described her as a flirtatious creature and a heavy-duty thinker. Her daughter Anne has described her colourful clothes, and her way of being opinionated and engaging, making people remember her as an “outsized character.”

Although Dr. Grosskurth did not like political infighting, in 2001, she and other female professors challenged the University of Toronto on wage discrimination. There was a huge court case which was eventually settled through mediation. It has been said that, at the time, the university failed to achieve fairness.

After her first marriage ended, she was married to Mavor Moore for 10 years. After their divorce they remained friends. She and her third husband, Bob McMullan (whom she married in 1986), lived a wonderful life in Cabbagetown, a heritage neighbourhood in Toronto.

As one of Canada’s pre-eminent biographers, she also wrote her 1999 memoir, Elusive Subject: A Biographer’s Life.

Reviews of her memoir:

“Engaging…. peppered with gossip about prominent figures in Toronto’s burgeoning cultural life of the 1960s.”
Quill and Quire

“Her own life is a surprisingly open book…. Overflowing with detail, and told in a spontaneous style, her energy, her tenacity and honesty come through… this is a remarkably rounded self-portrait.”
Montreal Gazette

There is no doubt that Dr. Phyllis Grosskurth had an exceptional literary career.

Awards and Honours

  • 2000 – Officer of the Order of Canada
  • 2002 – Order of Ontario

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