Couple resurrects James Michener's St. Michaels home


Riverside residence of 'Chesapeake' author inhabited by surgeon, interior designer

September 17, 2013|By Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun

Literary legend has it that James Michener saw a great blue heron above the St. Michaels property he was inspecting and immediately decided to buy the 25 acres and the old house that sat on a creek off the Choptank River, near the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay.

It was an omen, he is said to have concluded. This would be where he researched and wrote his next expansive historical novel, "Chesapeake," which would be published in 1978. He called the retreat "Southwind" for the unceasing breeze that blew up the bay.

It was the same kind of epiphany that struck Dr. Paul and Anne Yarbrough Gurbel of Baltimore, who had been searching for a weekend home in St. Michaels for two years.

"It was like Mr. Michener did all the hard work for us," said Anne, who found the notebook in which he recorded his house-hunting.

But it was the view, not the blue heron, that made up their minds to buy the property in 1995, despite its dated interior and worn exterior.

Both Anne, an interior designer, and Paul, a cardiac surgeon at Baltimore's Sinai Hospital, had memories of growing up on the water with their fathers and uncles, taking out small boats and crabbing, fishing or duck hunting.

She learned to love the water at her family's weekend home on Currituck Sound off the coast of North Carolina. Paul, who grew up in Homeland, learned to love the water at a family home on Eastern Bay. When the couple stood at the water's edge, each was carried back to a happy childhood.

Like the author, they were not captivated by the interior of the house, with its green shag carpeting, vinyl flooring, "harvest gold" paint and appliances. "I could see that it was a project," Anne says delicately of the house she has transformed over nearly 20 years.

But as they left that view and that dated cottage in the rear-view mirror, Anne said, "I had this really overwhelming feeling we had to buy this place, and I am not an impulsive person." Her husband suspects it was the allee of loblolly pine along the driveway that reinforced her memories of home in Durham.

The house had been vacant for 12 years, tended by a caretaker who lived in a cottage Michener and his wife, Mari, had converted from a garage. At the time of the sale, Michener had long since relocated to Texas, and his wife had recently died.

Though his home base was in Doylestown, Pa., close to the Quaker community in he which was raised as a foundling, he had relocated to places like Southwind to research or write his books. He was gradually divesting himself of those properties after making a permanent home in Austin, where he died just two years after the sale.

"May you enjoy the house on which we spent so much care," reads the inscription in the Gurbels' copy of "Chesapeake," a rare expression in writing by the author, who had taken to autographing all his books with a red rubber stamp that said "JAM."

Mari was said to have loved Southwind so much that she wanted her husband to write "Chesapeake II," but instead he dispatched her to Texas to find a home base for "Texas," which would be published in 1985. He had already read 300 books about the state, and he was 75.

But before he departed, he also wrote "The Covenant," a sweeping historical novel of South Africa that was published in 1980 with the substantial help of South African journalist Erroll Lincoln Uys (pronounced 'Ace.'), who remembers the five-month press toward deadline in the second half of 1979, when he and Michener hunkered down and just wrote.

"It was a very, very small house," said Uys from his home in Massachusetts where he has written extensively about his collaboration with Michener. "It was a simple life and a totally demanding schedule. And Mari was the guardian at the gate. I don't recall more than one or two visitors.

"He loved the sounds of the place. He would take long walks out to the end of the dock and stand there while he tried to figure something [about the book] out. He loved the sounds of the migrating ducks. He loved the nature of the place," said Uys, who went on to write his own sprawling novel, "Brazil," with the support of Michener.

Michener worked in the tiny second bedroom that overlooked the garden and the hundreds of trees he had planted, surrounding the house with the privacy of a pine forest. He would walk there in the late afternoon, using one of his collection of walking sticks. There was a small manual typewriter on which he pounded from 8 a.m. until late at night, breaking for meals and a ritual nap.

Almost everything had been removed from the house when the Gurbels bought it. All that was left was the outdated '70s decorating scheme that Anne recorded in a photo album. The place had the look of "The Brady Bunch."

"We slept on cots, we were so excited to be here," recalls Anne, who almost immediately regretted inviting her family from North Carolina for a visit. Things were awfully primitive.

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