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Alice Koller, whose Nantucket winter inspired the bestselling ’An Unknown Woman,’ dies at 94

Alice KollerCourtesy/Handout

Alice Koller once said that “the process of becoming a human being begins with confronting aloneness.”

She did just that when, at 37, she moved in the off-season to a Nantucket beach house to examine her life and consider what she might encounter in the years ahead.

“My urgent need was to find out what I believed and wanted and felt independently of what anyone else believed or felt or wanted me to believe or feel,” she later wrote.

That winter sojourn formed the basis for “An Unknown Woman: A Journey to Self-Discovery,” published at the outset of the 1980s. She revisited those experiences in “The Stations of Solitude,” which appeared in 1990. The first book was a bestseller and both drew devoted followings.


Dr. Koller, who for decades held a series of jobs as a writer, researcher, editor, and college professor, died July 21, said her niece Cherie Koller-Fox of Newton. She was 94, most recently had lived in Trenton, N.J., and had spent a great deal of her life in New England.

When Dr. Koller moved to Nantucket in 1962, she had completed a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard University, but had found no lasting work in academia.

Looking back on what her life was like before arriving on the island, she wrote in her first book: “I knew only one thing, I was unhappy there (wherever it was) and I could only hope that at least I’d leave this unhappiness behind if I left there (wherever it was).”

She lived for a few winter months in a village called Siasconset on Nantucket’s eastern edge with Logos, her German shepherd puppy.

“Siasconset bestowed on me great spreads of space and silence,” she recalled in a series of “Hers” columns for The New York Times in 1983. “To be outside I had only to open my door and take one step. With no people to have to thread my way around, my personal living space was without boundaries.”


Alice Koller in 1982Joseph Dennehy/Globe Staff/File

At her island outpost, she added, “I acquired a taste for wildness and silence almost immediately.”

Having experienced an uneasy relationship with her family — she told the Globe she had chosen to cut herself off from relatives — and having endured sexism while pursing graduate studies in the male-dominated field of philosophy, her ruminations found an immediate, enduring audience.

In a Times feature earlier this year on “The Book That Changed My Life,” a Rockland, Maine, reader wrote of having chanced upon “An Unknown Woman” in a Newburyport bookstore in 1986 after having called in sick to a job she disliked.

“By the time I had finished the book, I resolved to quit my job, get my pilot’s license and backpack in Europe before I embarked on a new career as an air traffic controller,” the reader recalled. “It was the beginning of consciousness for me at the age of 26. I can’t stop thinking about that seemingly random sliver of luck.”

The sentences in Dr. Koller’s second book, “The Stations of Solitude,” were “as brooding and hushed as the hours before dawn in which she writes,” Judith Shulevitz wrote in a 1990 Times review.

“Alice Koller discloses her most intimate secrets with startling nonchalance,” Shulevitz added. “She can get away with this because she stands as far away from us as possible and because her voice is strong and carries, not only from the New England and Virginia country houses where she has spent the past 28 years, but from the place just beyond the pale of human contact where she lives.”


Alice Koller was born in Akron, Ohio, on Sept. 13, 1925, and grew up there, a daughter of Andrew Koller, who ran a hardware store, and Sarah Schneider, a homemaker.

A middle child with an older brother and younger sister, Dr. Koller would later write that her mother demanded perfection. She told the Globe her mother had a “stranglehold” on her life.

After high school, Dr. Koller moved to Chicago. With some financial assistance from her father, she studied acting at the Goodman Theatre, an experience that led her back to school.

“I didn’t want to say someone else’s words, I wanted to say my own,” she told the Globe in 1990. “That is when I knew I wanted to study philosophy. I was seduced by philosophy. It ravished me.”

Details about her undergraduate work and the years between acting in Chicago and enrolling in graduate studies in philosophy at Harvard University remain unclear.

In a 1997 master’s thesis, “One Woman’s Construction of Self and Meaning,” Diane M. Quilty Litchfield wrote that Dr. Koller left acting to enroll at the University of Chicago, and then dropped out.

Dr. Koller told the Globe in 1990 that she did undergraduate work in Akron after Chicago, but declined to offer specifics about those years.


Harvard, meanwhile, “was a man’s world,” she told the Globe. “There was only one other woman in my entry class. Remember this was in the later ’50s and early ’60s. And I was never part of the old-boys’ network. Most of my peers had jobs long before they had finished their dissertations.”

While living on Nantucket, she later wrote, “I cast off their rules and I began making my own. Now they won’t let me into the game, even though what I’m doing is the whole point of philosophy.”

Though her published work was written in the first person, she told the Globe that “neither book is autobiographical because they are journeys that everyone can undertake. I use myself as the example because it makes the philosophical process more genuine and tangible to readers.”

Her many jobs over the years included a visiting scholar position at Wellesley College. She also occasionally contributed articles to the Globe.

Despite the success of her first book, she spent many years before and after with almost no money, sometimes living on welfare and food stamps.

“When I have been without income, I get sick to my stomach. I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about where the rent is going to come from,” she told the Globe.

“It is painful to beg for money,” she added, “but am I to stop writing so that I can pay the bills? I’ve got to write every day.”


Along with choosing a challenging life path, she kept little contact with her family, particularly her mother. “Once I cut the ties, I could stop caring,” she told the Globe in 1982.

Being alone means “total freedom,” she said, adding that “it’s pretty hard to give that up.”

Dr. Koller leaves no immediate survivors, beyond nieces and nephews.

Koller-Fox said her aunt had requested that she be cremated and that her ashes be scattered in Connecticut on the graves of Logos, the German shepherd she lived with on Nantucket, and her subsequent dogs, all of whom figured prominently in her life.

“I was not alone: You should understand that I was only without human beings,” she wrote in the Times in 1983. “Logos and I were together first. Ousia joined us later. When I lost Logos, after a while Kairos came to Ousia and me, and now there are only Kairos and me. Without these friends, I might have had to live in cities forever.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at