• The Hidden Literary Heritage of Harriet the Spy

    Leslie Brody on the Origins of an Iconic Character

    In 1963 and 1964, as Louise Fitzhugh was inventing Harriet the Spy’s world, nannies and spies were very much in the public eye. Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music were in the movie theaters. John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Ian Fleming’s James Bond books were leading hardcover and paperback bestseller lists, and Spy vs. Spy was a popular feature in Mad Magazine. Louise read these, but when it came to intrigue and mystery, she preferred the intellectual peregrinations of Dorothy L. Sayers’s detectives, Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey. Her affection for the name Harriet is obvious, and Louise herself would briefly use Peter as an alternate name.

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    In a letter to Lorraine Hansberry, Louise listed some of the other books she was reading as she worked: Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter; Julius Horwitz’s The Inhabitants, about unrelenting cycles of poverty in Harlem; Freedom Road, Howard Fast’s novel about the Reconstruction era; a biography of Eugene O’Neill, whose tragic life of alcoholism she found both pitiful and a little boring; and Lawrence Durrell’s gorgeous The Alexandria Quartet. These books are very different; what they all have in common is their investigation into how the powerful connive to take advantage of defenseless individuals or marginalized groups. In O’Neill’s life story and Durrell’s novels, there’s also a sense of the fragility of the artist, which seemed to Louise much like the vulnerability of a misfit child.

    The heroine of Harriet the Spy is Harriet M. Welsch, who lives in the Yorkville neighborhood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with her parents and Ole Golly, her beloved nanny. She’s a precocious child and is in sixth grade at the elite (fictional) Gregory School (at 100 East End Avenue), where her best friends are Janie Gibbs and Simon “Sport” Roque. Harriet always moves fast: she bangs, bumps, bounces, and zooms on her way to enlightenment. Ole Golly, a reader of great literature, encourages Harriet to keeps a notebook in which to write her impressions. Harriet takes her writing practice seriously and protests when adults discount her. She declares, “I do not go out to PLAY, I go out to work.”1 Indeed, she is dedicated to recording her observations and writes her entries in capital block letters:

    Ole golly says description is good for the soul and clears the brain like a laxative.

    Harriet’s interplay with her nanny is exactly what Ursula Nordstrom and Charlotte Zolotow had hoped to draw out of Louise in their first meeting. When Ole Golly leaves Harriet’s family to move to Montreal with her new husband, Mr. Waldenstein, Harriet is left feeling alone and misunderstood. Her crisis is exacerbated after her notebook is taken by another child in a game of tag. When Harriet’s friends and schoolmates find that she has been writing unflattering (but perceptive) things about them, they shun her. Consequently, Harriet begins rampaging around like a holy terror. She curses, deliberately trips one classmate, pinches another, throws a pencil at the face of a third, puts a frog in a girl’s desk, and cuts off a sizable lock of another girl’s hair. (Harriet finds the ensuing chaos deeply satisfying.) She throws a shoe at her father (of whom she was otherwise fond), skips school, and says uniquely mean things at every opportunity. Her mother, an endearing but easily inconvenienced and childish diva, tries to intervene, first by banning all writing in notebooks outside of school, then by sending her child to a therapist. (Dr. Wagner is likely based on Louise’s own Dr. Slaff, a practitioner in adolescent clinical psychiatry.)

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    Harriet’s meltdown continues until she receives a letter from Ole Golly, who tells her that, to put things right and regain her friends, she’ll have to do two things: apologize and lie: “Little lies that make people feel better are not bad.” More important, Ole Golly tells Harriet (and it is worth repeating), “Remember that writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends.”

    Harriet belongs to a tradition of wise child protagonists who owe much to Catcher in the Rye, which had been published about fifteen years earlier. Harriet has a soul sister in Holden Caulfield’s younger sister, Phoebe, who also keeps notebooks, and who becomes a dedicated novelist by the age of nine. Phoebe’s novels feature the girl detective Hazel Weatherfield, whose father “is a tall attractive gentleman, about 20 years of age.” Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, little boys with big mouths show up in memory plays and movies by Woody Allen. Their parents holler and are typically dismissive of their kids’ genius. In A Thousand Clowns, by Herb Gardner, there’s a wiseacre kid who wears the same kind of heavy black glasses as Harriet. His guardian, a free-spirited writer, is a case study of the many ways a childish man can fail an adultish child. In the 1964 film The World of Henry Orient, from the novel by Nora Johnson, two fourteen-year-old girls who attend an elite girls’ school (much like Gregory) are infatuated with a concert pianist, spying on him as they chart his movements in a notebook. They, too, are disappointed by parents, whose absence they first appreciate for the freedom it allows, then view as selfish or neglectful, and phony.

