I Spy Louise Fitzhugh: A Conversation with Leslie Brody

January 2, 2021   •   By Kelly Blewett

LESLIE BRODY’S new biography, Sometimes You Have to Lie, describes the life of Louise Fitzhugh, author of the classic children’s book Harriet the Spy. Originally published in 1964 by Harper and Row, Harriet has never been out of print and has inspired multiple adaptations and spin-offs, including a 1988 stage version authored by Brody for the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre company. Sometimes You Have to Lie begins with Fitzhugh’s cossetted childhood, explores her many loving relationships with women and her devotion to painting, and ends 10 years after the publication of Harriet with her untimely death at age 46 due to an aneurysm. Brody presents Fitzhugh as a passionate iconoclast whose lifework was enriched by a vibrant network of successful lesbians in midcentury New York. 

Brody is the author of three books of nonfiction. A journalist, biographer, and playwright, she is a professor of creative writing at the University of Redlands, where she teaches courses on creative nonfiction, documentary film, and the dramatic monologue. To complete Sometimes You Have to Lie, Brody conducted over 60 interviews and spent two years researching Fitzhugh’s life. Our conversation took place by email in early November.

Author photo by Emily Tucker.

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KELLY BLEWETT: Why did you want to write about Louise Fitzhugh?

LESLIE BRODY: I am exactly the same age as Harriet the Spy — that is to say, in 1963, when Harriet was 11 years old, so was I. I was born in the Bronx, and although Harriet lived in an elite quarter of Manhattan, we still shared lots of the same cultural references around New York City in the ’50s and ’60s. When the book was published in 1964, I really wasn’t reading kids’ books anymore and missed the wave. I wouldn’t even hear about Harriet and Louise until I was working as a playwright in Minneapolis 20 years later, when I was hired to write an adaptation of Harriet the Spy for the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre company. I remember reading it through several times, stunned at how lucky I was — after all this time, and the many ways our rendezvous might have gone awry — to find her.

Once I began writing biographies, Louise Fitzhugh was high on the list of women whose life intrigued me, and about whom I wanted to find out more. At first, I was curious to look deeply into the world of New York City in 1965. Soon, I discovered that she was part of a network of extraordinary artists — a social circle of high-flying, mostly queer career women who in their youth had crashed through ceilings in literary and artistic professions at a rip-roaring velocity: writers of children’s books, mysteries, and crime thrillers; editors at glossy magazines and book publishers; copyeditors, photographers, and illustrators at ad agencies; theatrical producers and literary agents and casting directors; professors, painters, and actors. The playwright and author Jane Wagner characterized this extensive cabal as “successful, creative, pleasure-loving, ambitious, knowledgeable lesbians.” It was a world of downtown gay bars and uptown house parties and, in the summer, shared Hampton rentals.

Tell us about Louise’s upbringing. It was very privileged, yet also troubled by early trauma.

Louise was raised in segregated Memphis, the rebellious daughter of a wealthy family. Her mother and father were Fitzgeraldian, jazz-era socialites. Her mother was a trained ballerina with ambitions to dance on Broadway. She met Louise’s father, the son of a millionaire, on a ship when they were both on their way for a grand tour of Europe. They had a whirlwind romance, married, then discovered they really didn’t like each other. Louise was about a year old when their marriage ended in an acrimonious divorce. Her father gained custody, and until his remarriage, Louise lived with him and her paternal grandparents in a mansion named Samarkand. Until she was five, Louise was told her mother had died.

How did Louise’s childhood show up in her writing?

In Harriet and other books, Louise revisits her relationships with the maids, nurses, cooks, and nannies who cared for her. In later years, Louise would say that the household staff were the grown-ups for whom she cared most and to whom she turned for love and affection. She’d memorialize some of them in her books. Ole Golly, the nurse in Harriet the Spy, is in large part an amalgamation of her beloved nannies; and depictions in other books of an irascible cook, a wealthy recluse’s independent maid, and a sensitive housekeeper are all likenesses drawn from memory. In both Harriet The Spy and The Long Secret (1965), she also drew on her childhood to portray her schoolmates at the elite private Hutchison school for girls, her paternal and maternal grandmothers, and the various socialites she observed in her father’s circle. Her most personal story is probably Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change (1974). The heroine of that story, Emma, is most like Louise as an 11-year-old: a brainy girl who feels misunderstood and demands to be heard.

