David Phipps Grinstead


Died March 17, 1996

College: Timothy Dwight

Widow: Ms. Laura Margaret McCallum

Children: Nicholas Hugh, 1985; Eve Elizabeth, 1986

David Grinstead was a man for whom the pursuit of truth and justice was paramount. This pursuit knew no party or cultural lines and was a subtopic in nearly all his books, short stories and articles. It manifested itself in many ways. In the pursuit of truth, he was always an avid observer of life with a voracious appetite to learn. Charles Mee, in his book, A Nearly Normal Life, spoke of David during his high school years in Barrington Illinois, “Dave Grinstead, who spent a lot of time wandering around town with a sketchbook in his pocket, drawing people and places, otherwise liked to stay home and read the Encyclopedia Britannica. He said he was up to the letter E and he planned to go all the way. He had a remarkable memory for all he had read, and so he was completely unfit for normal high school society.”

At Yale, David decided to become a writer. For him this meant seeking experience, adventure and, like many of his colleagues, searching for a way to make the world better. He became a Marine and went to war. His short story, “A Day in Operations,” which was selected for The O’Henry Awards Prize Stories in 1970 was one of the first pieces of published fiction about the Viet Nam War. He came home disillusioned and angry. His experience in the turbulent sixties is the subject of his second novel, Promises of Freedom, a dark and critical examination of the Ivy League’s influence and fallibility. The book documents the fissure that took place in the establishment that has never been repaired. In the 70s David left graduate school, a job as a grant writer and Southern California and moved to the Olympic Peninsula to write novels.

I met him in Seattle, while working in a gallery and struggling to become an artist. In meeting him after work for our first real date, there was David, on the sidewalk, playing on his harmonica “Never On Sunday,” requested by a skid-row drunk. Several years later we moved to New York, a city he loved and knew well, exploring it in his daily meandering runs. David thrived in New York. We had two children, Nicholas and Eve. His priorities being family and writing, David had no interest in any job that required a suit or showing up at 9 am: he wrote in the morning. David became the bartender at the Algonquin Hotel Blue Bar, where he held court. He once said to me, “It is like having a salon, but I don’t have to pay for the booze!” There he met some of the great cultural icons of our times including Eudora Welty, Norman Mailer, Simon Gray, Studs Terkel, Dick Cabot, as well as Kennedys and Rockefellers. Some became friends; David would occasionally invite them home and create wonderful meals for them. As one visitor reminisced, “His views were keen and often biting.” David never suffered fools.

Shortly after completing his third novel in 1996, David died of a rare lung cancer caused by his exposure to Agent Orange in Viet Nam. To the end David had his wits and his wit. During his brief illness he spoke of his dear friends he had met at Yale, his life forming experience in the Marines and his love of family. His last writings were letters to his children to be opened on their next six birthdays and a final letter to be opened after they had entered college—It was a life reading list. On the day David died, he told me he had had a full life and that he was at peace. Throughout his life David made a habit of collecting a list of aphorisms that he taped to the wall of his office. One read, “Peace is knowing the Truth, Happiness is doing well with it, Joy is rare.” David was one of the rare individuals who came to know Peace, Happiness, and Joy.

— by Laura McCallu