The Rich, Literary Life of the Creator of America’s Favorite Girl Spy

The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of ‘Harriet the Spy’
By Leslie Brody

How would the universe address you, if it thought there was something you urgently ought to know? If you’ve ever seen the work of the conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, you get a sense of how it might work. Stark lines of text in capital letters inscribe themselves on the mind: “RAISE BOYS AND GIRLS THE SAME WAY”; “ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE”; “SAVOR KINDNESS BECAUSE CRUELTY IS ALWAYS POSSIBLE LATER.”

Holzer’s “Truisms” began appearing on posters around New York City in the late 1970s; but in 1964, the American artist and writer Louise Fitzhugh had already hit upon Holzer’s shortcut to insight, conferring it on the brusque child heroine of her book “Harriet the Spy,” whom she described to her close friend the poet James Merrill as a “nasty little girl who keeps a notebook on all her friends.” Fitzhugh’s Harriet is an intense and judgmental 11-year-old who lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, attends private school and burns to be a writer. To this end, on the advice of her well-read nanny, Ole Golly, she has adopted the habit of taking copious notes on family members, neighbors, teachers and friends. She writes down her impressions in capital letters in notebooks that she carries in a tool belt around her waist as she cases her neighborhood spying on her unwitting subjects.

In 1964, the universe was not broadcasting its messages plainly, but Harriet winkled them out. Her project is interrupted when a classmate discovers one of the notebooks and shares it with their class. Some entries are philosophical, but her classmates mostly notice the takedowns: “JANIE GETS STRANGER EVERY YEAR”; “TODAY A NEW BOY ARRIVED. HE IS SO DULL NO ONE CAN REMEMBER HIS NAME.” They ostracize Harriet, but she refuses to end her mission of self-enlightenment. Instead, she heeds Ole Golly’s advice — to apologize to her friends and lie, as needed, to repair her personal relationships, but to respect her own judgments: “To yourself you must always tell the truth.”

At the time Fitzhugh published this book (which she also illustrated), she was known primarily as an artist. But the success of “Harriet the Spy” ensured that Fitzhugh would be remembered mostly as a writer. It became a best seller and a literary classic — hailed as the advance guard of a new realism in children’s literature that treated kids like complex human beings, not simplistic moppets. The year 1964 was one of change and tumult in America: Youth culture was on the rise — the Beatles landed in New York in February — but the young president had been assassinated the year before. The Civil Rights Act was signed into law in July, ending segregation in public places, but the previous year four Black girls had been killed in a Klan bombing at their church in Birmingham, Ala.

In the novels that followed “Harriet the Spy” — “The Long Secret,” “Sport” and “Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change” — Fitzhugh paid increasing attention to racial inequality and social justice. In “Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change,” she told the story of a Black family in Harriet’s neighborhood, whose protagonist, Emma (short for Emancipation), rebels against her father’s rigid views of gender roles. She wants to be a lawyer; he wants her to be a housewife. Her brother, Willie, wants to be a dancer, but their father furiously opposes that path. It’s a question of taking advantage of opportunity, he says. In the Depression, he explains: “A Black man couldn’t get a decent job. Singing and dancing were all they let him do. Everything’s entirely different now.” A friend of Emma’s tells her that’s unfair: “I think that whatever a person is, that’s what he is, and a person wants to be the way he is.” The thought belongs in Harriet’s capital letters.

Fans who yearned to know more about the author of these progressive perceptions met with an obstacle. Like Harriet, Fitzhugh liked to keep her own profile under wraps. She was interested in her perceptions of others, not in their perceptions of her. But in an expansive and revealing new biography, “Sometimes You Have to Lie,” Leslie Brody assembles the clues to the personal history that shaped Fitzhugh’s conscience and creative convictions. Brody, a biographer and playwright who adapted “Harriet the Spy” for the stage in 1988, has pored through correspondence, memoirs and court documents, and conducted dozens of interviews to reveal the trail that Fitzhugh left unmarked.

The biggest surprise is discovering Fitzhugh’s lively social presence. Merrill, who first met her in 1948, when she was a 19-year-old student at Bard, described her in his memoirs as a “bright, funny, tiny tomboy from Memphis.” Her school friends back home remembered her as “well-liked and attractive,” and she was tapped by a sorority and invited to dances and parties. An additional revelation is the extraordinary privilege of Fitzhugh’s background, which shares more with Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight’s plucky Plaza Hotel hostage, Eloise, than with Fitzhugh’s similarly assertive but less clubbable Harriet.