    It wasn’t at all common in kids’ books for a child to see a therapist, as Harriet does, to good effect, but it was in the zeitgeist to talk about sending kids to shrinks. The counselor Louise dreamed up for Harriet, a fellow in thick black glasses with a therapist’s couch, was a stock New York character, mocked by some and deferred to by others as the man with the answers. Those children who did not live on Manhattan’s Upper East Side might not find themselves in a Dr. Wagner’s office, but pairing troubled adolescents and therapy was in the air. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics for West Side Story’s “Gee, Officer Krupke” relate, “This boy don’t need a judge / He needs an analyst’s care!” Children and dogs are both analysts and analysands in Charles Schultz’s Peanuts cartoons. Starting in 1959, Lucy van Pelt’s lemonade stand doubled as a therapy kiosk. When the gallant failure, Charlie Brown, asks how he can overcome “deep feelings of depression,” Lucy replies briskly, “Snap out of it! Five cents, please.”

    Mrs. Plumber’s philosophy is deliciously Pascalian.

    Like Holden Caulfield, who loves the Museum of Natural History “because the figures in the glass cases don’t change,” Harriet is a writer devoted to routine. She loves her tomato sandwiches, her egg creams, and her spy route and notebook both because they give her a lot of pleasure and because they ground her. Like a working artist, she doesn’t want to think about the mundane details. That’s what a parent—and later, a partner—is for: somebody who can deal with practical things so an artist doesn’t have to. When Harriet’s routines are disrupted, all hell breaks loose. A thousand more writers would call that realistic.

    Louise declared Harriet a “nasty” child, and she meant it affectionately. She was a little girl who cursed, lied, spied, and told inconvenient truths. While Harriet’s nastiness delighted children, she alarmed some grown-ups, who decried her as a poor example. And just as a “nasty woman” may be deemed unfeminine by those whom she threatens, so Harriet was attacked as unchildlike by adults, who protested her self-awareness. She is mouthy in the way that, in the mid-1960s, children were not supposed to be. Children whose parents had an authoritarian disciplinary style might find themselves threatened with a smack if they didn’t watch their mouth and their manners. Charlotte Zolotow recognized early on that Harriet challenged “adult authority.” The novel possessed “all sorts of political strains,” she says. Louise had “definite feelings about the rich and the poor and they came out in her novel,” in Zolotow’s estimation. “Underneath all her books there was a value system about life and people and politics.” Louise, for one thing, saw adults “as the oppressors.”

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    In her notebook, Harriet reflects on how money works for or against the subjects on her spy route. When she notes that rich people do not necessarily have a lot going on inside, and that poorer people cannot get a break, she speaks for Louise, whose politics were to the left of liberal and had what used to be called “class consciousness.” Harriet is an avatar of 1960s antiauthoritarianism, as much opposed to the tired conventions and political orthodoxies as any hippie, rebel, or radical of her generation. A few years after the book’s publication, in universities across the United States, students opposing hypocrisy, materialism, and the Vietnam War would hear the same kind of response in defense of the status quo. You don’t know what you’re talking about—or, the worst one of all: Grow up. Like Harriet, they did not listen.

    Louise held a reverence for tools, and she deliberately created Harriet as a capable child. She straps on her tool belt, which carries a flashlight, pens, a canteen, and a knife, before going off to work. (The belt idea was adapted from an actual belt that Louise’s friend Dutchie wore over her farmer’s overalls during her Texas childhood.) Harriet’s spy clothes included an old dark blue hoodie, her beloved ripped blue jeans, and blue sneakers with holes. Her pièce de résistance is a pair of heavy black-rimmed glasses without lenses that she wears to make herself look cool and clever, more like the writer she was. This unisex outfit endears her to other resourceful kids who like to tinker and experiment and who resist limits imposed on their adventures by gender conventions, pigeonholing, or profiling. Harriet, like Louise, wasn’t very interested in people telling her who she was or what she could do.

