“Harriet the Spy” by Louise Fitzhugh — along with Quino’s Mafalda and John D. Fitzgerald’s “Great Brain” series — supplied the literary heroes of my childhood, with Harriet M. Welsch strutting and peeking above the rest. First, I wanted to be Harriet, daring and creative, a spy in training and a writer in the making, taking notes on everyone and everything. Harriet became my new literary crush (supplanting the lovely but helpless Becky Thatcher from “Tom Sawyer”), but, finally, I imagined myself as Harriet’s friend. Together we’d mock those finks in the Gregory School’s sixth-grade class and uncover summer mysteries in sleepy beach towns; we’d never be bored and never be satisfied, least of all with ourselves.
In her new biography of Fitzhugh, “Sometimes You Have to Lie,” Leslie Brody identifies parallels between the author’s life and art, delightful details for fans of Fitzhugh’s creations. Ole Golly, the beloved nanny whose departure from the Welsches’ Manhattan home is the organizing trauma of “Harriet the Spy,” is probably an amalgamation of the nannies Fitzhugh knew growing up in a Memphis mansion during the Great Depression, pampered in isolation. The therapist who helps Harriet through that loss may draw from Bertram Slaff, a psychiatrist whom Fitzhugh saw during her years living in New York City, where she pursued love and ambition as a gay artist enmeshed in a network of “successful, creative, pleasure loving, ambitious, knowledgeable lesbians,” as one friend described her circle. And Harrison Withers, the bird cage designer with a skylight big enough for Harriet to spy through, cares for 26 cats whose names include not just Fitzhugh’s preferred literary luminaries (Thomas Wolfe, Dostoevsky, Faulkner) but also some of her close friends (Alex, Sandra, Marijane).
Yet Fitzhugh’s own life, removed from her “Harriet the Spy” fame or the constraints of the literature she created, is more than fascinating enough for this compelling and wistful biography. The child of a high-profile divorce (her wealthy father won sole custody and for years told his only daughter that her mother had died, a lie she never forgave), the young Fitzhugh wanted nothing more than to break free of family and privilege and the Jim Crow South, to leave behind “the narrow world of white gloves and garden parties,” Brody writes. She found release in her relationships and her art, and Brody’s book — drawing on court documents, letters, and interviews with Fitzhugh’s friends and loves — is most evocative and revealing where these different passions conflict and intersect.
Children’s literature was not her initial artistic vocation. “Louise drew as she breathed,” recalls Alixe Gordon, with whom Fitzhugh lived for nearly a decade and who emerges in Brody’s account as the most significant relationship of her life. “She never sat still without drawing.” Fitzhugh, who began sketching at age 9, considered painting and poetry the highest forms of art and later expressed misgivings about her success as a children’s author. Writing books for kids “was popular, commercial, and successful,” Fitzhugh would tell herself. “It came more easily than her other work. It wasn’t risky. How could it be art?”
Her tyrannical father back in Memphis loomed over Fitzhugh. A fan of Russian fiction, Millsaps Fitzhugh had informed his daughter that “any literary work that wasn’t Tolstoy was hardly worth the trouble,” and such views long influenced her. After college and a European sojourn studying art, Fitzhugh was able to lead an artist’s life in New York thanks to an inheritance she received from her paternal grandmother, with her father doling out installments. Years later, when her stepmother died and left Fitzhugh more wealth, it further tied her lifestyle to the Memphis society she had rejected. “Her allowance had become an embarrassing symbol to her of failed promise, despite all advantages, to succeed on her own terms,” Brody writes. The success of “Harriet the Spy,” published in 1964, when Fitzhugh was in her mid-30s, would grant the author freedom, but “she was practical enough to recognize that the first impulse had been commercial,” Brody writes. “When her painting career had faltered, she had needed to make money.”
