“Sometimes you have to lie” is one of the most stunning lines in Louise Fitzhugh’s book Harriet the Spy — but it also speaks to Fitzhugh’s own life. After a childhood in segregated Memphis, she traveled to New York and was thrilled by the diversity and potential there: lesbian bars in Greenwich Village, the postwar art scene, and avant-garde writers including Maurice Sendak and Lorraine Hansberry. Her writing for children defied everything children’s literature “should” be, resisting conformity and authority, even as she felt pressures to conceal her own life and nature. This extraordinary biography is a compelling look at Fitzhugh, her creation Harriet, and the meaning of lies, truth, and individuality.
The author’s name may not be familiar, but her most famous character is: “Harriet the Spy” has been worming her way into grade-schoolers’ hearts since her snooping adventures debuted in 1964.
In this new biography, Leslie Brody turns the tables on Harriet’s creator, Louise Fitzhugh, who never set out to be a children’s author. She refused to go on book tours and maintained a Salinger-like seclusion until her death in 1974.
Read the full review HERE.
Sometimes You Have to Lie (Seal Press) by Leslie Brody tells the fascinating and somewhat shocking story of the life and times of author Louise Fitzhugh. If the name rings a bell, it’s for a very good reason: Fitzhugh was the literary genius behind the 1964 middle-grade novel, Harriet the Spy, which has, over the course of nearly three generations, become one of the most beloved books written for kids.
With exclusive access to Fitzhugh’s papers and through interviews with those who knew her, Brody for the first time brings to life the woman behind this iconic novel. The biography uncovers Fitzhugh’s inspiration behind Harriet the Spy, as well as the her struggles as a lesbian woman and triumphs as one of the most influential authors of her time.
Much of Louise Fitzhugh’s life remains a mystery, but one author is determined to shed some light on the beloved author of Harriet the Spy. In Sometimes You Have to Lie, Leslie Brody uncovers the details of Fitzhugh’s Tennessee childhood, her relationships with modernist and postmodern literary greats in New York City, and how she navigated life in the mid-century United States as a lesbian.
Just in time for the holidays, it’s the Monitor’s selections for the top books of December 2020 all wrapped up and tied with a bow.
Sometimes You Have to Lie by Leslie Brody: In this lively, compassionate biography of Louise Fitzhugh, author of the children’s instant-classic “Harriet the Spy” series from the 1960s, Leslie Brody sheds light on the remarkable woman behind the books.
The editorial meeting with Nordstrom and Zolotow, a pivot point in Fitzhugh’s professional life, occurs midway through “Sometimes You Have to Lie,” a highly enjoyable biography by Leslie Brody, a professor at the University of Redlands in California and the author of a 2010 biography of Jessica Mitford. The book’s title comes from a crucial piece of advice that Harriet the Spy receives from her brusque former nanny, Ole Golly. As generations of readers will remember, Harriet gets in bad odor with her sixth-grade classmates after they find and read a journal she has filled with her pitiless observations of their weaknesses and propensities. Ole Golly, who is given to high-minded quotation, recites Keats’s dictum about truth and beauty but also reminds Harriet of the restorative power of the white lie. “Remember that writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends,” she counsels. “But to yourself you must always tell the truth.” Read the full review HERE.
“In Sometimes You Have to Lie, Brody explores these hidden corners of the celebrated author’s life, crafting a personal and political biography of Fitzhugh that situates her popular children’s novel in the context of the homophobia and conformity of the postwar era. The result is a study that reveals the quiet subversiveness of Harriet the Spy and adds sharp political potency to the book’s seemingly innocent play with questions of secrecy and surveillance.” Read more…
Adult readers of children’s books are often surprised by the grownup lives of their creators. But after all, artists who choose the medium of children’s books to express their creativity are not children themselves. In “Sometimes You Have to Lie’,” an engrossing and carefully researched biography of Louise Fitzhugh, Leslie Brody vibrantly tells the story of the complicated and ultimately triumphant life of the author of “Harriet the Spy.” She presents a full portrait of Fitzhugh, previously a shadowy figure at best, and places her firmly in the top rank of children’s book creators. What’s more, she establishes that Fitzhugh was a writer and artist who had an indelible impact on generations of young readers and adult writers as disparate as Jonathan Franzen and Alison Bechdel. Read more…
“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).” Read more…