Louise was also a prolific painter and perhaps most often expressed herself through drawing — you mention that many of her journals record pictures rather than words. Tell us about Louise’s visual art.

It’s important to note that Louise always considered herself a painter first. Many of her paintings contained staircases and the dark corners she associated with Samarkand. Once she arrived in New York, she was determined to paint and to study painting. She went her own way during the abstract expressionist and pop art years, mostly painting portraits and then landscapes. She traveled to Paris to paint there as well. She worked in various media, including oils and watercolors during her last years, and she did many satirical drawings, lampooning American archetypes such as cowboys and pioneers. I’ve seen some of the paintings she did while living with Alixe Gordin (to whom she considered herself married for almost a decade). One is a full-length portrait of Alixe and others in the apartment they shared, featuring a bed they bought in a flea market. There is one particularly beautiful and erotic watercolor of the two of them in bed. Louise is on top looking like an ardent Harriet the Spy. Regarding her book illustrations, Louise was a perfectionist. She worked with a magnifying glass at hand.

Louise Fitzhugh

Louise, born a Southerner, frequently said she wanted to be buried north of the Mason-Dixon line. Why was that so significant to her?

She abhorred Jim Crow. She hated white supremacy, and what she considered her family’s complicity. She once wrote to Lorraine Hansberry that she saw the South of her youth as a “cesspool.”

Louise began exploring her sexuality as a teenager and memorably said that she couldn’t abide a man in her bed. How do you think her sexuality informed her work?

May I quote myself? In my book I say: 

That Louise wrote Harriet the Spy for middle-school readers, catching children before they settled into the powerful grooves of gender that would keep many of them on conventional tracks through adolescence, was radical. Kids who feel they were different could read parts of their secret selves in Harriet, relate to her refusal to be pigeonholed or feminized, and cheer her instinct for self-preservation. […] There is, in particular, much to be said for the self-reliance and self-respect that the gleeful Harriet has gained by the end of her book. She has shown free-thinking children they can be happy as themselves, while her truth-telling has launched a million diarists. In January 2005, a librarian named KT Horning published an article in The Hornbook, in which she talks about Harriet the Spy’s influence on her own childhood and observed a “queer subtext” throughout the book. Horning interprets Ole Golly’s advice to Harriet, that “sometimes you have to lie … but to yourself you must always tell the truth,” as evidence of Louise’s embedded instructions to gay kids: You are not alone, come out when it is safe to do so. Homophobes during the culture wars of the late 20th century and early 21st fulminated about coded messages in the media meant to turn schoolchildren gay. Horning suggests that there are secret messages in Harriet the Spy, benign and comforting ones which offer fellowship and reassurance to young people figuring themselves out. I wish I could say that this advice is obsolete in the year 2020, but unfortunately it still applies. Louise and Harriet’s message continues to be one of love against the odds. “Writing is to put love into the world, not to use against your friends,” Harriet learns, but “to yourself you must always tell the truth.” 

Charlotte Zolotow, who helped edit Harriet the Spy, said that the book was both very funny and presented a strong philosophy. Do you agree that Harriet reflects Louise’s personal philosophy, and if so, how?

I do. Charlotte Zolotow recognized early on that Harriet challenged “adult authority.” She thought Harriet the Spy possessed “all sorts of political strains.” She thought Louise had “definite feelings about the rich and the poor and they came out in her novel” and that “underneath all her books there was a value system about life and people and politics.” When they first met, Charlotte thought Louise looked like somebody spoiling for a fight. In later years, she would say that Louise saw adults “as the oppressors” and that she “was resentful of almost every adult she ever came across.” If Louise had a driving philosophy, it was against any assertion of supremacy — white, male, heterosexual, or garden-variety pomposity — and for the protection of vulnerable people among whom she counted misunderstood artists and misfit children.

Louise died in her 40s, and your final chapter explores her legacy. What parts of Louise’s life should we revisit today?

