I Spy Louise Fitzhugh: A Conversation with Leslie Brody

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. Just think how awful it would be if they did. Her mother and father were Fitzgeraldian, jazz-era socialites. 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. 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. Louise was raised in segregated Memphis, the rebellious daughter of a wealthy family. It features a funny, stubborn, intelligent little girl who looks and acts as I imagine Louise may have done. Louise hated writing letters, but she made an exception for Jimmy, and their correspondence covers over 20 years. Tell us about Louise’s upbringing. 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. Louise, if you’ve learned otherwise, don’t tell. Many of her paintings contained staircases and the dark corners she associated with Samarkand. How do you think her sexuality informed her work? You can even make stories from yours, but remember they don’t come back. But that is a decision only her heirs can make. Until she was five, Louise was told her mother had died. 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. I love her picture book I Am Five [1978] because it feels like it comes directly from her life. Louise Fitzhugh
Louise, born a Southerner, frequently said she wanted to be buried north of the Mason-Dixon line. Farewell. Her voice in the letters is captivating, campy, sometimes mordant. I wish I could say that this advice is obsolete in the year 2020, but unfortunately it still applies. 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. France Burke and Louise Fitzhugh
One of my favorite parts of your book was reading the elegy James Merrill wrote after Louise died. It was very privileged, yet also troubled by early trauma. She’d memorialize some of them in her books. Alixe thought so, and tried to convince Louise’s heirs to allow the play to be staged. She hated white supremacy, and what she considered her family’s complicity. However, they remained close friends for all of her life. You’re eleven years old, which is old enough to get busy at growing up to be the person you want to be. 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. What parts of Louise’s life should we revisit today? Our conversation took place by email in early November. She once wrote to [her friend, the painter Fabio Rieti], of “the depth, the pain, the horror, searching, fumbling,” that distinguished painting from illustration. You don’t need me now. Alixe Gordin said Louise used to destroy paintings which she considered not up to par. 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. I do. 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. She abhorred Jim Crow. In Harriet and other books, Louise revisits her relationships with the maids, nurses, cooks, and nannies who cared for her. 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. Louise was about a year old when their marriage ended in an acrimonious divorce. One is a full-length portrait of Alixe and others in the apartment they shared, featuring a bed they bought in a flea market. “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. 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. Louise died in her 40s, and your final chapter explores her legacy. [Her heirs] refused the request, and very few people have read the script. 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. Once she arrived in New York, she was determined to paint and to study painting. To complete Sometimes You Have to Lie, Brody conducted over 60 interviews and spent two years researching Fitzhugh’s life. Gone is gone. It was published the week after her death. Louise and Harriet’s message continues to be one of love against the odds. 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. We’d know so much less about her without those letters. Could you share a little bit about their relationship and that poem specifically? 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. ¤
KELLY BLEWETT: Why did you want to write about Louise Fitzhugh? Louise also wrote a few sequels to Harriet, one of which was published posthumously. They had a whirlwind romance, married, then discovered they really didn’t like each other. Why was that so significant to her? It’s important to note that Louise always considered herself a painter first. I love it for its heroine, Emma, who wants to become a lawyer but meets opposition from her misogynist father. Its little tomboy damozel
Became the figure in our repertory
Who stood for truth. I think she would like her paintings to be exhibited and her papers, those that remain to be more widely read. She traveled to Paris to paint there as well. 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. I wrote about this in my book. 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 didn’t rate her book illustrations — as unique and influential as they would become — as highly as her painting. 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. 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). 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 one particularly beautiful and erotic watercolor of the two of them in bed. I guard my memories and love them, but I don’t get in them and lie down. 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. Just stick to your own story,
Humorous and heartrending and uncouth. I’ve seen some of the paintings she did while living with Alixe Gordin (to whom she considered herself married for almost a decade).   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. How do you think Louise would want to be remembered? She wasn’t ready to go, but that’s not to say that she hadn’t given some thought to immortality. 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. They were immediately attracted and, though both queer, attempted a love affair that fizzled. Which of the non-Harriet books do you like best, and which do you think is most revealing of Louise and her preoccupations? 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. 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. How did Louise’s childhood show up in her writing? The book features a professional black family in New York. At first, I was curious to look deeply into the world of New York City in 1965. 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. There is so much in this book about racial justice and gender and the revolutionary politics of its day. May I quote myself? 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. ¤
Kelly Blewett teaches in the English Department of Indiana University East. 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. She’d have wanted her paintings to be seen. Tell us about Louise’s visual art. 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. And she’d have wanted to be remembered as writer whose work had meaning and staying power. 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. Do you agree that Harriet reflects Louise’s personal philosophy, and if so, how? Her mother was a trained ballerina with ambitions to dance on Broadway. Louise is on top looking like an ardent Harriet the Spy. She went her own way during the abstract expressionist and pop art years, mostly painting portraits and then landscapes. 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. Her father gained custody, and until his remarriage, Louise lived with him and her paternal grandparents in a mansion named Samarkand. 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. Her most personal story is probably Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change (1974). I never miss anything or anyone because it all becomes a lovely memory. […] 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. 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. 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. As a member of the revolutionary Children’s Army, Emma even writes a children’s bill of rights. Regarding her book illustrations, Louise was a perfectionist. 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. JANUARY 2, 2021

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. Author photo by Emily Tucker. 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. 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. 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. She worked with a magnifying glass at hand. She has shown free-thinking children they can be happy as themselves, while her truth-telling has launched a million diarists.