LOUISE FITZHUGH was an American writer and illustrator of children’s books, born on this date (d: 1974), known best for the novel Harriet the Spy. Her other novels were two Harriet sequels, The Long Secret and Sport, and Nobody’s Family is Going to Change.
Fitzhugh was the illustrator of the 1961 children’s book Suzuki Beane, a parody of Eloise; while Eloise lived in the Plaza, Suzuki was the daughter of beatnik parents and slept on a mattress on the floor of a Bleeker Street pad in Greenwich Village. Fitzhugh worked closely with author Sandra Scopperttone to produce Suzuki Beane, which incorporated typewriter font and line drawings in an original way. Although a parody of both Eloise and beatnik conceit, the book sprang to life as a genuine work of literature. Today, it is much sought after on used-book websites.
Fitzhugh’s best-known book was Harriet the Spy, published in 1964 to some controversy since so many characters were far from admirable. It has since become a classic. According to her New York Times obituary, published November 19, 1974: “The book helped introduce a new realism to children’s fiction and has been widely imitated”. Like Fitzhugh, Harriet is the daughter of affluent New Yorkers who leave her in the care of her nanny, Ole Golly, in their Manhattan townhouse.
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.
Hardly the feminine girl heroine typical of the early 1960s, Harriet is a writer who notes everything about everybody in her world in a notebook which ultimately falls into the wrong hands. Ole Golly gives Harriet the unlikely but practical advice that: “Sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you must always tell the truth”. By and large, Harriet the Spy was well-received—it was named to the New York Times Outstanding Book Award list in 1964—and it has sold 4 million copies since publication. It was very popular among young girls, particularly unfeminine or non-conforming girls who lacked representation in fiction; Fitzhugh, like many of Harriet’s fans, was a lesbian.
Two characters from the book, Beth Ellen and Sport, were featured in two of Fitzhugh’s later books, The Long Secret and Sport. The Long Secret deals fairly honestly with female puberty; the main characters are pre-teen girls who discuss how their changing bodies feel. Another young adult manuscript, Amelia, concerned two girls falling in love. This manuscript was not published and was later lost.
Fitzhugh illustrated many of her books and had works exhibited in Banfer Gallery, New York, in 1963, among many other galleries.
According to a recent biography, Sometimes You Have to Lie, written by Leslie Brodie, Fitzhugh led a secret life that would have thrilled her nosy heroine. She was a pint-sized heiress with a wealthy, 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 her 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.
Those attempts notwithstanding, Fitzhugh was artistic, rebellious, impulsive 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, who 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.
“Harriet the Spy” was controversial when it was published in 1964. It 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.”
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 in the biography — “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.