Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy

Image of Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy
Release Date: 
December 1, 2020
Seal Press
Reviewed by: 

“Bury me north of the Mason-Dixon line, in a white suit and a plain coffin.” —Louise Fitzhugh

This Louise Fitzhugh biography is presented through her published work and her friends. She published two novels and two picture books during her life. Yet, that is enough, along with her friends’ remembrances, to present a vivid and astonishing view of a remarkable and complicated woman, who sometimes comes across as a perpetually petulant child.

Louise Fitzhugh is best known for her phenomenal bestselling book, Harriet the Spy, which was published in October 1964. She described Harriet as being “about a nasty little girl who keeps a notebook on all her friends.” The book was published to great popularity and controversy. Kids loved it. Many adults, however, were not amused.

Children, in Fitzhugh’s opinion were “open-minded individuals, not people to be talked down to, patronized, or palmed off with fairy tales.” Perhaps this was the key to her success, although Fitzhugh never fully appreciated her achievements.

At four foot, eleven inches Louise Fitzhugh was accustomed to “being underestimated.” She was born into wealth and privilege in Tennessee and is described as stubborn, with a mercurial temper, and having an insatiable desire to know everything, yet lacking in self-confidence about her own work.

She believed that “artists have a sacred charge to be completely honest with themselves and with one another about their work.” Yet, as Brody points out, Fitzhugh hated to be criticized or have anyone suggest improvements of her work. After a Publisher’s Weekly review, Fitzhugh took to drink—one of her favorite pastimes. Fitzhugh told a friend, “I’m drunk because of the review. I started drinking when I read the review. You would too.”

Most of what is known about Fitzhugh is the result of a carefully presented view created by Lois Morehead. As the principal heir, Morehead and her heirs control all access to Fitzhugh’s papers. And, that control is jealously guarded because Lois Morehead and her heirs have been “strict guardians of Louise’s work.”

Most requests for access to Fitzhugh’s papers are declined and this places biographers, such as Brody, at a distinct disadvantage. Brody has, in great part, overcome this deficiency through conversations with Fitzhugh’s contemporaries, friends, and family. That makes the biography more interesting and insightful.

Morehead’s efforts to sanitize Fitzhugh as a person and author is perhaps most telling in the complete absence of any mention that Louise Fitzhugh was a lesbian. One of Fitzhugh’s friends said, “Louise was always herself, never in the closet. Louise was very much in the lesbian world.”

Fortunately, Brody recognizes that any Fitzhugh biography must include her sexual orientation as an integral part of the story. Fitzhugh’s relationships with women occurred at a time when they were legally unrecognized and required elaborate ruses to avoid condemnation. The fact that Fitzhugh was a lesbian is woven through the story as an essential element and helps explain what and who she was and how it affected her work and her life.

One does not need to have read Harriet the Spy or heard of Louise Fitzhugh to appreciate this book. Biographies are intended to give readers insights into the lives of people, and Brody’s book does not disappoint.

Louise Fitzhugh died November 19, 1974. She was 46 years old. She is buried in Bridgewater, Connecticut, in a small cemetery near St. Mark’s Church.