Harriet the Spy: Still Writing/Still Edgy at 61

In honor of Children’s Book Week and the 50th anniversary of Harriet the Spy (1964), by illustrator/author Louise Fitzhugh, I caught up with Harriet, prickly protagonist extraordinaire, to see what she made of herself in these intervening years.

Q&A with Harriet “The Spy” Welsch

Harriet the Spy at age 61Age: 61
Lives in: New York City, Upper East Side (not far from where she grew up on East Eighty-seventh Street
Education: The Dalton School, class of 1971, Wellesley College, class of 1976
Occupation: writer/novelist/noted satirist

So, for anyone who doesn’t know, you did become a writer. Tell us about your career.
Right after I graduated Wellesly in ’76 I wrote what ended up becoming a very famous article for Time Magazine called “Where Have All the Groovy People Gone?” It was my reaction to coming back to New York to live, after having grown up here in the 60s, and being hit by how absolutely ugly things had become.

So that single article launched your career?
The Time article got the attention of The New Yorker and its editor William Shawn, and he hired me as a staff writer. I might have been the youngest person to ever be hired as a staff writer. Me or John Updike, I’m not sure.

But I wrote for many magazines in the 80s and 90s. New York Magazine, Ms., Rolling Stone… I ended up doing some film criticism for The New York Times for a short time.

How did you get into writing novels?
Well, that was the goal from the beginning. I don’t think I’m any different from any other writer who has to make a living – you write for other people during the day and for yourself at night. Eventually, I was offered a book deal for Secrets, my first novel, and I took myself away to Montauk and finished the damn thing.

I find it delightful that you made good on your promise to publish a book titled Secrets.
Well, its subject matter is not at all what I thought it would be when I was 11. At age 11, I thought the best thing would be to tell other people’s secrets but it turned out that’s it’s much better to tell one’s own.  Secrets is a story about lesbian awakenings among a group of young women in Manhattan in the 1970s. Still in print.

And so it reflects your own experiences?
I hate to sound trite but “write what you know,” and all that… I had a lot of close friendships and relationships with women, really important women, that shaped my life. Some of them gay, some not.

Who are some of these women?
I became very close to Fran Lebowitz. We’re still close and talk on the phone every day and are considering writing a children’s book together. Renata Adler, obviously. I was friends with Ann Magnuson and that whole downtown crowd. Gloria Steinem and her circle.

Do you still write mean things about them in notebooks?
Always. I’m a modern day Cecil Beaton. There’s already a contract in place to publish my private journals posthumously, with all proceeds going to PFLAG. I think Diana Vreeland said it best when she said you need to give people what they don’t know they want.

When you were 11 you had no clue you were a lesbian?
I didn’t even understand that the Boy with the Purple Socks was gay, so to have that much introspection was just beyond me, I’m afraid.

Well, I have to ask: single or taken?
Very much taken with my long-time partner Vera Darkheart. She’s a sculptress and collage artist and my favorite person in the world.

What other stuff have you written?
I’ve written nine plays, all of which have been produced. The most famous is probably Christmas Dinner, an allegory of the Cold War as told by talking Christmas dinner foods. Five novels, countless magazine articles, essays, etc. One book of short stories. And my memoir, Diary of a Spy.

In that book you talk about how your father was a real spy…
Yes. He was a spy during the early part of the Cold War but then came home, somehow got into television, produced some very successful shows, married my mother and they had me blah, blah, blah… but it turned out he also had another family out on Long Island.

So you’re not really an only child?
No, I have two sisters and a brother. He was quite busy out on Long Island, as it turned out, and it absolutely wrecked my mother. She was a bit of a WASP, I’m not really sure that came through in Harriet the Spy, and she was devastated to find out that my father’s other family is Jewish. She literally died when she found out.

She died?
She dropped dead.

How old were you?
I was 28. One of my sisters showed up at my mother’s house and explained who she was and my mother didn’t believe her. So she called this other woman – Rena -  and they had a long talk and when my mother hung up the phone she had a major stroke and died.

How traumatizing. Is your dad still alive?
No, he died of lung failure when I was in my 40s. Our relationship was strained, to say the least.

Changing subjects, I notice that you dress pretty much the same.
I have no patience for shopping. I found this look as a kid and I just thought, “This works for me. It’s comfortable. I’m sticking with it.” I change brands sometimes but I remain true to jeans, a hoodie and sneakers. The big difference now is that my glasses are real – they have lenses in them.

People are going to want to know  – are you still friends with Sport and Janie?
Well, no, but I did run into Sport in maybe 1988? 1989? He went to the University of Michigan on a baseball scholarship but then didn’t…. you know, try to make it in the major league, or whatever it’s called, and became a CPA in Manhattan instead. Janie… I honestly have no idea. I hope she got into the sciences, but she was a troubled person, overall.

Let’s finish this off with some rapid-fire questions and answers.

Favorite New York restaurant?
La Grenouille, because of my mother.

Favorite TV show?
I’m re-watching all of Absolutely Fabulous.

Best place to shop?
When I do shop, I’m partial to the Housing Works Thrift on 2nd Avenue. Also like going to Foot Locker but not Lady Foot Locker.

Best book of 2014 so far?
I live mostly in the past. I haven’t read anything published this year.

Well, do you have any books on your bedside table?
Watchmen by Alan Moore, the plays of Rachel Crothers, the first Harry Potter book because everyone says I should read it but I keep falling asleep whenever I open it. I guess I’m not much for children’s literature.

About Louise Fitzhugh
Author photo of Louise FitzhughLouise Fitzhugh grew up in the South in a wealthy family but unhappy family (her parents divorced when she was two). She escaped to New York City, to become a painter, but made money as an illustrator. After starting in children’s lit with a collaboration with friend Sandra Scoppettone, she published her own first book, Harriet the Spy, in 1964. According to everything I’ve read, adults didn’t love it but critics and kids did. It was awarded a New York Times Outstanding Book Award in 1964. He works include published:

Louise died suddenly and at a young age – she suffered a brain aneurism at age 46. You can read more about her here (or there is this very insightful review of The Long Secret) and see if you can find shades of Harriet.