    When Louise first proposed Harriet the Spy to Harper, Ole Golly was just a vague idea without a character arc or backstory. In subsequent drafts, Louise drew on her own experience with nannies and nurses to add more where Charlotte pushed. Ole Golly was a femme sérieuse who entered the Welsch family orbit in Harriet’s infancy. Louise’s illustration of Ole Golly is a person of indeterminate race and ethnicity whose outstanding characteristics are intelligence, penetrating eyes, and an index finger raised mid-admonition. She has a mother who lives in Far Rockaway, Queens, who is as dim as Ole Golly is brilliant. Despite clues like some pronounced southernisms in her speech, Ole Golly’s history remains a mystery. Why would such a well-read, confident, and self-possessed woman work as a child’s nurse for eleven years? She is presumably not a convict on the run, since even the neglectful Welsches would have asked for some references. For all the reader knew, she appeared out of the blue, like Mary Poppins to help the Bankses, or Hagrid to invite Harry Potter to Hogwarts.

    In the book’s early chapters, Ole Golly is an aphorism machine, spitting out quotes for every occasion. Harriet, recognizing the consoling effect they have upon her nurse as she delivers them, listens attentively, absorbing their primary lesson, which is read, read, read. (Or, as Louise’s Uncle Gus would say, write, write, write.) It is cheering to think of a young reader casually passing on Henry James’s helpful adage that “ There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea,” or Keats’s observation that “beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

    When Ole Golly decides to accept a marriage proposal, Harriet is angry at her nurse for abandoning her. A good deal of Harriet’s confidence has been predicated on having a receptive audience for her ambitions to be a spy and a writer. At eleven, she has a healthy ego, common in young geniuses who otherwise might not make it out of childhood alive—either smothered by adoration, crushed by rejection, or left to flounder in indifference (coincidentally, this is also the unhappy fate of many thwarted women artists). Confidence was a quality Louise herself often struggled to embrace, and—like the good witch she is—Ole Golly inculcated confidence early on in the child. Later, when Harriet finds herself, as in the Shakespearean sonnet, “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” a letter from Ole Golly reminds her to dig for this submerged resource. And while Louise attributed the doubts she felt regarding her own talent to a competitive father, Harriet’s father seems fed up with the rat race. Mr. Welsch is in the television industry. He gives the impression of being a workaholic, but just to keep up, not necessarily because he’s ambitious. Alixe Gordin believed she inspired the character of Harriet’s father—which is interesting, given how often their mutual friends referred to Alixe as being like a mother to Louise.

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    Mr. Welsch is also Louise’s vehicle for a further discussion on the incompatibility of art and money. He has a liberal philosophy, and “iniquity” is one of his favorite words (along with “fink”). While on her spy route, Harriet confronts the iniquities associated with class distinctions; in her home, her father rails against the iniquities associated with artists who must by necessity bow to mammon. He seems to have reconciled the compromises he has made in his own life, but he still has to deal with plenty of finks who think only of money and show no discernment or taste.

    This was also Alixe’s frequent complaint. In contrast to Mr. Welsch, Ole Golly’s suitor and eventual husband, Mr. Waldenstein, has had a documented spiritual crisis. When profits come to mean nothing to him, he quits his job as a jeweler and seeks a more meaningful life. In her illustration of Mr. Waldenstein, Louise brings back the face of the man whom she first saw on shipboard in 1956, and whose portrait she had drawn many times. Here she has drawn him as a sympathetic companion. It is typical of Louise to have given him a profession that requires superb craftsmanship and an eye for beauty. Mr. Waldenstein, regretting nothing, builds his life over from the bottom, serenely and optimistically.

