"Sometimes You Have to Lie": A Conversation with Leslie Brody

Nearly sixty years after the publication of Harriet the Spy (Harper, 1964) the book remains as fresh as ever, so it’s not surprising that Harriet’s author was just as captivating. In her new, thoroughly researched biography, Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy (Seal Press), Leslie Brody provides a fluid and fascinating account of an extraordinary woman who was far ahead of her time.

 

KATHLEEN T. HORNING: Your biography paints such a complete portrait that, after reading it, I feel I know Louise Fitzhugh as a person. Although she achieved great literary fame and success during her short life, her personal history has always been elusive. How were you able to find out so much about her?

LESLIE BRODY: I was very fortunate in being able to conduct all the interviews I did. I was also fortunate because I made a connection with a woman named Karen Cook. She had written an article for The Village Voice and did so many interviews — more than would go into one article. She kindly permitted me access, which gave me a whole new dimension of Louise’s life. And then I had the court transcripts and newspaper articles from Louise’s childhood.

KTH: You were able to uncover so much about her very complicated childhood and family background. Her parents, Millsaps and Mary Louise, had a short, tumultuous marriage and a very nasty, public divorce that made the headlines in Memphis. Louise was just a baby when this happened and grew up thinking her mother was dead. How did her father end up getting custody of Louise? And how did she find out her mother was still living?

LB: The divorce was an enormous scandal. It wasn’t the Lindbergh baby, but in Tennessee, it was a gigantic, absorbing scandal. Partly because the Fitzhughs were such a high-status, prestigious family. Partly because it was a wife who did not respect her husband. It wasn’t that she was seeing someone else — she simply didn’t want to be married to this guy. Her lawyer tried to portray her as a kind of flower of white delicacy, a daughter of the South, but it didn’t work because she was so independent and so obviously capable.

The divorce was something no one talked about while Louise was growing up. She learned the details the summer before she left for college, for Bard, when she worked at the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper, in their “morgue,” among the filing cabinets. The reports on the Fitzhugh family over many years filled a gigantic binder, and she went through it and read all about the divorce.

Her father had slapped Louise when she was a month old. In one report there was a scene in the courtroom in which her mother walks through the experience of having seen her husband slap the baby. It was a showstopper, because Millsaps’s lawyer tried to discredit Mary Louise. He said things like, “Did he slap her more than once?” She had to say no. “Did the baby bleed?” And she said no. They brought the whole power of money and misogyny together to destroy her.

Mary Louise had a nervous breakdown, and then her baby was kept from her for many years. It wasn’t until ­Louise was six that she learned her mother wasn’t dead. As soon as Millsaps won custody, he told her, “Your mother’s dead; forget about her.” But her mother would try to get into the house. Louise would watch from the window, a woman coming to the door she didn’t recognize. She didn’t know her mother anymore; she had been only two when she was taken. Finally, Millsaps remarried, and the stepmother said, “We can’t do this anymore. We have to normalize things.” So Louise started to see her mother again — not often, but enough that Mary Louise was in her life, throughout her life.

KTH: Louise grew up in the South, in a white supremacist environment — that’s what she was raised with, and yet she rejected it. How do you think she came at her own understanding of racial politics? She wasn’t learning it in school or at home. How did she develop her sense of equity and justice?

LB: It increased as she became more and more aware of the world outside her family’s house. Within her house, because she was an only child, and little kids were traditionally left to be brought up by Black housemaids and nurses — those are the people she loved. And she didn’t like the other adults in her life that much. She had an anti-authoritarian streak, as some children do, from the very beginning.

KTH: As Harriet did.

LB: Yes, like Harriet, exactly. But if you ask me about how she started to recognize imbalance and power structures, I think much of that has to do with her uncle, Peter Taylor, who was the younger brother of her father’s second wife. He was an extraordinary short story writer, and his influence on Louise can’t be overstated. He loved blues records, art, writing, and he just opened her world, as sometimes is necessary when you’re in those closed environments. Somebody opens a window, and from then on you’re outside looking for everything.