I think she would like her paintings to be exhibited and her papers, those that remain to be more widely read. But that is a decision only her heirs can make.

Other than Harriet the Spy, Louise authored quite a few children’s books, such as Suzuki Beane (1961), a beatnik spoof co-created with Sandra Scoppettone, who would work with Louise again on the antiwar picture book Bang, Bang, You’re Dead (1969). Louise also wrote a few sequels to Harriet, one of which was published posthumously. Which of the non-Harriet books do you like best, and which do you think is most revealing of Louise and her preoccupations?

I love her picture book I Am Five [1978] because it feels like it comes directly from her life. It features a funny, stubborn, intelligent little girl who looks and acts as I imagine Louise may have done. My favorite novel is Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change, which was adapted several times as a TV special for children, and then into a Broadway play called The Tap Dance Kid. It was published the week after her death. I love it for its heroine, Emma, who wants to become a lawyer but meets opposition from her misogynist father. The book features a professional black family in New York. There is so much in this book about racial justice and gender and the revolutionary politics of its day. As a member of the revolutionary Children’s Army, Emma even writes a children’s bill of rights. There are places in which the book is certainly dated, but at its core it is a moving evocation of a time and place and how Louise viewed the need for social change, and for love.

France Burke and Louise Fitzhugh

One of my favorite parts of your book was reading the elegy James Merrill wrote after Louise died. Could you share a little bit about their relationship and that poem specifically?

Louise met Jimmy, as she called James Merrill, at Bard, where he was her faculty advisor. Her first class with him was in metrics, to which she brought a villanelle. They were immediately attracted and, though both queer, attempted a love affair that fizzled. However, they remained close friends for all of her life. Louise hated writing letters, but she made an exception for Jimmy, and their correspondence covers over 20 years. Her voice in the letters is captivating, campy, sometimes mordant. We’d know so much less about her without those letters. Jimmy did not attend her memorial service, but he sent this elegy, which was read aloud:

Never would there be a heaven or hell,
We once agreed, like those of youth.
Louise, if you’ve learned otherwise, don’t tell.
Just stick to your own story,
Humorous and heartrending and uncouth.
Its little tomboy damozel
Became the figure in our repertory
Who stood for truth. Farewell.

How do you think Louise would want to be remembered?

I wrote about this in my book. After all the sentiment and nostalgia and true grief at her memorial, I imagined Louise watching and wondered how she might have liked to be remembered:

Probably first as an uncompromising painter. Louise didn’t rate her book illustrations — as unique and influential as they would become — as highly as her painting. She once wrote to [her friend, the painter Fabio Rieti], of “the depth, the pain, the horror, searching, fumbling,” that distinguished painting from illustration. Alixe Gordin said Louise used to destroy paintings which she considered not up to par. She’d have wanted her paintings to be seen. And she’d have wanted to be remembered as writer whose work had meaning and staying power. Louise was happy with Harriet’s success, but Louise’s success as the creator of a phenomenon made it harder for her to write plays and novels for adults. She would certainly have been pleased at the theatrical success of Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change, and its adaptation as a “The Tap Dance Kid,” a Broadway musical, but she would have liked her own play, “Mother, Sweet, Father, Sweet,” also to be performed. Alixe thought so, and tried to convince Louise’s heirs to allow the play to be staged. [Her heirs] refused the request, and very few people have read the script. It’s likely Louise would have wanted to be remembered as someone who picked herself up, and who tried not to deceive herself, or her friends. She wasn’t ready to go, but that’s not to say that she hadn’t given some thought to immortality. There is a passage in Harriet the Spy that speaks to memory and the passage of time, and it speaks to the eleven-year-old inside:

If you’re missing me, I want you to know I’m not missing you. Gone is gone. I never miss anything or anyone because it all becomes a lovely memory. I guard my memories and love them, but I don’t get in them and lie down. You can even make stories from yours, but remember they don’t come back. Just think how awful it would be if they did. You don’t need me now. You’re eleven years old, which is old enough to get busy at growing up to be the person you want to be.

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Kelly Blewett teaches in the English Department of Indiana University East.