In 1963, when Louise Fitzhugh was thirty-five and writing Harriet the Spy, about an eleven-year-old girl who lived in New York, I was also an eleven-year-old girl who lived in New York. Harriet lived on the ritzy Upper East Side, while my family of five had migrated from the Bronx to rural Long Island, to live closer to my father’s five-acre junkyard. His business, A&B Auto Wrecking, was located across the road from the Speonk train station—and, as I would later learn, about five miles from Louise Fitzhugh’s summer home in Quogue. Speonk was the train stop for Louise’s friends visiting from the city, a three-hour trip. Ursula Nordstrom disembarked there, as did Louise’s other friends, including actors, painters, editors, and all the other glamorous denizens of her intersecting literary and artistic worlds.
Fitzhugh and I were from different sides of the tracks, but we may well have crossed paths at Mrs. D.’s diner, which served as the train station waiting room. Mrs. D. wore 1940s-style housedresses, her hair in a net, as she fried hamburgers and brewed coffee in what had once been the narrow galley kitchen of a working railroad carriage. Whenever my father took me to lunch at Mrs. D’s, I’d order an egg cream and a tomato sandwich (BLT on white bread, hold the toast, hold the bacon), a combo I believed to be entirely my own invention. Now, I think it likely Mrs. D. served the same off-menu meal to others—perhaps even to a crop-haired, petite woman dressed in paint-stained overalls who was waiting for a train.
Harriet the Spy was originally targeted for children born during the end of the Baby Boom, in other words, readers then between eight and twelve, including me. But in 1964, when the novel was published, I knew nothing of its existence, and I would not learn about it for years. In sixth grade, I had left kids’ lit behind. I preferred to read novels that seemed to last forever, like The Agony and the Ecstasy, by Irving Stone, and anything by Daphne du Maurier. I was a devoted reader of comic books and of Mad Magazine. To be honest, the most important literature in my life were the lyrics to Beatles songs.
Such was my tenuous and distant connection to Louise Fitzhugh, a state of affairs that would remain unaltered for another thirty-five years, until 1988, when I was hired to write an adaptation of Harriet the Spy for the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre Company. I read it through several times, stunned at how lucky I was—after all this time, and the many ways our rendezvous might have gone awry—to find her.
Here I am at 12 in 1964, the year Harriet the Spy was published. A discerning 12-year-old cultural critic with some of my records: My Son the Folksinger by Alan Sherman and Meet the Beatles; and books: The Encyclopedia Britannica, and the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books autumn edition, which contained The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.