NgospelMedia.net is The No. 1 International Urban Gospel Media Website, The Largest Repository of Your Favorite Gospel Entertainment Website, Worldwide, Nigeria. We Published Latest Nigerian and Foreign Gospel Music Downloads, Videos; Lyrics, Artiste Biography, Daily Devotionals. NgospelMedia is mainly a Christian Website, as the Domain Name Speaks; Gospel; Which is also tagged as a Gospel On-line Ministry for Souls Winning...
The 11-year-old heroine of the 1964 classic “Harriet the Spy” is a street-smart tomboy who galumphs around her Upper East Side neighborhood in ratty jeans and a hoodie. She snoops on her neighbors — sneaking into dumbwaiters and scaling the roofs of apartment buildings — while jotting down shockingly frank observations, like “DOES HIS MOTHER HATE HIM? IF I HAD HIM I’D HATE HIM.”
Harriet M. Welsch does not solve mysteries, like that goody-two-shoes gumshoe Nancy Drew. She’s mostly a gossipmonger, obsessed with chronicling the people around her and figuring out what makes them tick. She’s also not very nice: She throws tantrums, hides a frog in her frenemy’s desk and refuses to apologize when her classmates discover the disparaging dossiers she’s written on them. Yet, she’s irresistible. In the end, her clever takedowns land her a blockbuster gossip column in the school newspaper. Her main takeaway is that “sometimes you have to lie” to keep people from hating you.
It’s a motto that “Harriet the Spy” author Louise Fitzhugh could have called her own. According to a new biography, Fitzhugh led a secret life that would have thrilled her nosy heroine. She was a pint-sized heiress with a dysfunctional Southern family. She was a lesbian who dressed in tailored suits and capes and had multiple affairs with women and a few men.
She wrote few books before her death in 1974, at the young age of 46, and her last romantic partner took pains to keep as much of Louise’s salacious past — including her sexuality — under wraps.
With the publication of the book, “Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy” (Seal Press), out now, author Leslie Brody is finally revealing the truth.
Louise Fitzhugh was born in Memphis in 1928 to a prominent, eccentric Southern family. Her grandmother, Josephine Fitzhugh, was — according to Louise — “a musical millionaire who threw money out the window for the birds, while servants stood below to catch the cash in baskets.” Her crazy uncle Gus lived in the attic and cut up dolls. Her stepmother, Sally, was pretty cool, but Louise would never admit it.
Louise’s father, Millsaps Fitzhugh, was a prominent lawyer who told Louise that her mother, Mary Louise Perkins, a ballet teacher from Clarksdale, Miss., died when Louise was a baby.
That was a lie. Mary Louise was alive and well, teaching dance in Clarksdale (about an hour and a half away from Memphis) and trying to see her baby. Mary Louise — who had met Millsaps while vacationing in Europe — had chafed under her husband’s controlling, boorish behavior (he wouldn’t let her teach, gave her a paltry allowance and disparaged her family, calling them “trash”) and demanded a divorce. Despite the emotional abuse he inflicted on his wife, Millsaps won full custody of Louise — he had bragged that he had the courts “all sewn up” due to his family name.
The Fitzhughs refused to let Mary Louise see the child; Josephine particularly thought Mary Louise, who came from a poor family, was a bad influence.
After Sally married Millsaps, she urged him to tell Louise the truth about her mother. Eventually, he relented, and sometime after Louise entered the first grade, she met Mary Louise.
Still, Louise didn’t know just how scandalous her parents’ marriage was until she did some sleuthing of her own, using a college internship at the local Memphis paper to read up on the divorce proceedings. Afterward, Louise went to her friend’s house, visibly shaken by the shocking courtroom accusations. “She just kept repeating, ‘I was a baby and they threw me on the couch,’ ” her friend would later say. Louise did feel sympathy for her mother and maintained a relationship with her through adulthood, but she never trusted her father’s family again, forging a skepticism toward parental figures that later defined her children’s books.
Louise was artistic, rebellious and captivating. Standing at a pint-sized 4 feet, 11 inches, she looked like a fairy or sprite — with her delicate frame and sly smile. As a teen she wore overalls and cropped hair and dated both boys and girls. The summer before college, she eloped with one of her high school sweethearts, Ed Thompson, one wild evening in Mississippi, though she was sleeping with a woman, artist Amelia Brent, at the time. (The marriage was quickly annulled, but she and Ed remained friendly.)
Later, after transferring to Bard to study writing, she seduced her gay male poetry adviser, James Merrill. He recounted in his memoir that Louise “began undressing me” and “what we found ourselves doing proved to be a thrilling discovery.”
