Yet despite their geographic proximity and shared love of tomato sandwiches on white bread, Brody didn’t discover Harriet and the beloved classic by author and illustrator Louise Fitzhugh until 1988 when the writer’s literary estate hired her to adapt the book for a children’s theatrical production.
“I remember, I read it through several times just absolutely stunned at how lucky I was,” says Brody, a professor of creative nonfiction at the University of Redlands. “What a fantastic coincidence. I was born in the Bronx, and although Harriet lived in an elite quarter of Manhattan, we still shared lots of cultural references around New York City in the ’50s and ’60s.
“It was a really good example of a piece of literature and a writer finding each other, a really good match,” Brody says of adapting “Harriet the Spy.” “And how it might not have happened, but it did.”
At the time, little was known of the life of Louise Fitzhugh, who died at the age of 46 in 1974. Reluctant to do interviews or publicity during her lifetime, she was a cipher not even a spy as talented as Harriet could decode.
And that, Brody says, intrigued her as she shifted from playwright to biographer not long after.
“Sometimes You Have To Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of ‘Harriet the Spy,’” is the work that arrived in December to critical acclaim. (The title is borrowed from a key piece of advice given to Harriet in the 1964 novel.)
The biography captures the life and work of Fitzhugh more fully than anything that’s come before: The book explores her Southern Gothic childhood in Memphis, her early career as a visual artist in postwar Greenwich Village, her personal life as an out lesbian (in a time when that was rare), and her ambivalence about the success she achieved in children’s literature.
Some of that had been captured in the ’90s in a slender scholarly volume and a long feature in the Village Voice, but Brody’s book goes much deeper into Fitzhugh’s life than anyone’s gone before.
“If you had gone online when I started working on this book, you would have found the same paragraph over and over again about who Louise Fitzhugh was,” she says, laughing. “And it would have been very unsatisfying.”
Shadow to light
Brody started work on the book in early 2017 and for two years did little if any writing.
“I worked with a fantastic researcher for two years, Regina White,” she says. “Regina was a literary detective, really. She’d find the dates, the names, the addresses of people, that kind of preliminary work.
“And then I would take the names and write them letters,” Brody says. “Do the interviews, meet the people.”
Virginia L. Wolf’s 1991 book on Fitzhugh offered leads for some sources. Village Voice writer Karen Cook shared interview transcripts from her 1995 article on the author. Both were invaluable resources, Brody says.
Ultimately, Brody interviewed about 60 people, including children’s book author Sandra Scoppettone, with whom Fitzhugh both collaborated and had a brief affair, and Alixe Gordon, with whom Fitzhugh lived as all but a legally married couple for most of a decade.
“Alixe was really waiting to tell her story,” Brody says of the longtime film and TV casting director who was 96 when she died in 2018. “And it was great for me because the estate was not forthcoming.
“I’m not going to say they cut me off entirely, they answered a questionnaire, but it was limited.”
Child to children’s author
When researcher White tracked down 1,000 pages of court transcripts from the 1929 divorce of Fitzhugh’s parents, Brody knew she had a large missing piece of the story.
“That just blew my mind,” she says. “I mean, that Gothic world, it’s clearly illustrated in the dialogue of those transcripts. It’s like a movie, a painting, just so vivid.
“It’s incredible the way the deck was stacked against Louise’s mother because she didn’t have the power, she didn’t have the money, the powerful lawyers.”
Though Fitzhugh wasn’t yet a year old, her millionaire attorney father was able to win full custody and pay no settlement when the divorce was final. Her mother was entirely cut out, so much so that until Fitzhugh was 5 or 6 years old she believed what her father told her — that her mother was dead.
It’s here, Brody believes, that Fitzhugh’s future as the author of “Harriet the Spy” and other children’s books was forged.
“In many of her books, she revisits her relationships with the maids, nurses, cooks, nannies,” she says. “And in later years, she’d say that the household staff were the grownups for whom she cared the most. Ole Golly (the nanny in “Harriet”) I think is an amalgamation of her beloved nannies.
“And her character was defiant,” Brody says of Fitzhugh throughout her life. “She was never going to be pushed around, and a lot of that, I think, had to do with her being such a petite person. She was 4 foot 11.
“I think she was fortunate — I think I can say this — in having a terrible childhood. She wasn’t crushed by it. It made her angry, and it made her into a fighter.”
When “Harriet the Spy” was published in 1964, it was hailed in part for bringing a new kind of realism to children’s literature.
Harriet, who spied, writing down what she observed, in order to gather material for her future career as a writer, was not always a nice girl. She swore, mildly, at times, and disagreed, often, with friends and adults.
She is a character who shows children that they don’t have to go along and get along as society might expect them to do, as Memphis society of the time had expected Fitzhugh to do.
“It has lasting appeal because it’s catching kids before they settle into the powerful grooves of gender that would keep many of them tracked through adolescence, which is radical,” Brody says. “And kids felt that they could read different parts of it and see yourself.
“You could see yourself in Harriet and relate, I think, particularly to Harriet’s refusal to be pigeonholed,” she says. “And they could cheer her instinct for self-preservation.
“But she’s also gleeful and mischievous. She’s no patsy. She knows even though she’s an 11-year-old kid, she’s happy as herself. That can be so influential, that sense of confidence.”
All of that creative independence and strong will, mixed into a narrative of humor and heart, makes the 11-year-old kid from 1964 as relative today as ever she was.
“That’s all the legacy for which so many readers love her,” Brody says. “She’s a child who speaks truth to power.”