With her tantrums, all-caps honesty and relentless power struggle with grown-ups, Harriet became an immortal literary figure; Brody sees the plucky 11-year-old in the company of Harper Lee’s Scout Finch and J.D. Salinger’s Holden (and Phoebe) Caulfield. But commercial success did little to assuage Fitzhugh’s chronic loneliness, even as she seemed surrounded by friends who cared deeply for her and women (as well as a few lovelorn gentlemen suitors from down South) who were always falling in love with her. She is constantly described in almost ethereal terms — “a sprite, a fairy, a tomboy,” Brody writes — and her small, wispy form and fierce nature reinforced one another. (Fitzhugh was often mistaken for an underage boy; for all her swagger, Brody explains, “she was deeply sensitive and hated to be underestimated.”)
The closest friends and most loving partners in her life were usually artists, writers and casting directors — professional women in mid-20th-century America — yet Fitzhugh was always looking for somebody "like Sport,” Brody writes, referring to Harriet’s friend and classmate who kept house and tracked the finances while his novelist father tried to sell his manuscript. Fitzhugh’s books are “full of resistance,” Brody stresses, to liars like her father, to conformists who judged her, to authorities of any type. Yet she seemed intent on achieving a sort of conventional domesticity of the kind she resented in her childhood and mocked in her fiction, always needing someone to become the “custodian of Louise’s genius,” as Brody puts it. Her friends did her best to support her work. They thought of Fitzhugh “as a phenomenally talented artist — but one who kept undermining herself.”
She eventually found that domesticity, to some degree, but whether it would have helped further her writing can never be known. Fitzhugh suffered from hypertension and often ignored medical advice to drink and smoke less and exercise more, and she died, suddenly and tragically, of an aneurysm in October 1974, at age 46. The New York Times obituary hailed “Harriet the Spy” as a classic that “helped introduce new realism to children’s fiction.” Of her personal life, it merely said Fitzhugh was “not married” and was “survived by her mother,” with whom she had reconnected over the years.
Some friends complained that the funeral services and subsequent depictions by her estate — administered by her heir and final partner, the late Lois Morehead — sidestepped Fitzhugh’s life as a gay woman and her vibrant networks and relationships in the arts world. Alixe Gordon argued that this was an effort to “enshrine a commercially viable Louise Fitzhugh” rather than show a fuller picture of her life. By the 1990s, a biography by children’s literature scholar Virginia Wolf and a Village Voice profile began to show that picture.
The title of “Sometimes You Have to Lie” comes from advice that Ole Golly gives Harriet when her classmates find her private notebook and discover the unflattering notes she’d taken about them, and retaliate by ostracizing her. In a letter, her former nanny advises her to apologize, and to lie, to preserve a few treasured relationships. A small lie was okay, “but to yourself you must always tell the truth.” Harriet, as editor of the school newspaper’s sixth-grade page, does just that. “This page wishes to retract certain statements printed in a certain notebook . . . which were unfair statements and besides were lies,” she writes, and goes on to offer a “general apology” to anyone who read them.
So Harriet agreed with Ole Golly. Did Fitzhugh?
“As an adult, Louise Fitzhugh was unapologetically out of the closet,” Brody writes. “She was also well aware of the trials a gay adolescent had to endure in hostile territory. A little lie to preserve your identity and self-respect can be a soul-saving measure.” Some writers have interpreted Harriet’s predicament — her privacy invaded, her personal life judged — as a coming-out story, stressing the title character’s semi-androgyny and the inversion of traditional gender roles among her friends. Fitzhugh had long been working on a teen novel titled “Mimi,” inspired by Fitzhugh’s first love, a Memphis woman named Amelia Brent who years later would die in an accident with suicidal overtones, but the manuscript was never found. It would have “made history as the first lesbian love story marketed for a young adult audience,” Brody writes, lamenting its loss.
In Fitzhugh’s best-known work, the title character lies to save her friendships, even as she strives to remain honest to herself. In this sad, evocative biography, it is Fitzhugh’s friends who share her truths, so the story can remain true to her.
Carlos Lozada is the Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.” Follow him on Twitter and read his latest book reviews, including: