Maura Magazine | I Spy

I Spy

Over the years I’ve owned at least three copies of Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. Alison Bechdel probably has, too; she told the New York Times she read it 70,000 times, and I’ve read it at least once a summer since the 80s. Harriet is a middle grade book that’s almost 300 pages, so librarians recommend it to sharp, weird, not-quite-YA girls like I was. We lug it around proudly, and still.

The copy I read now, an original hardback from 1964, has two inscriptions—in 1976, a mother gave it to her kid for Christmas; in Christmas 1990, that daughter gave it to hers. On the right, both daughters wrote their names in case the book got lost. It’s sweet to see the girls’ scribble next to their mothers’ steady hands, and what really kills me is how one inscription is to “Cheri Ann, love Mom,” but the name the girl writes in the corner is CHERYL. Clearly Cheryl is someone who would appreciate Harriet M. Welsch, 11-year-old spy.

Going back even further: Harriet the Spy was the first book Fitzhugh wrote and illustrated herself, after collaborating on 1961’s Suzuki Beane, a downtown spoof of the Eloise books. In 1928 Fitzhugh was born in Memphis to Millsaps Fitzhugh and Louise Perkins. When they divorced, Fitzhugh lived with her grandparents before moving in with her wealthy lawyer father, and then, breakneck, she moved North to go to Barnard. Ursula Nordstrom, the legendary Harper’s editor who published Harriet, said Fitzhugh wasted no time teaching herself to talk like a New Yorker—with a Brooklyn accent, no less: “Yeah, etc.”—in large part to distance herself from the racism she’d seen growing up. Fitzhugh’s obituary stated firmly that she was to be buried above the Mason-Dixon Line.

She was married briefly to Ed Thompson, her high-school sweetheart, but after their divorce Fitzhugh dated women too, maybe because by then Millsaps had died and she could support herself okay on the inheritance. Fitzhugh started custom-tailoring men’s suits and wore them all the time. Nordstrom remembers Fitzhugh at one of the Harper’s parties: “We were playing records and Louise—who looked like a twelve-year-old little boy with short curly hair, and she always wore pants long before anyone else did—got up and started to dance by herself. She was marvelous—such rhythm, and on her face a rapt inner contemplation of the music and the beat, and the general pleasure she was experiencing.” When Nordstrom told her so, Fitzhugh responded, “Well, my mother was a hoofer.” (Both Suzuki Beane and Harriet the Spy have full-page illustrations of dancing people, rapt and happy.)

The modest advance for Harriet, remembers Nordstrom, meant lots because the Fitzhugh family did not approve of their daughter’s Northern life and had cut her off. [...]