Harriet M. Welch, the titular character of Louise Fitzhugh’s iconic children’s book Harriet the Spy is eleven years old and determined to write everything down. As training for one day becoming a famous novelist, she ventures on a daily “spy route,” stalking a handful of brownstones on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, secretly watching her friends and neighbors, chronicling their business in a private notebook using a tone so deadpan and factual it borders on cruel. Readers young and old, however, sixty years ago as much as today, find in Harriet a cathartic release and creative permission. Now Harriet’s author, Louise Fitzhugh, is the subject of a biography—Leslie Brody’s Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy, a succinct and readable portrait of the short-lived and charismatic lesbian writer and illustrator.
A Queer Heroine in Childhood
With her matter-of-fact tone and acerbic humor, Harriet the Spy is the quintessential story of a tomboy—a queer heroine in childhood. Harriet is unstoppable: she eats cake and egg creams in the afternoons, argues with grown-ups, climbs onto buildings and into dumbwaiters to spy, all while filled with that kind of youthful rage one can only find in children. It is hard to tell whether Harriet’s influence on queer writers comes from her insufferable writing ambitions, her gender-agnostic bearings, or that she finds her world incomprehensible and repressive.
Much of the humor and intrigue of Harriet the Spy is the heroine’s own interior monologue, a relentless string of crude, or, as we say today, very real observations, externalized by the notes she takes: “DOES PINKY WHITEHEAD’S MOTHER HATE HIM?” She writes about a boy in her school, “IF I’D HAD HIM I’D HATE HIM.”
With her matter-of-fact tone and acerbic humor, Harriet the Spy is the quintessential story of a tomboy—a queer heroine in childhood.
Sometimes You Have to Lie
When Harriet’s classmates, without Harriet’s consent, obtain and read her notebook—which spells out PRIVATE on the cover—they are horrified and start a campaign against her. Following the lead of the school bullies, even Harriet’s closest friends turn on her. Finally, after bravely resisting mob rule, Harriet manages to make amends by following the advice of her beloved former nanny, who suggests using white lies to save Harriet’s friendships: “Sometimes you have to lie,” goes the moral truism of the novel, “but to yourself, you must always tell the truth.”
Published in 1964 into an undersaturated book market of children’s literature, Harriet the Spy’s idiosyncratic eleven-year-old protagonist instantly hit a nerve. The book spoke to its readers as complex people and not as inferior creatures, changing the tone and sophistication of children’s and young adult fiction for generations to come.
“Sometimes you have to lie,” goes the moral truism of the novel, “but to yourself, you must always tell the truth.”
A Kind of Detective Work
And yet Harriet’s popularity and household name eclipse that of her creator, whose larger-than-life persona remained out of the public eye. For the length of her career, Louise Fitzhugh minded her privacy. She never made public appearances or gave interviews to promote Harriet. After her sudden death, at forty-six, Fitzhugh’s estate and friends worked to retain Fitzhugh’s evasive nature according to their own terms. Only very few photographs were circulated of Fitzhugh: one, from the cover of Harriet the Spy, shows the intrepid Fitzhugh sitting on a swing with an unreadable, if mischievous expression. Even to children (or at least to the author of this text) she seemed somehow readably queer. Gamine, with short brown hair and lively, discerning eyes, the person depicted in this photograph was all that many of us ardent readers knew of her, including the fact that she was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1928.
Brody likens her biographical research to a kind of detective work, setting different chapters to key terms of “spy language,” using words like snoop and detect. The metaphor seems just a little too obvious: in order to reveal Fitzhugh’s hidden life, Brody had to do some sleuthing of her own. With Brody’s storytelling, Fitzhugh’s personality resonates distinctly, deliciously, to a degree that the reader falls in love with Fitzhugh as much as with the heroine of any good novel. Privacy, after all, does not equal shyness.
[..] the Fitzhugh that emerges comes across as a charmer, the kind of person you would want at your party, vibrant, contradictory, and extremely creative.
Quite the opposite actually: the Fitzhugh that emerges comes across as a charmer, the kind of person you would want at your party, vibrant, contradictory, and extremely creative. Wherever Brody’s research hits the sealed lips of former lovers or estates, the biographer leaves spaces alive and lets secrets and omissions speak for themselves—she paints a distinct enough character of Fitzhugh for the reader to fill in the blanks. What she does end up uncovering of Fitzhugh’s life story, Brody seems to suggest, like many queer histories, was never truly hidden. It was just kept slightly out of the spotlight of a hetero-centric world.
The Ultimate Resistance Facing a Hypocritical World
In the same way Louise Fitzhugh never appeared to be actively closeted—just simply never put in the limelight—so too are her politics of justice and resistance consistently overt. Harriet the Spy and her two best friends—wily Janie, an aspiring mad scientist, and gentle Sport, who looks after his bohemian father—can just as easily be read as queer by virtue of not behaving according to gender expectations. Beyond the obvious non-conformity Harriet displays in her behavior and attire (a tomboy of the mid-sixties, Harriet’s comfort clothes consist of sneakers, old jeans, and a hooded sweatshirt), she is an outspoken observer, the ultimate resistance facing a hypocritical world.