KTH: I was surprised to learn she came out as a lesbian so early in life, first to her friends in high school. Pretty remarkable for Tennessee in the 1940s! She didn’t ever seem to go through that “tragic lesbian” period of doubt and self-loathing. She seemed to be comfortable with who she was and whom she loved from the beginning.

LB: Yes. It was a secret. She had a tight group of friends who kept the secret with her. Her friends found her so amusing, so interesting, somebody you wanted to be with, both serious and comical, charismatic. My book isn’t the story of a saint — not everything she does in her life is fantastic. But it does seem that there’s a through line of people loving her and wanting to protect what they often saw as her genius.

KTH: She was loved by men as well. As a teenager, there were a couple of boys who pursued her, quite fervently. One of the men you interviewed said that at age eighty-nine he still loved her.

LB: I had the most incredible luck talking to Charles McNutt. Charlie had been her boyfriend since they’d gone steady in middle school. He was the one she relied on when she wasn’t quite ready to break from her society. He took her to all the dances and cotillions. He understood who she was. Although he loved her, she thought of him as a good friend. Then she got involved with Ed Thompson. That was high school, senior year. The two of them were reading The New Yorker, The New Republic; they were talking about Hiroshima and racism and Jim Crow and how to resist the tiny little world of Memphis and write poetry and art. They had a wonderful relationship. At the same time, Louise met the first woman with whom she would truly fall in love, Amelia Brent. Just as Louise wanted to be a poet and an artist, Amelia wanted to be a great photographer. They both wanted to run away to New York. But it would be some years before they could get there.

KTH: I wanted to ask you about Louise as a painter.

LB: She was a portraitist for a long time. She thought of herself first as a fine artist and painter. That’s how she wanted to be remembered, not as a writer. The illustrations, the cartoons, the drawings were things that she loved to do, and they came easily to her. She didn’t trust what came easily; it had to be hard for it to be art. She believed in the value of art and how artists have a responsibility to the world, of adding beauty to it, but also making people see things differently, and how art can change the world. She was very much influenced early on by the muralists of the WPA and the Mexican muralists who made paintings that told stories of public life and real people. That realism is something she takes all the way into Harriet the Spy.

KTH: Her first book was Suzuki Beane (Doubleday, 1961), which I think is a lost, if I could say, masterpiece. How did she come to work with Sandra Scoppettone on this book?

LB: Louise was then living in New York City with Alixe Gordin — she and Alixe were essentially married for almost a decade. Alixe had a fantastic but terribly demanding job. She was one of the first women in early television working as a casting director and had a lot of power in this new industry. But she was very, very busy. Louise was painting and writing plays. She met Sandra Scoppettone at a party, and they discovered they had a lot in common. Sandra was seven years younger.

KTH: Sandra was, what, twenty-five when they met?

LB: Something like that. She and Louise just clicked. They would carouse and go out to parties and gay bars. They decided to collaborate on a project and started throwing ideas around. They were both fascinated by Eloise in Kay Thompson’s Eloise at the Plaza picture books. They thought, Let’s set a kid like that not at the Plaza Hotel but in Greenwich Village. This was a golden age in Greenwich Village, and the idea of it was now infiltrating Middle America. Dobie Gillis, with his beatnik friend Maynard G. Krebs, is on television. Jack Kerouac is everywhere. Beatniks and abstract expressionism — it’s all infiltrating. It’s a moment in America where there’s a little bit of lightness. Louise and Sandra hit that moment. They set their child protagonist on Bleecker Street among the “unwashed masses.” Louise drew some pictures, and Sandra took them back to her apartment. She pasted them down, wrote text, asked for some more pictures — and they created this material together. The illustrations are gorgeous. And the book is fantastic.

KTH: I do think we see the seed of Harriet M. Welsch in Suzuki Beane. So — let’s talk about Louise’s best-known work, Harriet the Spy. In your book, you say that Louise herself characterized Harriet as a “nasty little girl.” She has become such a touchstone character in children’s literature. Do you think Harriet is a nasty little girl?