    For Harriet, Yorkville is like a small town. A reader following Harriet’s spy route, which runs from 82nd to 88th Streets between York and East End Avenues, might start with the Dei Santis’ delicatessen (around 86th and York), where the poorest children rely on scraps from Little Joe Curry, the Dei Santis’ grocery delivery boy. The Dei Santis themselves are merchants who are trying to make their family enterprise succeed, but they are constantly stymied by obstacles, including missing merchandise, a broken-down delivery truck, and the unpredictable work ethic of their children. Down the street (87th between York and East End) and at the other end of the financial scale lives the wealthy Mrs. Plumber, who spends her life in bed and has a lady’s maid. In one of the novel’s iconic scenes, Harriet scrunches herself into the dumbwaiter in Mrs. Plumber’s building to eavesdrop. She listens as Mrs. Plumber tells a friend on the telephone that she’s discovered “The secret of life.”

    To which Harriet can only exclaim, “Wow.” Mrs. Plumber’s philosophy is deliciously Pascalian. Her secret is to stay in bed, surrounded by boxes of chocolates and magazines, until something better reveals itself.

    Continuing down the block (York and 88th), Harriet’s spy route takes her to Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, whose art collecting Louise regards in the same spoofing spirit she brought to connoisseurs of modern poetry in Suzuki Beane. These bourgeois are dull and vulgar. Although they think themselves and their taste high tone, their enthusiasm renders them speechless. Louise’s illustrations capture their herd mentality and canned zest for art.

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    At last, Harriet turns the corner to spy on Harrison Withers (82nd and York), who represents a kind of equipoise between the sharp intellectual pursuits of Ole Golly and the transcendence of Mr. Waldenstein. Withers is an anxious and solitary artist who is resigned to living on yogurt in order to provide sanctuary to his twenty-six beloved cats, whom Louise named after literary idols, baseball celebrities, and close friends. His love of his creatures makes him vulnerable, however, and he suffers a tragic loss when the animal control department cruelly removes his dear feline companions. His face shows Harriet what a lost soul looks like, and his story reflects Louise’s recurring fear of powerful forces destroying the defenseless artist. Louise is so fond of this particular character that she names him after Harriet.

    For some of the 20th century’s so-called children’s literature gatekeepers, Harriet was a problem child.

    Harriet’s best friend Janie (who lives off East End Avenue on 84th Street) is already a dedicated professional. Janie knows she wants to be a scientist and is practicing through trial and error to blow up the world. Harriet admires her for her tough-mindedness. Her other best friend, Sport, is an excellent housekeeper and has given himself a little leeway regarding his future occupation. He’ll either be a sports star or a certified public accountant. In the 1960s, A CPA was considered a steady presence and a good breadwinner. Louise was often looking for somebody like Sport, who could keep a house going, freeing her from day-to-day details. In exchange she was prepared to provide the household’s main financial support. In the novel, Harriet declares her intention to marry Sport. In any vows, Harriet would surely want to protect her spying and writing time—just like Louise. Sport’s position on matrimony is not documented.

    Louise drew on her southern past in her depictions of hierarchies and mores within Gregory School society. Harriet’s main adversary, Marion Hawthorne, plays bridge and has tea parties with her cronies and lackeys. The girls act a lot like miniature versions of Memphis club women Louise knew in her childhood. It may have seemed to young Louise a displacement of so much female power and energy for those educated women to fritter away their lives on social events that only ever reinforced the status quo. Over the course of the novel, Harriet’s conviction that having a profession is worth the pain of loneliness is tested, but she doesn’t betray her principles. Better to live on yogurt than to be a spy-catcher like Marion Hawthorne and her ilk. That’s saying a lot for a child who—like her creator—enjoys a good lobster thermidor.

    For some of the 20th century’s so-called children’s literature gatekeepers—librarians, teachers, and members of parents’ associations, who considered themselves protectors of children’s welfare and arbiters of moral instruction—Harriet was a problem child. Not because she was naughty and kept a notebook full of often nasty observations, but because—despite Ole Golly’s guidance— Harriet does not change. To this portion of the reading public, she was insufficiently contrite, never really chastened, and stayed mean. She does not, in the words of the McCarthy-era HUAC witch-hunters, many of them still active as Louise was writing her book, recant. Harriet thrives in the last chapter, intellectually engaged, fully capable of making friends and of being one. It was particularly irksome to the gatekeepers of yore that Ole Golly, an adult who should know better, encourages Harriet to get herself out of a jam by lying.

