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The Secret Life of Harriet the Spy’s Creator
In a new biography of Harriet's creator Louise Fitzhugh, we learn how the antiracist, feminist lesbian created one of children’s literature most enduring antiheroines / BY Anna Fitzpatrick / January 6th, 2021
Harriet M. Welsch has a fondness for egg creams, tomato sandwiches, and obsessively observing the actions of classmates and neighbours in a notebook, going so far as to hide in a dumbwaiter to eavesdrop. The 11-year-old protagonist of Harriet the Spy is curious to the point of nosy, unsentimental to the point of rude, and a refreshing, honestly realized character with a rich inner life. Her dominion never took her through the looking glass or past a phantom tollbooth, but rather confined her to an Upper East Side neighbourhood in Manhattan, where the daily lives of its inhabitants provided the budding writer with rich material.
When Louise Fitzhugh published the children’s novel on On Oct. 21, 1964, it was a huge hit. Socialite Gloria Vanderbilt called the character “delicious” in The New York Times Book Review; the book would go on to sell 2.5 million copies in its first five years. Critical backlash over Harriet’s un-childlike ways and antiauthoritarianism only served to bolster the book’s reputation as a cultural phenomenon, a vanguard of a new type of children’s literature that met young readers on their own terms. Kids couldn’t get enough of Harriet, picking up their own notebooks en masse, developing their own spy routes and learning to love tomato sandwiches.
Far less famous than her young protagonist, Fitzhugh was a Greenwich Village-dwelling lesbian and prolific artist whose social circle included Maurice Sendak and Lorraine Hansberry. She was well-regarded by her peers, but her sensitivity to criticism and social anxieties led her to avoid almost all publicity and interviews. After her sudden 1974 death from a brain aneurysm at 46, Fitzhugh’s estate, controlled by her partner Lois Morehead, guarded her papers from biographers and journalists.
That has changed with the publication of Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, a biography by Leslie Brody, a playwright, author and professor of creative writing at the private University of Redlands in California. Her fascination with Louise Fitzhugh started when she was hired to write a stage adaptation of Harriet the Spy for the Minneapolis Children’s Theater Company in 1988, which is when she became intimately acquainted with the text – and the context – that inspired it.
“If you loved Louise, you loved her,” Brody, 68, says over the phone from her home in San Bernardino, Calif. “She had this charisma that drew people to her, and those people felt a responsibility to stir up her genius, because she seemed bent on undermining it.” Brody’s book is the first definitive biography of Fitzhugh, based in part on dozens of new interviews with the people who knew her best, including past creative collaborators, lovers, editors, and Lois Morehead’s surviving daughter.
Fitzhugh was born in Memphis, Tenn., in 1928, a far cry from Harriet’s yuppie Manhattan upbringing. Her father, Millsaps Fitzhugh, came from a wealthy conservative Southern family. Her mother, Mary Louise Perkins, was a dancer who lost custody of her daughter in a messy divorce; Millsaps told the girl her mother was dead. Mary Louise tried to visit, but was turned away at the door, sometimes while her confused daughter watched from the window.
“Her father was a domineering character in her life,” says Brody. “At the same time, he was an intellectual influence, and encouraged her to read.” Books were an abundant source of comfort in her young life, as was making art; she would set up an easel and paint for hours outside. Her stepmother’s brother, the future Pulitzer Prize-winning author Peter Taylor (known to Fitzhugh simply as “Uncle Peter”), was proof that a creatively fulfilling life was possible.
The segregated South, with its regressive Jim Crow Laws and debutante balls, held little appeal for a teenager with emerging radical politics and an attraction for women. After graduating high school, Fitzhugh left for Bard College to study poetry and painting. She would subsequently live in Paris amid the artists, then Greenwich Village with the Beatniks, cities she felt were creative epicentres. Her primary ambition was to be a painter, and then a playwright.
Children’s literature was a path she pursued almost by accident. In 1961, she contributed illustrations to a picture book by her friend, the writer Sandra Scoppettone. After struggling to finish an autobiographical play and frustrated with the slow payments from a gallery show, Louise set to work on a children’s novel.
Harriet the Spy was published the year after Betty Friedan’s seminal book The Feminine Mystique, which coincided with rising social unrest for a generation fed up with the restrictive norms they had been raised to accept.
“As a child of the fifties, Harriet was a Baby Boomer original,” writes Brody in her book. “She was a girl spy and practicing writer who dressed in boys’ clothes. Her friend and fellow sixth-grader, Janie Gibbs, was an amateur scientist […] Both were budding Upper East Side Manhattan career girls, ambitious and assertive.”
I ask Brody why she thinks Harriet’s popularity endures with children 55 years after its publication, in a world that looks much different than it did in 1964. It was a staple on the bookshelves of Gen X children in the 70s, was turned into a movie for millennials in the 90s, and, most recently, spawned a Disney original movie called Harriet the Spy: Blog Wars in 2010.
“Harriet’s struggles in the school room really became a microcosm for the battles that feminists fought over the next several years: being listened to, being paid attention to,” Brody says. “But I also think that for Louise it was more her belief in artists being marginalized. She thought they had that in common with children – not that artists were children, but that children also needed to be recognized and permitted to be themselves.”
The popular children’s books that preceded Harriet skewed toward the adventurous or fantastic. Harriet, on the other hand, is a child who feels ignored by her parents, abandoned when her beloved nanny, Ole Golly, moves away, and depressed after classmates discover her spy notebook and she becomes a social pariah. As a child, Harriet is powerless to change her external circumstances. She has no option but to live in her lonely house and attend the school where she is reviled by peers. She writes because she has to, because she needs an outlet where she can imagine another life for herself. The title of Brody’s biography comes from advice that Ole Golly gives Harriet: “Sometimes you have to lie … but to yourself you must always tell the truth.” Harriet must make concessions while living amidst others, but privately she has the freedom to be herself.
It’s an urge that Fitzhugh understood well. As an adult, she was able to travel and find like-minded communities, and dedicate her life to fulfilling creative work. But before she could do that, as Sometimes You Have To Lie meticulously details, she had to survive childhood.
Brody, who was 11 in 1964, points out that she’s the same age as Harriet, but then quickly corrects herself. “I’ve aged,” she laughs, “but she hasn’t.”