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May 2022 Book Commentary
Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet The Spy.
By Leslie Brody
“With clear-eyed compassion, Leslie Brody pulls back the curtain to reveal the complex, delicate, fierce woman whose imagination created our beloved Harriet the Spy and so much more.” -Therese Anne Fowler, author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
Harriet the Spy, first published in 1964, has mesmerized generations of readers and launched a million diarists. Its beloved antiheroine, eleven-year-old Harriet, was an entirely new and radically different version of the American girl: unnerving, unsentimental, nosy, sometimes anxious, extremely funny, rather shrewd, and brutally frank. Some children’s books critics simply couldn’t get over how “nasty” they thought she was and what a “horrid example” she set. Children, unsurprisingly, loved the many ways in which Harriet defied authority. Harriet is, unsurprisingly, very much like the woman who created her, Louise Fitzhugh.
Born in 1928, Fitzhugh was raised in segregated Memphis, the only progeny of a Jazz Age marriage that ended quickly in rancorous divorce. Her father was a lawyer from a wealthy and powerful Memphis family, her mother a dancing teacher from Clarksdale, Mississippi. Louise grew up in a world where well-educated but unemployed women were tracked to become the wives and hostesses of prominent businessmen and politicians. She felt trapped in the Memphis high society and soon became rebellious so at the first opportunity she fled to New York City. Here she discovered the lesbian bars of Greenwich Village and the art world of postwar Europe; her circle of friends included members of the avant-garde like Maurice Sendak and Lorraine Hansberry. Above all else, Fitzhugh valued creativity and honesty.
Her novels, written in an era of political defiance, are full of resistance: to liars, to authority, to conformity, and even – radically for a children’s author – to make believe. Fitzhugh herself lived her life as a dissenter – a friend to underdogs, outsiders, and artists – and her most enduring work continues to influence and provoke new generations of readers.
As a children’s author and a lover of both men and women, Fitzhugh was often pressured to disguise her true nature. Sometimes You Have to Lie tells the story of her hidden life and of the creation of her masterpiece, which remains long after her death as a testament to the complicated relationship between truth and secrecy.
Leslie Brody’s books include Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford and Red Star Sister: Between Madness and Utopia. She lives in Redlands, California.