LB: Yes. But I don’t think nasty is necessarily derogatory. I think that nasty, in the way Louise meant it and the way that she built the character and the way that I’m taking it, is somebody who protects herself and uses all the trickster tools she has against the power of oppressive adults. You lie, you use self-reliance, you gather with other children. You cannot rely on adults to tell you the truth and, unfortunately, to protect you as they are meant to do. And when it comes down to the place where Ole Golly writes to Harriet to tell her that if she wants to keep her friends she has to apologize and she has to lie — it’s not as if Harriet has not been lying, or at least practicing deception, all along. What is she doing when she squashes into the dumbwaiter? Or spies on Little Joe Curry? There’s much deception from the start, but it’s all about ways of seeing, and about having all the tools at your disposal to help you survive so that you can be the person you ought to be. Harriet is someone who’s flawed, someone whom children delight in seeing, whose mistakes reflect them, in a way. That unruliness, that anti-authoritarianism. At the same time, the spying, the deception, is in the service of something. It’s fulfilling. She’s got a job to do. As she says, “I do not go out to PLAY, I go out to WORK!” Although she’s not such a serious kid that she never has fun. She’s got friends, she has fun—and she has an imagination and curiosity that have no limits.

KTH: What about the secondary characters in ­Harriet? Ole Golly’s character was meant to be racially ambiguous, correct?

LB: I can’t get into Louise’s mind and know whether she originally wanted Ole Golly to be Black, but I can tell you that the nurses and housemaids of her youth were all Black, and she loved them. Ole Golly is full of wise sayings and literary quotes and the occasional Southernism. I think she’s a commingling of many elements, and that there is a great deal of ambiguity in her portrayal.

KTH: What about Harriet’s parents? They’re clearly not based on Louise’s own parents.

LB: No. Alixe Gordin was convinced that the father is based on her. (They broke up in the spring of 1963, when Louise was writing Harriet.) She worked in TV and was always complaining about finks and people who were only interested in money and not art. Harriet’s mother has got to be a combination of the women Louise knew in Memphis, the clubwomen, the society women. And yet, there’s a degree of sympathy.

KTH: What was the critical reception to the book?

LB: When Harriet first came out, in December 1964, it sold like hotcakes, because people bought it for Christmas and Hanukkah. It also got good reviews in the commercial press. But by January or February, articles started to come out in trade magazines for the ­gatekeepers — librarians, teachers, parents. What have we here? This is a little girl who lies and spies and doesn’t listen to people, and worst of all, she doesn’t change at the end. Harriet was called bad-­mannered and bad-tempered and uncontrolled, and not someone about whom you should permit your child to read. This is the moment when the 1960s are opening up, and out of this moment — well, it’s easy to imagine Harriet growing up over the next four or five years into a hippie, a radical. You can feel the dominant culture trying to repress that. And meanwhile people like Maurice Sendak and Louise Fitzhugh and others of their ilk are creating these kids and sending them out into the world to ask questions, to be dubious, to be ­skeptical. But these gatekeepers — the issue was, What kind of controls can we keep? At the same time, there was a whole band of younger librarians — whether they were younger chronologically or just had a younger spirit — who saw that change was coming. They stood behind the book and promoted it. Eventually that group supplanted the first set of gatekeepers. The book took off, and there was nothing that the old guard could do. As critic Anne Scott MacLeod wrote, “Harriet was the breach and after Fitzhugh came the Deluge.”

KTH: She was a harbinger of what was to come.

LB: Like many people who do something truly original, she triggered something, she touched a nerve, and the old forces couldn’t resist it. But it took about five years for the book to filter throughout the culture. That’s why I think it’s the boys and girls who came of age then, who would later be called Gen Xers, who really took to the book. Baby boomers loved it, but it didn’t hit critical mass in terms of the culture until the seventies, when kids who were eleven or twelve in 1970 or 1971 were reading it. How old are the kids who read it now? They’re a little younger.

