Adult readers of children’s books are often surprised by the grownup lives of their creators. But after all, artists who choose the medium of children’s books to express their creativity are not children themselves. In “Sometimes You Have to Lie’,” an engrossing and carefully researched biography of Louise Fitzhugh, Leslie Brody vibrantly tells the story of the complicated and ultimately triumphant life of the author of “Harriet the Spy.” She presents a full portrait of Fitzhugh, previously a shadowy figure at best, and places her firmly in the top rank of children’s book creators. What’s more, she establishes that Fitzhugh was a writer and artist who had an indelible impact on generations of young readers and adult writers as disparate as Jonathan Franzen and Alison Bechdel.
So little is known about Fitzhugh (and her papers are off-limits due to executors) that Brody turned into a bit of a spy herself to write this book. Fitzhugh was born in 1928 in the Jim Crow South, the only child in a prominent Memphis family. When her parents divorced, she lived with her father and was told that her mother was dead. Later she reunited with her mother, but the aftermath of her parents’ divorce had a lifelong effect on her.
Fitzhugh’s uncle, Peter Taylor, had a significant influence on her, giving her a worldly perspective on issues of race and class. When she was 9, she began to draw in an artist’s sketchbook. Schoolmates described her as a tiny figure with a fiery temperament (even in adulthood, her full height never exceeded 4-foot-11).
Fitzhugh had several significant beaux during her school years; by her senior year she was involved romantically with women as well. She was described by classmates as an accomplished writer, painter, singer, and musician, who was, not surprisingly, increasingly hostile to the social obligations of high-society Memphis. An oft-repeated expression of hers was: “Bury me north of the Mason-Dixon line.” At Southwestern College in Memphis, she began a love affair with a fellow student, Amelia Brent. They were eager to leave Memphis, which offered few options for freethinking, artistically minded young women. Upon Uncle Peter’s recommendation, Fitzhugh transferred to Bard College, known for progressive thought and strength in fine arts. There, she began a lifelong friendship with her academic adviser, distinguished poet James Merrill, who described her as “a bright, funny, tiny tomboy from Memphis.”
In 1949, Fitzhugh’s grandmother died and left her an inheritance that enabled her to drop out and move to Greenwich Village. She and Brent studied art and were part of a bohemian enclave of hard-drinking artists, editors, photographers, literary agents, painters, actors — all lesbians. In time, Fitzhugh broke off with Brent and embarked on a series of romances with other women. She continued to paint and write novels, and eventually wrote and illustrated a children’s book called “Harriet the Spy,” about a “nasty” (her word) little girl who considers herself a writer and a spy.
Harriet is a precocious sixth-grader living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Her brusque but loving nanny encourages her to get a notebook and write down everything she sees. One example: “IF MARION HAWTHORNE DOESN’T WATCH OUT SHE’S GOING TO GROW UP INTO A LADY HITLER.” Stuff like that. When her friends and classmates discover her notebook, Harriet is shunned and embarks on a period of what we now call “acting out.” Her meltdown continues until her nanny advises her to compromise: to apologize and lie (a little bit), while remaining true to herself. She also suggests that it’s time for Harriet to stop taking notes and start writing. At the end of the book, Harriet’s friendships are on the mend, she’s closer to her parents, and she’s writing for the school newspaper.
“Harriet the Spy” was published in 1964 and became a lightning rod for critics, librarians, and teachers. Like “The Catcher in the Rye” 13 years earlier, it presents a realistic, unvarnished view of childhood with a relatable, authority-defying, central figure. While many reviewers hailed the book as a convincing and groundbreaking portrait of the artist as a young woman, others disagreed. The reviewer from the Christian Science Monitor deemed Harriet a “rather pathetic figure.” But young readers couldn’t get enough of it and it became a phenomenon — a classic as well as a rallying cry for non-conformity. It went on to sell over 5 million copies.
Fitzhugh was surprised by both the novel’s popularity and the controversy it generated. She found it excruciating to be in the public eye and refused to make any public appearances, but the hefty royalty checks made her self-sufficient. Despite her success, she had difficulty reconciling writing for children with doing serious art.
Fitzhugh’s final romantic relationship was with Lois Morehead, who became her literary executor. They moved to Connecticut and Fitzhugh saw less of her circle of friends in Manhattan. She continued to come up with ideas for paintings and plays and books. In 1974, she published her most personal and political book, “Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change.” Shortly after its publication, Fitzhugh suffered an aneurysm and died, at the age of 46.
Louise Fitzhugh published only two novels and two picture books in her lifetime, one of them a masterpiece. She created a character that lives in the pantheon of beloved literary role models that includes Jo in “Little Women,” Anne in “Anne of Green Gables,” and Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And, like her character Harriet, Fitzhugh lived life on her own, authentic terms.
We can always read (or reread) “Harriet the Spy.” And now, thanks to this superb biography, we have become intimately familiar with its enigmatic and fascinating creator.
Betsy Groban is a columnist for Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf and has worked in book publishing, public broadcasting, and arts advocacy.
Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of ‘Harriet the Spy’
By Leslie Brody
Seal Press, 352 pages, $30