Generations of children, and more than few adults, have embraced the antics of Harriet the Spy and its singular heroine since it was published in 1964. As Leslie Brody reports in Sometimes You Have to Lie, her absorbing biography of the elusive author Louise Fitzhugh, the classic middle grade novel sold around 2.5 million copies in its first five years, a number that is now approaching 5 million worldwide. Fitzhugh, who died at age 46 in 1974, was publicity-shy even by the more genteel standards of her day, and her literary executors have remained guarded about releasing her private papers. Faced with this estimable hurdle, Brody has succeeded admirably in reconstructing Fitzhugh’s complicated, often troubled life.
Fitzhugh was born into a well-heeled family in Memphis, Tennessee, but from the beginning she pushed against the constraints of propriety. Her ill-matched parents separated and divorced (in a scandalous trial that the local public devoured) while Fitzhugh was still an infant, and for years her imperious father told his daughter that her mother was dead. Though she eventually reunited with her mother, Fitzhugh had lifelong issues with both of her parents, and the querulous, outlier spirit that defines her most famous character would also come to drive the author herself. From puberty, young Fitzhugh knew that she was a lesbian, and by the time she dropped out of Bard College and moved to New York City to make her mark, she was already completely comfortable in her own skin.
Fitzhugh viewed herself first and foremost as a visual artist, and for much of her life she focused on her painting. She was fully immersed in the downtown New York art scene of the 1950s and early ’60s, and her bohemian lifestyle was made all the more colorful by her central place in the lesbian subculture. Fitzhugh’s circle of friends and lovers was a group of smart, talented women who largely kept their sexual orientation on the Q.T. She was less concerned with midcentury decorum than many of her peers, dressing mostly in men’s clothing, and it seems few blinked twice at her out-of-the-closet ways. When Harriet the Spy was published and became a widespread success, however, Fitzhugh’s publisher capitalized on her natural shyness to try and keep the truth of her sexuality from readers.
Harriet the Spy, with its ill-behaved, uncompromising and inquisitive heroine, is a subversive work and, in retrospect, might be read as a coded version of a gay adolescent’s experience of being different, wrestling with a reality that doesn’t match up to the norm. As the world becomes a more affirming place for members of the LGBTQ community, perhaps it will also finally catch up with the nonconforming, unsentimental, trailblazing Louise Fitzhugh.