Louise, however, preferred sleeping with women, and in 1951 she moved to Greenwich Village with her old flame Amelia. There, Louise would fall in with an artistic lesbian crowd, including pulp novelist Marijane (MJ) Meaker, playwright Lorraine Hansberry and the photographer Gina Jackson. She frequented gay coffee shops and nightclubs and swore off women’s clothes, preferring button-down shirts, trousers and sometimes a velvet cape.
An inheritance from her grandmother — despite being estranged from her father’s family — allowed Louise to live the life of a starving artist without the starving part, and she studied painting not only at the Art Students League, but also in Paris, where she would meet her second serious girlfriend, France Burke, and Bologna, Italy, where she painted frescoes alongside her friend and lover Fabio Rieti. Rieti and Louise had a tempestuous two-month affair, and she told him that he was the only man she ever loved, though she ultimately decided “I can’t abide a male human being in my bed,” and dumped him.
Louise was, by all accounts, a good artist. But she had a hard time making money off her work. It was during this artistic funk that Louise and her friend Sandra Scoppettone began working on a spoof of the children’s book “Eloise” called “Suzuki Beane,” about a child whose beatnik parents let her run amok. Scoppettone contributed the words, and Louise the winsome illustrations — and it was a downtown smash when it was published in 1961. By 1963, her confidence somewhat restored, Louise wrote to her former professor James Merrill, saying she was writing a new book “about a nasty little girl who keeps a notebook on all her friends.”
“Harriet the Spy” did garner some controversy when it was published in 1964. The book was shockingly subversive. Harriet’s parents are rich, well-meaning but clueless yuppies who attend cocktail parties and leave their 11-year-old in the care of her nanny, Ole Golly. Her best friend, Sport, has to cook and make cocktails for his degenerate writer father. Her other best friend, Janie, wants to be a scientist so she can “blow up the world.” Harriet sees a child psychologist, drinks egg creams and uses curse words. One reviewer called the book “depressing”; another called Harriet “pathetic.” But the novel flew off the shelves and ushered in a wave of realism in children’s literature, from S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” to Judy Blume’s “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.”
Despite the success of her book and its sequel, “The Long Secret,” Louise suffered from self-doubt. Though all her friends thought her “Harriet” marvelous, she didn’t consider kid’s books “real” literature. She tried to resume work on a play based on her eccentric Southern family, but after she was told it needed some revisions, she abandoned it. Another young-adult book she had started — based on her young love with Amelia Brent, who had tragically died in what appeared to be a suicide in 1956 — was lost. And her followup with her “Suzuki Beane” collaborator Scoppettone, the antiwar picture book “Bang, Bang You’re Dead,” flopped.
Louise began drinking excessively, binge-eating, guzzling diet pills and sleeping around indiscriminately — more so than usual. She was getting tired. “I can’t abide all this calling and making dates and wondering where your next bed is coming from,” she lamented to Merrill.
After a string of live-in girlfriends, she met a nurse named Lois Morehead and the two moved to Connecticut with Lois’ 13-year-old daughter in 1969. Lois helped keep Louise in line — and away from her wild New York friends, to their annoyance. But Louise was productive. In 1974, she finished another book, “Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change,” about a middle-class black family. But a few weeks before it was published, Louise suffered a brain aneurysm and was rushed to the hospital. She died at just 46.
Lois, as executor of Louise’s estate, would — as Brody writes — “preserve the mystique surrounding the author of ‘Harriet the Spy.’ ” While a few picture books and one other novel have been published since “Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change,” many of Louise’s manuscripts have remained under lock and key.
It’s understandable — in the 1960s and ’70s, outing a children’s author as a lesbian would have killed sales. Fitzhugh knew this; it is why she did not do publicity for her books or give interviews to journalists.
Yet by the 1980s and 1990s, many of Louise’s friends were ready to talk about the writer’s past. Marijane Meaker and James Merrill both wrote frankly and fondly about Louise in their autobiographies. A few colleagues told the academic Virginia L. Wolf, who published a scholarly biography of Louise in 1991, that the “Harriet the Spy” scribe was gay. But Brody has uncovered so much more, including Louise’s letters to Merrill and Hansberry, tracking down the literary editor who appraised Louise’s papers after her death and interviewing dozens of acquaintances, including “Suzuki Beane” coauthor Scoppettone, Alixe Gordin, who dated Louise for nearly a decade, and even one of her high-school boyfriends.
The result is a portrait of a complicated, messy, brilliant artist — who would have thrilled Harriet herself. As she wrote in her notebook: “I’M GLAD I’M NOT PERFECT—I’D BE BORED TO DEATH.”