New book on Roxanne Quimby, warts and all, is illuminating

In parts of rural Maine, Roxanne Quimby has achieved that iconic status usually reserved for entertainers and athletes: Utter her first name — just her first name — and nearly everyone will know who you’re talking about.


“Roxanne’s land,” people will say, describing the acreage the millionaire has purchased in the Maine woods. “Roxanne’s park,” they’ll say, describing Quimby’s end goal for that land.

And many of those referring to Quimby by her first name aren’t big fans of the woman who earned her money through the success and eventual sale of Burt’s Bees, a personal care products company.

Earlier this summer, Tilbury House Publishers released Phyllis Austin’s book about Quimby: “Queen Bee: Roxanne Quimby, Burt’s Bees, and Her Quest for a New National Park.”

During a recent conversation with Buzz Caverly, the former director of Baxter State Park and the subject of another Austin book, Caverly chuckled when the book was mentioned.

“I didn’t have any skeletons left in my closet when that book [about me] came out,” he said.

Now, neither does Quimby.

Phyllis Austin, author of "Queen Bee: Roxanne Quimby, Burt's Bees and Her Quest for a New National Park. (Photo courtesy of Tilbury House Publishing)

Phyllis Austin, author of “Queen Bee: Roxanne Quimby, Burt’s Bees and Her Quest for a New National Park. (Photo courtesy of Tilbury House Publishing)

Austin is a journalist, and is extremely — sometimes painfully — thorough. Through scores of interviews and countless hours poring over documents, she has produced what will likely end up serving as the Roxanne Quimby reference guide.

And in doing so, she has created an enlightening book.

“Queen Bee” is a warts-and-all treatment of a woman who some describe as a visionary, others as a villain.

It traces Quimby’s progression from a back-to-the-land hippie to the co-owner of a cottage industry, then traces her development into a business tycoon, eventual land preservationist, and, most recently, pasta chef.

Unfortunately, most in Maine already seem to have made up their minds about Quimby. Those who haven’t — or those partisans who are willing to admit  they don’t know nearly as much about the woman as they think they do — would be well-served by picking up a copy.

One guarantee: You’ll learn things about Quimby that you never even suspected. Good, bad and ugly, it’s all included.

Among the “what-the-heck” moments you’ll find in “Queen Bee” is the fact that Quimby is, according to Austin, very interested in the metaphysical, and has been known to consult Tarot cards before making important business decisions.

In fact, Austin writes, Quimby sometimes would consult the cards before hiring new people, feeling that the cards were more reliable than material included on a person’s resume.

Quimby is also exposed as a shrewd negotiator and businesswoman who was unwilling to make concessions that others in the industry saw as common practice. For years, vendors paid for samples, for instance, even though other, more established companies were giving product away in order to get their goods on shelves.

Quimby — a back-to-the-land hero — shared more than a few traits with the conservative businessmen with whom her traditional allies tended to disagree.

She was tight with a buck, never wanted to pay more than she had to — for anything, including the land that she began to accumulate — and was unwavering in her belief that she’d find a way to succeed.

And succeed she did.

“Queen Bee” might not capture the hearts and minds of longtime Quimby foes, but it does tell an important tale. And the most important takeaway might be this: Love her or hate her, agree or disagree with her park proposal, Quimby is a smart, determined and single-minded woman who is committed to her ideals.

Nowadays, her ideals include donating thousands of acres of Maine land to the federal government for use as a national park and recreation area.

And as you might have heard, some people still aren’t too excited about that prospect.

Something to consider: Many of our other national parks — gems, all of them — were unpopular when they were proposed.

Heck, even Maine’s most famous preservationist, Percival Baxter, had plenty of foes when he accumulated the land that eventually formed the state park that bears his name.

Over time, as Quimby has mellowed her approach, opposition to the park has similarly mellowed. Putting her son, Lucas St. Clair, in charge of that effort was a huge step in the right direction, and has helped rebuild relationships that Quimby herself hadn’t nurtured, or had more overtly destroyed.

The book finishes by exploring Quimby’s land acquisitions and her vision for the park. Readers can be forgiven if they view that part of “Queen Bee” as a pipe dream, and something that will never happen.

They may be better informed however, by flipping back 300 pages, rereading, and asking themselves this: Who would have bet on the notion that a tiny candle-making business would evolve into a business that would sell for hundreds of millions of dollars?

Quimby might be the only one.

And after learning more about her track record of success, it might not be wise to bet against the Queen Bee.

John Holyoke can be reached at or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter.

John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.