KTH: I think maybe younger kids were reading it all along, but what you take from it at different ages might be different things. I’ve talked to a lot of queer people who found a kindred spirit in Harriet when they were children. Certainly, for me, before there was any gay literature for kids, I found Harriet to be one of my few kindred spirits in books. I assume it’s the same for young people today who are realizing they don’t quite fit in, for whatever reason.

LB: Where do you see her now in terms of her legacy?

KTH: I think it’s Harriet being honest with her friends, and standing up to her peers, not conforming. That, I think, would still resonate with children. Children, especially girls, are by nature such conformists when it comes to their peers, as opposed to their parents or families. Harriet clearly isn’t going to conform to the standards of Marion Hawthorne or any of the girls in her class. Also, her friends, Janie and Sport, both run counter to type. We have expectations for gender that we’re still fighting. Boys still have to fight to be like Sport — a nurturing, caretaking boy; and girls still have to fight to be like Janie. We’re still talking about girls and women in STEM — it’s still an issue, all these years later. There are things, socially, that kids can get out of Harriet. And her scathingly funny notebook entries! My friends and I used to read those aloud to each other because they’re so funny and so true.

LB: Harriet contains a sort of secret code that tells nonconforming kids that there’s a benevolent and a generous world out there for you to find, and that there will be people who will stand with you. But you have to be alert. You need to be aware of your surroundings.

KTH: How did you get interested in Louise Fitzhugh? I know you didn’t read Harriet when you were a child.

LB: I just missed it. When it came out in 1964, Harriet was eleven and I was just about to turn twelve, and my family didn’t buy many books (we were library-goers). And by the following year I was no longer reading children’s books. I’d already moved up into what we called big books in my house — I was reading Daphne du Maurier and Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt and The Agony and the Ecstasy. And The ­Autobiography of Malcolm X. So I missed the moment. Then in 1988, I was working in theater and was commissioned by the Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis to do an adaptation of Harriet the Spy. I finally read the book, and I was like, Oh my god, how is it possible that I missed this?

There’s a more personal connection as well. I’m from the Bronx originally, but my family moved out to Long Island. My father had an auto-wrecking yard, on the wrong side of the tracks from the Hamptons. Louise Fitzhugh spent her summers in Quogue, which is about five miles from my father’s wrecking yard, so we easily could have crossed paths. We might have met at the train station in Speonk, where all her friends came to visit her. My father and I would often have lunch in the train station diner. It’s quite possible that I crossed paths with her, or Ursula Nordstrom, or Charlotte Zolotow, or any one of her fabulous artistic or theatrical friends, but I would never have known it. Two ­different worlds.

KTH: Before we go, I want to touch on Louise’s later books for kids, particularly Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change (Farrar, 1974).

LB: As much as I love Harriet, Nobody’s Family is my sentimental favorite, and I don’t think it has gotten the attention it deserves. It is the most personal book that Louise wrote. It is about a little girl who wants to be a lawyer, and whose father is a misogynist and says that women lawyers are ridiculous. It’s also the story of a Black family on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that has worked hard to achieve success. And yet they know their success is fragile, that it could be overturned at any moment. At the heart of the story is a girl, eleven years old, the same age Harriet is in Harriet the Spy. She’s much more aware of the world than Harriet is. Emma joins a revolutionary children’s army to point out abusers of children, to try to find these people and help children escape from them, and also writes a children’s Bill of Rights. Louise was dedicated to the idea that children needed a Bill of Rights, and that they needed to be liberated from the oppression of adults. There’s a quote from Charlotte Zolotow — I’m going to paraphrase it: Louise suspected every adult she ever met. Louise herself had a great sympathy for the eleven-year-old mind. She was a fully grown-up, sophisticated woman who made her own choices. She just had a great sense of how to represent a child’s world and be honest about it.

From the January/February 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Kathleen T. Horning
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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