Harriet Conceived

When Louise Fitzhugh moved to New York to study literature and later art, she became part of a creative circle that included the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the poet James Merrill, and the playwright/director Jane Wagner. All these artists had an influence on Fitzhugh: however two were directly involved in her creative works. Sandra Scoppettone, now primarily known as a crime novelist, was then writing children’s books, and she involved Fitzhugh as an artist-collaborator in her funky debut picture book, Suzuki Beane (1961), and later in her anti-war story Bang Bang You’re Dead (1969). (See this page about those two books).

The second friend who influenced Fitzhugh’s artistic career was Marijane Meaker, who is now, under the pseudonym M.E. Kerr, a well-known young adult novelist. Meaker then wrote under a variety of pseudonyms and was most successful then as pulp novelist Vin Packer. As Packer, Meaker wrote suspense and mystery titles. Meaker told Fitzhugh of her childhood habit of spying on people. As she later said in a memoir:

…I’d played spy and organized a gang to go out and look in windows and report back everything they saw in our neighborhood.

My older brother’d hung a sign on my bedroom door,

MARIJANE THE SPY. (46)

Although it’s impossible to know with certainty, this story seems to have been the genesis for Harriet the Spy. Fitzhugh herself minimized the association, Kerr says:

We used to swap stories and discuss ideas, and when she wrote her first book for young people, called Harriet the Spy, I said, “Hey, wait a minute! That’s my story! I told you I was Marijane the Spy, and you stole that idea from me!” Louise said all kids are spies when they’re little. She was and I was . . . and she just beat me to the punch and told the story first. (58, ellipsis in original)

But there is another reason to believe Marijane the Spy may have been the genesis of Harriet. From all accounts, Fitzhugh herself was not a tomboy as a child (see Wolf, chapter 1). Meaker, however, describes herself as wearing an old suit vest of her father’s over top of a dress, and looking “androgynous.” She quotes her father’s journal as saying “Marijane, at 11, is neither boy nor girl but somewhere in between” (47). This description fits Harriet. Fitzhugh’s description of herself as a childhood spy may be true, but Harriet seems more like Fitzhugh’s friend Marijane Meaker. (footnote)

Sources:

Kerr, M.E. Me, me me me me: not a novel. (New York: Harper & Row, 1983).

Wolf, Virginia L. Louise Fitzhugh. (New York: Twayne, 1991)

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