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Phyllis Grosskurth was one of Canada’s pre-eminent biographers, tackling challenging subjects such as Melanie Klein, Havelock Ellis and Lord Byron.Patti Gower/The Globe and Mail

In the weeks before she died, on Aug. 2 at the age of 91, Phyllis Grosskurth constantly chivvied her son about booking a trip for them to Bermuda. Incapacitated and in a wheelchair after a stroke paralyzed her left side 12 years earlier, still she yearned to stay at a lovely hotel and take a ride on a glass-bottom boat.

"I've been checking online," Brian Grosskurth hedged. "Are you up for it?"

"Of course," she replied. "What a stupid question."

So it went with Dr. Grosskurth, who spent a lifetime making things happen. Impatient, brilliant and curious, she destroyed barriers she faced, first as a not-so-traditional naval wife who raised three children while studying and teaching, and then as an author who won the Governor-General's Award for her first book, a meticulously crafted biography of the 19th-century literary critic, poet and homosexual John Addington Symonds, published in 1964.

Known as Pat to her friends – a shortened version of her childhood nickname, Patsy – she would go on to become one of Canada's pre-eminent biographers, tackling challenging subjects such as Melanie Klein, Havelock Ellis and Lord Byron.

As a young mother newly arrived in London in 1960, when her first husband, Robert Grosskurth, was stationed at the Canadian High Commission, she confronted a city still rooted in Old England. Businessmen went to work each morning in dark suits and bowler hats, decorously carrying wood-handled umbrellas as if they were escorting them to a formal dance, while women mostly stayed at home.

Somehow, she managed to work on her doctorate in literature at the University of London, care for the family and hone her skills in the kitchen with cookbooks by Elizabeth David, whom she revered. "I remember her walking with me to the Tube in the morning, and I thought it was quite normal that she should go off to do research at the library and I go to school," her son Brian, an art history professor at Toronto's York University, recalled.

"She combatted some of those stuffy attitudes in London in her own inimitable way. When she came up against anti-North Americanism at the University of London, for example, she overcame it by impressing a skeptical supervisor by doing a brilliant seminar presentation – period."

With a passion for ferreting out secrets and all things Victorian, Dr. Grosskurth knew she had hit the motherlode in the early 1960s when she found a cache of unpublished letters and documents in a London library by and about Symonds. Although he was married and had four daughters, he was also gay, writing homoerotic poetry, essays and books such as Male Love – A Problem in Greek Ethics and Other Writings.

For a woman who dreamed when she was young of becoming a detective, the project was fascinating as it drew back a heavy damask curtain on an era with strict mores and intolerance for all things considered unnatural. In her 1999 memoir, Elusive Subject: A Biographer's Life, Dr. Grosskurth recalled those years as the turning point of her life: She realized she was the author of her own life and was not dependent on anyone else.

Phyllis Langstaff was born in Toronto on March 16, 1924, the eldest of Milton Langstaff and Winnifred Owen's four children. Her father helped found Imperial Life Insurance Co., and her early years were spent in a grand house with a modicum of servants and luxury.

When the Great Depression hit, her father's investments proved worthless and the family was forced to move to rented accommodation in the northern reaches of Toronto as they tried to recoup what they had lost. Her father worked hard selling life insurance and encyclopedias and there was some judicious investment in property that brought dividends.

Throughout her elementary and high school years, young Patsy attended St. Clements, an independent Anglican school for girls in Forest Hill, where she was a top student. She studied English literature at the University of Toronto, where Robert Grosskurth, who was a year or two ahead of her at school, swept her off her feet at a Sigma Chi fraternity party. He was charming, ebullient and nearly as voracious a reader as she, and they could discuss, argue and dissect the finer points of a piece of writing for hours.

They married in 1948, two years after her graduation, and for nearly 20 years the lively conversations continued, through moves dictated by his job as a naval officer across Canada and to London and even after there were young children around the dinner table – first Christopher, then Brian, then Anne. "They had adult conversations and they never talked down to us," Brian recalled.

But her husband was also absent from home for long stretches of time, in South Korea and elsewhere, which meant she had to cope with the challenges of single parenting while pursuing a degree.