    In fact, Ole Golly offers Harriet contradictory advice. “Always say exactly what you feel. People are hurt more by misunderstanding than anything else.” And while some circumstances might demand a fib, Ole Golly affirms, “To yourself, you must always tell the truth.” Agent Harriet’s mission is to decipher what situation matches which aphorism—and to regain the trust of her assets—all in time for summer vacation.

    Harriet agrees with Ole Golly’s assessment that a little lie is a sort of social lubrication. A little lie is a little mask, useful for hiding all sorts of secrets. As an adult, Louise Fitzhugh was unapologetically out of the closet. She was also well aware of the trials a gay adolescent had to endure in hostile territory. A little lie to preserve your identity and self-respect can be a soul-saving measure. When you are alone, and it looks like your cover is blown, a spy uses all the weapons at her disposal. When Louise said she wrote on behalf of kids in this lousy world, she meant, among many other things, this bigoted, homophobic one.

    Harriet doesn’t make a sudden shift from principled truth-telling to deceit and deception. She’s already a proficient liar, and it’s not really that big a deal. She lies from the start about her spy route. She knows it’s dangerous, especially scrunching into that dumbwaiter at Mrs. Plumber’s. But a reporter must be fearless in pursuit. Harriet is perhaps rather more an instinctual than a deliberate liar until her notebook is taken; with Ole Golly’s encouragement, she apologizes efficiently in order to get her schedule back on track.

    Although Harriet considers the art of compromise, that was not really something Louise often practiced. For instance, in a letter to her friend Fabio Rieti (written at the same time she was writing Harriet the Spy), she’s as forthright as they’d always been with one another and as he expected her to be. They couldn’t be the comrades they were, she said, if they didn’t tell each other the truth about their art. In that spirit, she urged Fabio to take more risks, and to show more of the pain she knew he felt on his canvases. She encouraged him not to care so much about causing offense or pleasing people: “Painting should shock and burn and hurt and fly right off the walls with feeling.” It has to be that intense, she said, or you need to question what you’ve done.

    There were other literary influences on Louise as she completed Harriet the Spy, particularly Harper Lee, and possibly William Butler Yeats. To Kill a Mockingbird, set during the Jim Crow era of Louise’s own youth, and told in the voice of Scout, a six-year-old girl, was a popular success from the time of its publication in 1960. The movie, released in 1962, with its Oscar-winning performance by Gregory Peck as Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, imprinted the novel’s story of racism and heroism in Depression-era Alabama onto the national psyche. Harper Lee was celebrated as the author of a novel so monumental and important that it practically defined the 20th-century South for a generation, and her book was prime material for Louise’s satire. Harriet’s role as an onion at the Gregory School’s Christmas pageant is an homage to Scout’s ham costume, which, in Lee’s novel, protects its owner’s life. Later, in the final pages of Harriet the Spy, Louise puts her own spin on Atticus Finch’s famous adage: “You never really understand a person . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Harriet imagines what it must be like to walk in her friend Sport’s shoes, “feeling the holes in his socks rub against his ankles.”

    Imagining herself in Sport’s socks is only part of Harriet’s initiative to imagine herself as other creatures and objects. She has given a lot of thought to the subject:

    I have tried to be a bench in the park, an old sweater, a cat, and my mug in the bathroom. I think I did the mug best because when I was looking at it I felt it looking back at me and I felt like we were two mugs looking at each other.

    Louise is riffing here on shape-shifters like the ones in the Yeats poem “Fergus and the Druid,” a work she admired. The exhausted King Fergus has “been many things— / A green drop in the surge, a gleam of light / Upon a sword, a fir-tree on a hill / . . . And all these things were wonderful and great; / But now I have grown nothing, knowing all.”20 This is a droll rebuke to the literalists, the phonies, the finks, and the unimaginative adults who cannot see all the ways that Harriet has changed by the novel’s end.


    Sometimes You Have to Lie

    From Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy by Leslie Brody. Used with permission of the publisher Seal Press/Hachette. Copyright ©2020 by Leslie Brody

    Leslie Brody
    Leslie Brody
    Leslie Brody is a biographer, playwright, and professor of creative writing. She adapted Harriet the Spy for the stage in 1988 and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts award and a PEN America award for creative nonfiction. She has been an on-staff book columnist for Elle magazine. She lives in Redlands, California.

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