Spying on Louise Fitzhugh

A new biography casts light on the private life of the queer author of ‘Harriet The Spy’

Harriet M. Welsch, the plucky, 11-year-old protagonist of Louise Fitzhugh’s YA classic Harriet The Spy, seems a thoroughly Manhattan-ized character. She prowls New York’s Upper East Side (specifically the neighborhood of Yorkville), notebook at the ready to write down her observations as she spies on her neighbors. She sips chocolate egg creams at the local luncheonette, meets her friends in Carl Schurz Park, and rides the subway to Rockaway Beach in her never-ending quest to gather fresh material for her writing, making such notations as: “I bet that lady with the cross-eye looks in the mirror and just feels terrible.”

But despite her urban pedigree, it turns out that Harriet had decidedly Southern roots. As chronicled in Sometimes You Have to Lie (Seal Press), Leslie Brody’s new biography about author/illustrator Fitzhugh, Harriet’s creator grew up far from the sights, sounds, and smells of Manhattan’s bustling streets. Instead, her parents raised her in wealth and comfort in Memphis, Tennessee. She started out life in lace baby clothes made in Paris, surrounded by servants who were charmed by the little girl’s fondness for such delicacies as peach pies and Queen tarts. “She was a precocious only child,” Brody writes, “the darling of the household, and used to getting her way.”

Brody’s biography reveals how Fitzhugh rebelled against her life of privilege, developing an independence of character that she passed on to her most notable creation. When Fitzhugh was born on October 5, 1928, her parents’ marriage was already falling apart. They raised her in a house of secrets; after her father won sole custody of her in a bitter divorce, he initially told Fitzhugh that her mother was dead. When she learned the truth, it left her with an innate distrust of adults, and, as she grew older, with a yearning to escape. Though an intelligent and inquisitive child, Fitzhugh’s future seemed to comprise little more than an ongoing, stultifying round of debutante balls and socials until  a “proper” marriage came along. “Bored in Memphis, sick to death of bigots and phonies,” Fitzhugh wanted out. She left for Bard College, and never lived below the Mason-Dixon line again.

Fitzhugh also had other reasons for wanting to leave the conservative South. Though she was occasionally involved with men, Fitzhugh was primarily a lesbian. She once impulsively married a boyfriend simply to annoy her girlfriend; a judge quickly annulled the union. But she remained an enigma to the wider public, even after becoming a best-selling author, because of the threat of exposure in a hostile world. Echoing the title of her biography (a line from Harriet the Spy), Fitzhugh was open about herself in her private life, but carefully avoided the public stage, never giving readings or doing interviews. There were only two author photos of her in circulation. After her death, her New York Times obit listed her as single, though she’d been living with a woman at the time.

Which means that much of the information in Brody’s book will be new to even the most ardent Fitzhugh fan; at the very least, you get to see more pictures of her. Though some sources still remain circumspect (a friend of the couple insisted to Brody that Fitzhugh and her last partner were simply “very, very good friends”), others are more willing to share their stories, opening up an entirely new view of Fitzhugh’s life. Brody paints an especially vivid picture of her heady pre-Harriet days in New York, “a world of downtown gay bars and uptown house parties, and in the summer, shared Hampton rentals,” where Fitzhugh mixed and mingled with such artists and writers as Djuna Barnes, Lorraine Hansberry, and Jane Wagner.

Harriet arrives

Despite her uneasy relationship with her father’s family, their money allowed Fitzhugh to pursue a career as a visual artist without having to resort to a day job. The success of Suzuki Beane, a children’s book she illustrated about a beatnik girl living in Greenwich Village, led her to Harper Books, where a four page synopsis secured her a deal for Harriet the Spy. The book’s young characters boasted a self-awareness uncommon in children’s literature of the time: the budding scientist Janie, busy developing a chemical formula to blow up the world; Sport, housekeeper and cook for his father, an underpaid writer; Harriet’s acidic critiques in her notebook, reflecting her determination to faithfully describe the world around her.

And that was enough to trip alarms among stodgier critics on the book’s publication in 1964. One asserted that Harriet and her friends “represent not reality but the distortion of caricature”. The Christian Science Monitor called Harriet “a pathetic figure … Too pathetic one hopes for children to admire.” A librarian even deemed the book “dangerous in a child’s hand.”

Not all critics were so short-sighted; a New York Times Book Review from 1968 hailed the book as “vigorously original in content and style.” But it illustrates why Harriet was considered to have broken barriers. With few exceptions, such as Harriet’s redoubtable nanny, Ole Golly, the adults are either oblivious or fools. Some people found this subtle anti-authoritarianism shocking . But it staked out fresh territory, presaging a new realism in the young adult books that followed: S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967) John Donovan’s I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip (1969), and Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970).

Unsurprisingly, most of Brody’s book focuses on Harriet the Spy and how the perception of the character has changed over time; the “cheeky, bratty, and sophisticated” girl of the 1960s became a “ convention-flouting subversive” in the 1970s, and “a smart-ass feminist who lets herself go and picks herself up” in the 1980s and 1990s. Now people see her as a model for aspiring writers, and, perhaps inevitably, a 2005 essay claimed her as a “quintessential baby butch,” because of her penchant for wearing jeans and sneakers while on her spy route, reflecting a “queer subtext” in the rest of the book.

But Harriet’s success never rested easy with its author, and Fitzhugh only completed two more novels before her death, the Harriet follow-up The Long Secret, and Nobody’s Family is Going to Change; she also provided illustrations for Bang Bang You’re Dead, an anti-war book aimed at children. I wish Brody had spent more time critiquing The Long Secret, an more incisive book that tackles race, class, and religious hypocrisy, and features a devastatingly funny portrayal of the undeserving rich. It’s a book that’s become overlooked, especially as Nobody’s Family…gained more exposure after its adaptation into a TV film and musical.

Fitzhugh didn’t live to see that development. Two weeks after a mixed review of Nobody’s Family in Publisher’s Weekly sent her into a funk—though admiring some elements, the reviewer also thought Fitzhugh was a bit out of touch—Fitzhugh died of a brain aneurysm, at age 46.

Fitzhugh’s estate keeps a tight hold on her legacy. They posthumously published Sport, another Harriet the Spy sequel, and three other illustrated books for young children, with only Sport still available, on Kindle. Her papers aren’t available to researchers or the public, and though an inventory of her work includes her journals, and an unfinished novel and play, it seems unlikely anything else will be forthcoming. Despite these obstacles, Brody has dug deeply, and given us the closest look possible at the life of a unique artist and writer who carved out her own path, creating a timeless work in the process. Harriet’s nanny Ole Golly told her that “Sometimes you have to lie” to get by in life. But as both Harriet and Louise Fitzhugh knew, the truth is still there, waiting to be discovered.

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Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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