"She was not a helicopter mother," Brian said. "Her motto was, 'Love your kids and give them a long lead.' When I was 17, for example, she let me go to Paris by myself. Of course, for years afterward, she would say that she'd done so against all her better instincts – and it all worked out."

Back in Canada by the mid-1960s, Dr. Grosskurth became the first female professor in the University of Toronto's English department. Bronwyn Drainie, until recently the editor of the Literary Review of Canada, recalls a teacher who never acquiesced to expectations that she tailor her appearance so as to appear serious, with thick-rimmed glasses and severely cut suits.

"She was a flirtatious creature and a heavy-duty thinker all at once," said Ms. Drainie, who was a student in Dr. Grosskurth's graduate seminar in 19th-century literature. "She'd sit on the desk at the front of the room, cross her legs in her miniskirt and high-heeled shoes – the guys in the class were not listening to her lecture about John Stuart Mill – and then she'd hit you with her big brain."

As passionate as Dr. Grosskurth was about clothes and designers such as Giorgio Armani, she had to buy them on sale, what Anne Grosskurth says her mother called a "beautiful bargain."

"She was about 5 feet 6 inches, but the way she carried herself in clothes that were colourful and vibrant, and the way she was opinionated and engaged, make people remember her as an outsize character," her daughter said.

According to her children, the only things Dr. Grosskurth didn't like were becoming embroiled in controversy and political infighting. But she didn't shy away from it, either – not when there was something at stake.

That's what happened when she and several other former female professors spearheaded a challenge in 2001 against the University of Toronto on the grounds that years of wage discrimination had left some of them living on the edge of poverty with pensions that were markedly less than those of male colleagues. The women had retired before equal-pay legislation forced U of T in 1991 to review the salaries of female academics and make adjustments for those who were underpaid compared with men: No matter how good or prolific they had been throughout their careers, they were still out in the cold.

At the time, Dr. Grosskurth, who in 2000 had been named an officer of the Order of Canada, stated: "We have exhausted every effort short of this. We have no other alternative."

The women hired constitutional lawyer Mary Eberts to plead their case. In an interview, she recalled that although equal-pay legislation was first enacted in Ontario in 1951, a sociologist she hired to research the case found that until just before the 1991 decision, there had not been a single year when women were paid the same as men at U of T.

"The law as it stood in 1951 was that women had to be paid for equal work, not for work of equal value," Ms. Eberts said. "The university's position was that we'd have to show the work of each female professor was equal to the work of appropriate male 'comparers.' But what do you do when you're not appointed to prestige committees or were assigned to teach undergraduates, whereas men were giving graduate classes?"

While the battle raged in court, Dr. Grosskurth, with her connections, continued the fight in the city's drawing rooms, getting the word out and gaining allies.

In the end, the case was resolved a year later through mediation, the terms of which both sides had to keep confidential. But U of T professor Vivek Goel, then vice-provost, said in a statement: "Despite our efforts to promote and advance gender-equity principles, the results … indicate that the university failed to achieve fairness."

Along the way, Dr. Grosskurth's first marriage ended, and in 1968 she wed Mavor Moore, one of Canada's most influential arts figures; the union lasted 10 years and they remained friendly after they split. He was with her when she bought the little house in Toronto's historic Cabbagetown neighbourhood, in which she would happily spend much of the rest of her life with her third husband, Bob McMullan, a tall, gentle-spoken man whom she had first dated as a student at U of T.

They married in 1986, and until she had the stroke in late 2002 they lived a life filled with parties, friends and acquaintances. They would come for tea, for Scotch, gin fizzes and sherry, for supper and stimulating talk. The house was her refuge, something she had bought with her own money. She thought she would die there.

Throughout her life, there were challenges: bouts with breast cancer and leukemia; the 2013 death of her eldest son, CBC radio journalist Christopher Grosskurth, at the age of 64; and the death of Mr. McMullan in January of this year. But she always fought back, refusing to give in. She could be abrupt, especially when she moved for good to a nursing home, because she hated being treated like an invalid. But there were still wonderful moments, such as planning trips she would never take or watching all 38 episodes of the TV series The Tudors with her son.

"She was someone who made things happen in her life," Brian said. "Mum made her own luck."

Dr. Grosskurth leaves her son Brian; daughter, Anne; and five grandchildren.

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