Spying on Louise Fitzhugh

harriet at 50 banner Spying on Louise Fitzhugh

I can clearly remember the first time I encountered Harriet the Spy.

It was still a relatively new book in my school library when I pulled it off the shelf at age nine. Back then I read pretty much everything in the school library. A Wrinkle in Time. Meet the Austins. Depend on Katie John. All-of-a-Kind Family. Baby Island. Children of the Covered Wagon. I was not a discriminating reader.

Until I read Harriet the Spy. Harriet was different.

It was thicker than most of the books I’d read. The title intrigued me. And the jacket art really drew me in. The gritty-looking brick building in the background with broken, boarded-up windows and peeling posters on the wall sets the scene. Harriet, wearing baggy jeans, a hooded sweatshirt, and high-top tennis shoes, walks past it all with an air of detached confidence. She looked like a kid I wanted to know.

Between the covers, the book was even better. Harriet’s spy route fascinated me, and her bravado was thrilling. She was gutsy enough to peek through windows and skylights. And who wouldn’t want to be brave enough to sneak into a rich lady’s dumbwaiter? Fitzhugh’s line drawing of wide-eyed Harriet scrunched into that small space is seared into my memory.

But the best thing of all in Harriet the Spy was her notebook entries. Written in capital letters so that they stood out on the page, those notes shocked me with their unflinching honesty. I distinctly remember closing the book halfway through and staring at the author’s name on the cover. Who IS this Louise Fitzhugh? I wondered. And how does she know so much about kids? Until Harriet, I had had a steady diet of books written by adults with an idealized view of childhood. As a child, I assumed that simply meant that the adults who wrote them didn’t know any real kids. Certainly they had never been kids themselves. Real kids were sneaky and snarky and sometimes downright mean, like Harriet. They hid their true selves from their parents and teachers, mostly to protect them. What parent would want to learn that the school playground was more Lord of the Flies than Little Lord Fauntleroy?

So I knew Harriet M. Welsch. But who was Louise Fitzhugh? I wanted to know who she was and what she was like. But I wouldn’t have the resources to find out much until I was a grownup myself. In the meantime, there were other Fitzhugh books to read — The Long Secret (excellent!); Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change (different); Bang Bang You’re Dead (okay); Sport (meh); and Suzuki Beane (brilliant!). Fitzhugh was not a prolific author, and except for The Long Secret, a sequel to Harriet the Spy, no other novel came close. Her line drawings for the adult picture book Suzuki Beane (a send-up of Kay Thompson’s Eloise) showed the same sort of sophisticated, wry humor that was present in the two books about Harriet, but more than anything they left me wanting more.

The first time I had a real opportunity to learn more was when I met editor Charlotte Zolotow at a Harper & Row cocktail party in 1982. I was a newly minted librarian at my first American Library Association conference. I can’t remember exactly how Charlotte and I got onto the subject of Harriet the Spy, but once I learned she had been involved in the editorial process, I peppered her with questions. She told me about the day Fitzhugh first appeared in the Harper office, manuscript in hand. At that time, it consisted just of the journal entries, and Charlotte told me she and editor Ursula Nordstrom read them aloud to each other, hooting with laughter. All the while, Louise sat curled up in a chair, scowling. “You hate it, don’t you?” she finally said. “Oh, no,” said Ursula. “We love it! It’s just not a book yet. You need a story. Who is this girl and why is she so angry?”

“Why did she leave Harper?” I asked Charlotte, knowing that Fitzhugh had published only her first two novels and second picture book (Bang Bang You’re Dead) with them. There was a long silence before Charlotte responded. “We were sorry, but it just didn’t work out.” I was sorry, too, because Fitzhugh’s books were never really the same after she parted ways with Ursula and Charlotte.

Louise Fitzhugh died in 1974 when she was only forty-six. Her third novel, Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change, was published just before she died. Her fourth, Sport, came out posthumously, as did a couple of picture books. These had been sold to Delacorte and Doubleday by the executor of Fitzhugh’s estate, Lois Morehead. The most interesting one was I Know Everything About John and He Knows Everything About Me, published by Doubleday in 1993, with illustrations by Lillian Hoban. It was reviewed favorably by Publishers Weekly late in 1993, but a few weeks later PW ran a piece called “A Picture Book Mix-Up,” in which they informed readers that Doubleday had recalled the book after learning there had been a mistake. An astute reviewer at School Library Journal had recognized the text as being that of Charlotte Zolotow’s My Friend John, first published by Harper & Row in 1968. During the time when Harper was still trying to make things work out, Charlotte had sent Louise one of her own picture-book manuscripts, hoping Louise would illustrate it. Charlotte never heard back from her. In 1978, Doubleday bought a collection of unpublished manuscripts from Louise Fitzhugh’s estate, including this one. Given the circumstances, it’s easy to see why Doubleday would assume Fitzhugh had written it — and also easy to see why they described the incident as “embarrassing.”

