It is difficult to pinpoint when Sturgis Haskins (1940-2013) first emerged as a Down East legend. Perhaps there was a glimmery suggestion of predestination from the Rev. Maragaret Henrichsen, who included Haskins’ childhood antics in her popular memoir of Hancock ministry, “Seven Steeples” (Houghton Mifflin, 1951). It could easily be his role as sailing instructor for embattled novelist and summer visitor Norman Mailer, or the latter’s public support of Haskins’ colorful also-ran political career.
Many admired Haskins as a civil rights advocate. One of the founders of the University of Maine’s Wilde-Stein Club and the first gay symposium in 1974, the man from Sullivan-Sorrento was also widely recognized as a competitive sailor, architectural recorder, photographer, poet of stature and donor of substantive historical holdings to museums from Searsport to Bangor to Portland and Mystic, Conn. Haskins literally made headlines when he saved the life of a drowning clam digger.
Though the multi-faceted gentlemen left no single masterpiece, those who knew him realized his essence could be seen in the vigor, substance and value of his scattered essays, talks, e-mails and letters, as well as their own “Sturge” observations. Consider the combined efforts of such extraordinary contributors as Maine art historian Carl Little; fellow boater and participant at Down East Senior College Sydney Rockefeller, (whose largesse propelled this book); co-founder of the Wilde-Stein Club and gay activist Steve Bull; sailor Michael O’Hearn; and Patricia Ranzon, whose poem “Taking the Photographer’s Picture” is an appropriate match to Haskins’ much lauded “Cap’n Bunkers Boy.”(Aptly included as errata.)
There are many more worthy contributors to this memorial book for a friend. What saves it from being merely a parade float of random memories is editor Sanford Phippen. Phippen was a longtime friend from Hancock County and one of the state’s most acclaimed writers. Phippen’s “Kitchen Boy” (1996) was voted as “one of the 100 books that best reveal the history of Maine and the life of its people.” Carefully choosen from a vast array of material, Phippen homed in on the very best and divided “Sturge” into 24 chapters dealing variously with family, Sorrento, sex, boating, education, employment, travel, activities (croquet, rug hooking) and politics. There is also a comprehensive bibliography.
Like Phippen, Haskins was a blue collar native in a summer colony; both were gay, talented and successful. Both were chroniclers, and as the editor sifts through the evidence, he stays critical, not letting his subject get away with things.
For example, when Haskins was dropped as the director of the Neighborhood Youth Corps in Ellsworth, he “felt he was fired because he was gay, and he protested.” Close inspection, documented by Phippen from several sources, disproves that theory. Phippen proves to be an honest, first-rate historian noting, “Sturge’s job was being Sturgis Haskins.”
Happily so. For this is the complex story of a self-aware young man who chose to revel in life in a difficult era. The reader should remember that the American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality a “mental disorder” until 1974, and living a LGBT lifestyle was a “criminal offense” until 1976. Read about some of the lives of quiet desperation lived by Haskins’ contemparies in John Preston’s “Winter’s Light: Reflections of Yankee Queer” (1995).
Then read “Sturge,” an affecting, upbeat recollection of a Mainer who lived life to the fullest, becoming the rare native who ran with the summer crowd and valued his own beginnings, became proudly and actively gay, fought for civil rights, co-founded the Sullivan-Sorrento Historical Society and left a legacy of manuscript collections to our finest institutions. This is a key LGBT volume; it is equally an important mainstream biography.
David Barry is a cultural historian who has authored/co-authored seven books including “Maine: The Wilder Half of New England,” “Deering: A Social and Architectural History” and “Pyrrhus Venture” (a novel with Randolph Dominic). He resides in Portland.