Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Louise Fitzhugh’s truth and lies – 'Harriet the Spy' author’s revelatory biography

Thousands of teenage aspiring writers found inspiration from the notebook-scribbling eleven-year-old girl in the best-selling 1964 novel Harriet the Spy. Some, myself included, became especially aware of the irascible protagonist’s gender-nonconforming attire and demeanor. But only years later did fans discover that the book’s author, Louise Fitzhugh, was a lesbian.

In a thoroughly researched and utterly fascinating biography, Sometime You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy, Leslie Brody shares intimate details of the writer’s sometimes fabulous, sometimes troubled life. 

Like nearly all biographies, Brody begins with her subject’s family, an affluent Memphis-based lineage before her birth in 1928. But Fitzhugh had no ordinary heritage. When she was an infant, her parents’ contentious divorce proceedings rivaled the Scopes ‘Monkey’ trail, and the days in the packed courthouse made newspaper headlines for weeks.

This all later left a young Fitzhugh bereft, particularly when her father lied that her mother had died. Dissolute and determined to escape the tainted traditions of her family and the antiquated debutante rites other young women took on, Fitzhugh impulsively eloped with a man before the marriage was abruptly annulled.

Louise Fitzhugh

She took to more rebellious behavior, and even a love affair with Amelia Brent, a young woman whose premature death would later inspire a lesbian-themed unfinished novel, Mimi.

The inspiration for what would later become the fictional Harriet’s obsession may have begun when Fitzhugh interned at the local newspaper, filing old articles, including reports of her own family, specifically her estranged mother (a later reunion would prove to be unsettling).

After studies at Bard College, Fitzhugh’s eventual trek north to New York City led her to the West Village’s bohemian artist circles, where she befriended authors Maurice Sendak and Loraine Hansberry.