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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.

The Short Stack, February 21

Every Friday, I share  the pop culture, fashion, lit and random blips that crossed my radar during the week. Enjoy! Or don’t. Your choice.

Well, well, well, hipsters… look what mainstream culture has done to your precious  totem.

macys long sleve shirt with bikes on it

That’s right. It’s a knit top with bikes all over it, sold at Macy’s. Next month, they’re coming out with a penny farthing version for soccer moms to wear during the Susan G. Komen 3-Day this summer. I’m sure the men’s department is selling suspenders to wear with Calvin Klein boxer briefs.

I needed some shoes this week. In fact, I would categorize it as a bit of a shoe emergency. So I went to the one place I thought I’d be in greatest shoe saturation – Mall of America. However, I forgot to calculate in the retail industry’s capriciousness. Although the Midwest has been locked in sub-zero temperatures tempered only by days of snow storms, retailers have decided it’s time to move on. That’s right, time to stick your frozen feet into some open-toed booties or platform sandals with wool socks.

Even DSW, which has the word “warehouse” in its name, was stripped of most weather-appropriate shoes, devoting entire rows to glorified flip flops. One row was stripped bare, as if DSW had thrown up its hands in disgust. “We will stock nothing! We will sell air! You can have Fit Flops or nothing!”

Look, I know what you’re thinking. The stores are selling for spring break (what fashion snobs call “resort season.”) Spring break? Entire stores are making their inventory choices based on the fact that a few of us might go to Orlando for a couple of days? Meanwhile, if you need something to put on your feet while you go to your job, that thing that sort of helps fuel the economy… too bad?

But, like that wise character played by Morgan Freeman in that one movie says, “Get busy living or get busy dying,” so I took to the Internet. Hooray! Lots of closed-toed shoes there. But also a lot of shoe pathos. So much analysis and strangeness that I sat there and read reviews and never bought any shoes. Here’s a sample of what I found:

“I love these shoes, they are so comfortable and edgy.” [the shoes in question could be comfortable but were certainly far from edgy]

“They jingle like you’re wearing spurs.”

“This was the first pair of Pikolinos I ever purchased, and they came out of the box reeking of a minty smell. This was so bad that both of my cats got up and left the room! I held my breath to try them on. They are insanely comfortable, but the style (which I called “prairie” and my husband called “medieval”) just wasn’t me, so I sent them back.”

“If the price dropped, I would consider it again and definitely accept it as a gift.”

“Made in Spain…and you know, Europeans are used to wear better quality shoes than we do. So they produce much better shoes than Chinese or American brands.”

“Unless you have the thinnest, flattest feet around, do not order these shoes.”

So… could Yakky Doodle wear them?

yakky doodle

Lock-ins for middle aged women called Change Your Life Lock-ins. I haven’t worked out exactly what happens during the lock-in (starting on Friday night at 8 pm and ending on Saturday morning at 10 am with a pancake breakfast) but it has elements of a boot camp for wayward teens, The Crying Game, the Hunger Games, The Breakfast Club and that annual episode of Oprah where she gave away her favorite things to the audience.

Captain Phillips was stinky. I don’t get why it took the Navy Seals like five days to do anything. Plus, Tom Hanks has very, very strange man nipples that pretty much took over the final scene. Can they be nominated for Best Supporting Actor?

Sunset Boulevard is streaming on Netflix.

The Pajama Game is worth watching, by all accounts, and is next on my musical list. Cuz I have that list. In my purse. Just in case I’m out somewhere and hear about a hot musical.

Cutie and the Boxer is heartbreaking and uplifting in unexpected ways. Right now it has my vote for the Academy Award, although I’ve seen none of the other nominated docs. Somehow I’m never in the mood to watch The Act of Killing after a long day when I could be watching dudes wipe out at the end of their ski cross run at the Olympics.

The Group by Mary McCarthy. Excellent pessary drama!

The Hare with the Amber Eyes keeps coming up for me over and over again. Does that ever happen to you with a book? You keep seeing it, keep reading about it, keep hearing other people recommend until finally you say, “Fine! Give it here.” Also, related to that, the novel The Exiles Return.

Did you know it’s the 50th anniversary of Harriet the Spy? What the hell? How is that possible?? A special edition is being released on Tuesday, Feb. 25. So, you know, put that shit on your Amazon Wish List and all (to borrow an elegant phrase from Zappos: “I would consider it again and definitely accept it as a gift.”) Here’s a factoid about author Louise Fitzhugh:  she attended three different colleges but never obtained a degree. I’m not sure why that is so very special to me.

New York Magazine called my attention to the fact that “Disco Dresses” are a major theme for spring. Did someone say disco dresses?? Let me push my way to the front of the crowd. I’ve been waiting for disco dresses to have a renaissance since I was six and jealous of the slinky, one-armed sequin dresses my Barbie got to wear. Yes, Lanvin, Reem Acra, Gucci and  Versace are pumping out metallic, slinky goodness. But really, why pay thousands when you can get that shit for a few dollars at the thrift? Get down there right now and start snapping up the lamé. Has Macklemore taught us nothing?

A hot mess of disco dresses ready for spring
A hot mess of disco dresses from New York Magazine.

There’s a snow storm raging outside, there’s women’s long program figure skating on TV and it’s time to call it. But before I go, here’s an Olympic memory… Remember Surya Bonaly? Yeah, that back flip. Ah, the 90s.