Fitzhugh grew up in the Jim Crow South in the 1930s, raised in her millionaire grandparents’ Memphis mansion amid a battery of cooks, nannies, gardeners and other staff — a supporting cast that features in all her books. She was precocious, serious and daintily built, with blond curls like Shirley Temple, and was “the darling of the household,” used to “getting her way.” Her mother was dead, she’d been told, but her father, Millsaps Fitzhugh, a prominent Memphis lawyer with political ambitions, lavished attention on her, and her eccentric, ladylike Grandmother Fitzhugh sang her to sleep with lullabies. Her stepmother, Sally, doted on Louise, writing in her will, “She has been as dear to me as though she were of my own blood.”

But Fitzhugh’s mother, Mary Louise Perkins Fitzhugh Trevilion, was not dead. Her father and mother had divorced, scandalously, when Louise was a baby. Her father had won custody and refused visitation rights. Louise realized that the strange woman who once showed up at her house, only to be turned away by the staff, was her mother. Louise “knew her father had lied to her,” Brody writes, “and that wasn’t something she would forget.” Her mistrust of adults would color all of her work and life choices.

For two years in her teens, Louise went steady with a well-behaved boy named Charles McNutt, who considered her “a little different from the other girls, a little bit more serious and very smart,” but also, Brody adds, “thought her beautiful and was head over heels in love.” While Louise was chastely dating Charles, she fell in love with an ambitious photojournalist from Arkansas named Amelia Brent. While seeing Amelia, she started dating another local boy, Ed Thompson, who dreamed, like Louise, of leaving the South. In 1947, she eloped with Ed only to change her mind as soon as the papers were signed. The marriage wasn’t consummated, and back in Memphis, Millsaps Fitzhugh had it annulled. The next year, Louise moved to New York, to study painting and poetry at Bard. Charles McNutt made the trip east to try to rescue his former girlfriend from her “doomed life as a lesbian,” to no avail. Louise was still in love with Amelia, and soon the two of them would share an apartment in Greenwich Village.

As Brody follows Fitzhugh’s life, two main strands emerge: her dedication to her creative work and her remarkable relationships with friends, girlfriends and even one boyfriend, the artist Fabio Rieti, with whom she remained close even after she broke up with him, explaining, “I can’t abide a male human being in my bed.” These two strands of her life were not only intertwined, they were interdependent. Her friends gave her the emotional sustenance that she could not or would not accept from her family, while her partners gave her the stability and structure she needed to create her work. In “The Long Secret,” Harriet’s friend Jessie Mae tells her, “We should honor our father and mother, but I, personally, think we should honor our friends too.” Fitzhugh did; and they honored her.

Brody traces the influence of dozens of Fitzhugh’s friendships, including, for example, with the writer Sandra Scoppettone, which began as a flirtation while Fitzhugh was on the outs with her steady girlfriend at the time. In 1959, Fitzhugh and Scoppettone came up with the idea of creating a counterculture parody of the arch “Eloise” books. Their spoof, “Suzuki Beane,” reimagined the uptown enfant de privilège as a “baby beatnik.” Fitzhugh did the illustrations, Scoppettone wrote the text. The title character appears on the cover, smiley and slouching, in Harriet-style jeans, with spiky dark flyaway hair and a cool-cat attitude. “I have a pad on Bleecker Street with Hugh and Marcia,” Suzuki announces. Hugh and Marcia are her parents; the father is a shaggy-bearded Raskolnikov who reads poetry in coffee shops; the mother is a longhaired artist who makes sculptures out of tin cans. Fitzhugh’s illustrations combine the happy-grotesque plumpness of Maurice Sendak drawings with Edward Gorey’s sinister use of line and shading. “Suzuki Beane” became an instant cult hit but, unlike its inspiration, “Eloise,” today is out of print.

Eloise has other doppelgängers. You could argue that Fitzhugh’s Harriet, for all her brusqueness, is one of them — her espionage operation relies on the bourgeois cocoon of home, household staff and creature comforts. And so, if you think about it, was Fitzhugh herself, who injected that support system into all of her books about fierce children who challenge the status quo — even Suzuki Beane. Brody suggests that Eloise’s stamping ground embodied something very personal to Fitzhugh: “The Plaza was a symbol to be held in equipoise with the arch of Washington Square: They were two pieces in the jigsaw of her life.” Just as her Memphis childhood anchored her New York adulthood, the Plaza’s “old uptown grandeur” set off her “grittier downtown life” to improbable advantage.

With Sandra Scoppettone, Fitzhugh had joked about throwing a cocktail party at the Plaza when she died, not knowing the occasion would come so soon. In November 1974, when she was just 46, Fitzhugh died of an aneurysm and that Plaza tribute took place. For one night, four feminist icons — three of them (Eloise, Harriet and Suzuki) fictional, one self-created — were celebrated in an imaginative space that was also real. Jenny Holzer has a Truism for this: “IN A DREAM YOU SAW A WAY TO SURVIVE AND YOU WERE FULL OF JOY.”

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