In 1983, I got a bit more insight into Fitzhugh’s life when M. E. Kerr published her memoir Me Me Me Me Me: Not a Novel. One chapter in this book is called “Marijane the Spy.” Kerr (whose real name is Marijane Meaker) talks about her friendship with Louise Fitzhugh, and how she had told Louise stories about her own childhood as a neighborhood spy. “You stole that idea from me!” Kerr told her friend when Harriet the Spy was published. Fitzhugh simply answered that all kids are spies. Much as I enjoyed this anecdote — and Fitzhugh’s response — for me the real revelation came in my next re-reading of Harriet the Spy. (I still read it every year.) I noticed, for the first time, that one of Harrison Withers’s cats is named Marijane. I suddenly realized that about half of his twenty-six cats must be named after Fitzhugh’s friends. Among such famous names as Rasputin and Willie Mays are David, Alex, Sandra, Pat, Cassandra, Gloria, Marijane, Francis, Donna, Fred, and Yvonne. If Marijane was the name of a personal friend, it stands to reason that the others were, too. I’ve only been able to figure out a few of them, however: Sandra Scoppettone (the author of Suzuki Beane), Pat Schartle Myrer (Fitzhugh’s agent), and Alixe Gordin (her lover).

Throughout the late 1980s, University of Wisconsin–Stout English professor Virginia L. Wolf was engaged in research for a Twayne biography of Louise Fitzhugh, and she would fill me in on all her latest discoveries. She was able to confirm what I had long suspected — that Fitzhugh was a lesbian. Thirty years ago, this bit of information was considered a lot more scandalous than it is today. So many of Fitzhugh’s friends interviewed for the book told Virginia, “Yes, she was gay, but you didn’t hear it from me.” Others tried to convince Virginia that she shouldn’t mention Fitzhugh’s sexual orientation in the book because it wasn’t an important part of her biography. Virginia had the foresight to disagree.

One of the most tantalizing bits of information Virginia learned from Alixe Gordin, Fitzhugh’s lover at the time she was writing Harriet the Spy, was that Fitzhugh had written a more serious novel, called Amelia, about an adolescent girl who had fallen in love with another girl. It was completed in the early 1960s, but the novel never saw publication. If it had, it would have been the first gay novel for teens, predating John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip by several years.

Virginia also shared with me the manuscript for an autobiographical play Fitzhugh wrote in 1962 called Mother Sweet, Father Sweet. It made for some interesting reading, but the best thing I gleaned from it was her street address on East 85th Street, where she was living while writing Harriet the Spy. In the early 1990s, my sister lived just two blocks away, and she indulged my request to go and take photographs of the apartment building and the surrounding area. I wanted to see what Louise Fitzhugh saw when she left her apartment. I wanted to enter into Harriet’s world.

At around the same time, another Harriet fan I knew, Judy Zuckerman, was using clues from the book to try to figure out where Harriet herself might have lived. When I visited New York City in 1996, Judy took me on a walking tour of Harriet’s neighborhood. She had figured out many of the locations from the book for an article she wrote for School Library Journal, and she showed them to me. Carl Schurz Park, where Harriet lost her spy notebook. The Chapin School (the book’s Gregory School) on East End Avenue at East 84th Street. Harriet’s block on East 87th Street. I showed Judy where Fitzhugh’s apartment was, two blocks over. Together we walked the neighborhood, with Harriet the Spy in hand, and figured out where Harriet’s friends lived and her spy route, based on descriptions from the book.

It was all there, and everything was remarkably close together, located within just a few blocks. So many critics today say Harriet the Spy is dated because no one would give a child such free rein in a city these days. But looking at Harriet’s neighborhood — her real neighborhood — I realized that, yes, you would. Even now.

Walking the same streets the author had walked, looking at the same buildings she would have seen as she figured out Harriet’s spy route, is as close as I will ever get to knowing Louise Fitzhugh. It felt oddly familiar, like I had seen it all before. And I realized that I had seen it, in my mind’s eye, the first time I read the book and entered her world. In a way, it was like coming home again.

The Dei Santis’ grocery store on York Avenue at 86th Street had turned into a restaurant. Judy and I tried to find an alley behind it, hoping to spot the distinctive window through which Harriet had spied on Little Joe Curry. We didn’t find it, but even so, we both craved a thousand tomato sandwiches. We slammed the book shut and headed toward the river, in search of an egg cream.

spyroute3 web Spying on Louise Fitzhugh

Part of Harriet’s spy route. Photo: Judy Zuckerman.

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K.T. at Harriet’s house. Photo: Judy Zuckerman.

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K.T. at Louise Fitzhugh’s house. Photo: Judy Zuckerman.

Kathleen T. Horning, a self-described obsessive Harriet the Spy fan, is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Read her classic Horn Book article about Harriet: “On Spies and Purple Socks and Such.”

From the May/June 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Part of a special section commemorating the 50th anniversary of Harriet the Spy.

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Kathleen T. Horning About Kathleen T. Horning

Kathleen T. Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books and teaches a popular online course for ALSC on the history of the Newbery and Caldecott medals.

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