Her dilemma, or a good deal of it before the novel’s dramatic disaster strikes, consists of puzzling over how to fit into society and retain her dignity as a powerless eleven-year-old, but also in her identity as a spy. With the help of her nanny, Harriet devises ways of passing in straight society: she will, for instance, go to the revolting dance classes her mother wants her to attend, because spies, like Mata Hari, need to know how to dance in order to deceive people. Harriet needs to be a spy to fit into a world of dishonesty and deception while the rest of the world simply bows to injustice.
This unsentimental, humorous, and political attitude towards childhood runs through all of what is published of Louise Fitzhugh’s creative output: from her illustrations in the Eloise-parody Suzuki Beane (Fitzhugh drew the barmy ink illustrations featured in Harriet the Spy, as well) to the advocacy towards children’s political agency in Nobody’s Family is Going to Change, children strive for autonomy and fairness in Fitzhugh’s work.
Like several prolific female writers of the 20th century still known today, Louise Fitzhugh came from generational wealth that allowed for relative financial independence. And though she could live quite comfortably off her inheritance and royalties, Fitzhugh never turned her work away from people; instead, she fueled her writing with a subversive political will: “Her response to any kind of assertion of supremacy,” Brody writes, “was to oppose it.”
Liked to Consistently Reinvent Herself
Fitzhugh also liked to consistently reinvent herself and turn her own life into a tall tale. This comes to her biographer’s aid. Brody’s portrayal of Fitzhugh’s tempestuous life takes on the shape of those figures within 20th century literary genres where famous lesbian authors were starkly prevalent: Fitzhugh’s childhood, situated in what sounds like a gothic Memphis mansion, surrounded by an eccentric grandmother, a disturbed uncle living in the attic, various nannies, as well as a wealthy father extorting Fitzhugh’s working-class mother for money, recalls the kind of lonely child narrator by the likes of someone like Carson McCullers or Harper Lee.
Once Fitzhugh dropped out of Bard college to join her first girlfriend in bohemian 1950’s Greenwich Village, she resembled a pulpy heroine not unlike those by Ann Bannon and Vin Packer. Popular, charismatic, and energetic, Fitzhugh hung out in gay bars and galleries, painted and wrote, travelled to Europe, and entertained and collaborated with her long list of lovers as well as many well-connected friends. (Harriet the Spy’s neighbor and subject Harrison Withers lives with two dozen or so cats named after many of Fitzhugh’s close friends.)
Among these were the likes of Lorraine Hansberry and James Merrill, as well as pulp writers such Sandra Scoppetone (the author of Suzuki Beane), with whom Fitzhugh both collaborated and romanced, and through whom Fitzhugh befriended the grande dame of lesbian pulp fiction, Marijane Meaker—aka Vin Packer—who spent several years in a relationship with Patricia Highsmith, later penning a whole book about it.
One of the more tragic and mysterious sections of the biography is the plot surrounding Louise Fitzhugh’s lost manuscript. The contents of this manuscript were rumored to be the re-telling of Fitzhugh’s first own secret teenage romance with another well-off Memphis girl, Amelia. Fitzhugh and Amelia had been each other’s first true loves in the South, later successfully eloping to New York to make it the home of their artistic pursuits. Amelia would become a reporter for the Times and a good friend of Fitzhugh’s, before her tragic and disturbing death in a freak accident. The manuscript containing the story of this teenage courtship, which some friends claim to have read excerpts of, would have been one of the first lesbian young adult novels ever published in the U.S.—years ahead of what is known of the first of its kind, Sandra Scoppettone’s Happy Endings Are All Alike (1978).
The existence of this manuscript, its content and disappearance, remain a mystery. It is possible Fitzhugh lost the manuscript by accident, or by her own mechanization? What would a book of Fitzhugh’s lost manuscript have looked like? Was it more literary than the lesbian pulp novellas of her day, or was it meant for a younger audience? Would it have been a kind of forerunner of historical young adult LGBTQ+ romance fiction, not unlike Malinda Lo’s recent, and powerfully moving, Last Night at the Telegraph Club (2021)?
The manuscript containing the story of this teenage courtship […] would have been one of the first lesbian young adult novels ever published in the U.S.
The mysteries at the heart of this biography, alongside its depictions of various eras of queer literary New York City, only make for an even more compelling read. And Brody’s complex depiction of Fitzhugh, with her contradictions and idiosyncrasies, her tireless work and quest for artistic fulfillment, becomes a refreshing study of the arduous process and pay-offs of creativity itself: its fits, its dead ends, its blinding inspirations, leaving behind a vast and complicated legacy that might, in the end, emit one truly great achievement, a single character and her unforgettable name—Harriet the Spy.
Sometimes You Have to Lie by Leslie Brody Seal Press Hardcover, 9781580057691, 352 pp. December 2020