Louise Fitzhugh, Author of Harriet the Spy

Louise Fitzhugh

Louise Fitzhugh (October 5, 1928 – November 19, 1974) was an American author, born in Memphis, Tennessee. She wrote and illustrated children’s books (mainly for middle grade), the best known and most beloved of which remains Harriet the Spy.

Louise’s father was well off, and her mother was from a working class background. They divorced when she was a baby and her father was awarded full custody. Louise got on quite well with his second wife, Sally.

She lived with her paternal grandparents until her father remarried and was rarely allowed to see her mother (the two would build a relationship once Louise was an adult. Though she seemed to have had a fairly well-adjusted childhood despite these early challenges, she gained an understanding of the loneliness and confusion that can be hallmarks of childhood.


Education at home and abroad

Louise attended Miss Hutchinson’s school, then went on to attend several different colleges in the south before transferring to Bard College in New York State. Most sources state that she never finished a degree, though her New York Times obituary claims that she graduated from Bard.

It may not be surprising that she studied child psychology, art, and literature, as these seem to entwine in the books she produced. She studied art in Italy and France, and in New York City, continued her studies at the Art Students League and at Cooper Union.

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Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh 50th anniversary edition

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A visual artist first

The first major work Louise contributed to was Suzuki Beane (1961) – a beatnik spoof of Eloise. Sandra Scoppattone was the author, and Louise was the illustrator.

Though the book was lightly tossed off as a parody, it was charming and well received. Today, this rare book is much sought after. Louise enjoyed a minor career as an artist and illustrator; her drawings were shown in New York galleries.

Louise was a serious painter and had numerous exhibits in galleries, especially in New York City. Chances are that she would have been surprised that her life’s legacy would have been as a children’s book (middle grade primarily) author.

In a 2021 L.A. Review of Books interview with Leslie Brody, author of Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, she says:

“It’s important to note that Louise always considered herself a painter first … Once she arrived in New York, she was determined to paint and to study painting. She went her own way during the abstract expressionist and pop art years, mostly painting portraits and then landscapes. She traveled to Paris to paint there as well. She worked in various media, including oils and watercolors during her last years, and she did many satirical drawings, lampooning American archetypes such as cowboys and pioneers.”


Out and proud

In her personal life, Louise dated both men and women early on, but was more interested in women and had several intense, long-lasting relationships. Both a romantic at heart and a rebel, she was above board about her sexuality at a time when to do so was perilous — especially as a public person. Many of her partners and amours had creative, bohemian leanings like her own.

Her last relationship, which lasted until her untimely death, was with Lois Morehead, a more conventional woman with a teenage daughter, who Louise adored. Morehead managed the Louise Fitzhugh literary estate until she passed away in 2009.


Harriet the Spy

Published in 1964, Harriet the Spy was about a young girl whose parents were more interested in their social life, leaving her in the care of her beloved nanny, who she called Ole Golly.

Harriet the Spy  explores the ideas of independence, loneliness, and observation, as Harriet, obsessed with her notebook, recorded in blunt detail what she saw in the world around her.

Its gritty realism, rarely seen in books of its era, made Harriet the Spy controversial. It was banned outright by many schools. In other quarters, it was highly praised, and was given the New York Times Outstanding Book Award in 1964.

The legacy of Harriet the Spy rests on its setting the stage for more realistic books for kids, featuring characters grappling with real situations and problems.

Harriet was seen by some as a too-flawed heroine, but to others, that was a great part of her appeal. She spied, she lied, she hurt her friends, and was just plain complicated. Those tomato sandwiches sound yummy, though! The book remains a modern classic, and Harriet is a beloved literary heroine.

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Louise Fitzhugh on a swing

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A Posthumous Emmy Award and Harriet Sequels

Louise produced two Harriet sequels. The Long Secret, published in 1965 right on the heels of Harriet the Spy. It sold well, though perhaps not as well as the original, and also courted controversy for dealing with the topic of menstruation, something that had not been done in children’s literature.

In 1969, she returned to serving as an illustrator for a book by Sandra Scoppattone — the anti-war book Bang Bang You’re Dead (1969), which came out during the height of the Vietnam war. The book, tackling a tough theme, wasn’t particularly successful.

After these two successful yet controversial books came out Louise seemed to hit a block. She began but didn’t finish several drafts during the next few years, and had a testy relationship with her editors. Nobody’s Family is Going to Change came out in 1974. Louise was devastated by a middling review in Publisher’s Weekly, and alas, didn’t live to see the more positive press that came out shortly after.

Louise had a knack for expressing what in a kid’s heart, like this line from The Long Secret: “Dear Me: Why am I so different? Why am I never happy? Is everybody like this or just me? I am truly a mouse. I have no desire at all to be me.” 

Louise won a posthumous Emmy in 1979 for The Tap Dance Kid, a made-for-television adaptation of book Nobody’s Family is Going to Change, the story of the sister and brother in a well-to-do African-American family. Emma wants to be a lawyer like her father, and Willie aspires t be a dancer. Both are discouraged due to gender expectations.  It also became a successful Broadway musical starring Savion Glover.

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Louise Fitzhugh, Nobody’s Family is Going to Change, Nobody’s Family is Going to Change review, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. . . . . . . . . . 

Louise Fitzhugh’s life and legacy

Louise wasn’t able to enjoy as long and prolific career as she might have; her life was cut short when she died in 1974 at age 46 of a brain aneurysm.

Apparently, she had a few significant pieces of writing in various stages, including an autobiographical play, though these remained among her unfinished works. Her books remain timeless, and within their subtly subversive plots, readers find simple and relatable advice like this truism from Sport:

“If you ever get in real trouble, don’t panic. Sit down and think about it. Remember two things, always. There must be some way out of it and there must be humor in it somewhere.”

Sport (1979, spun off from Harriet the Spy) was published after her death. In the aforementioned 2020 biography of Louise Fitzhugh, Sometimes You Have to Lie (a great treat for fans of this singular writer and artist) Leslie Brody’s Introduction says:

“Like Harriet, Louise was used to being underestimated. As a young woman, Louise’s smallness — she was four feet, eleven inches —  ‘made many people mistake her for a child and completely misjudge her.’ She tried not to misjudge or delude herself. If a decade of therapy left Louise with any particular theme, it was that lying to herself only made matters worse. [This recalls what Ole Golly tells Harriet, and hence the book’s title: ‘Sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.’]

She adhered to this principle more or less successfully (depending on whether she’s been drinking heavily). The letters she wrote to friends reflect repeatedly, and above all things, her belief that artists have a sacred charge ot be completely honest with themselves and with one another about their work.”

More about Louise Fitzhugh

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Major Works

Authorized sequels written by other authors

  • Harriet the Spy, Double Agent
  • Harriet Spies Again

Books for younger readers

  • I Am Five, written and illustrated by Louise Fitzhugh (1978)
  • I Am Four, illustrated by Susan Bonners (1982)
  • I Am Three, illustrated Susanna Natti (1982)


Film adaptation

  • Harriet the Spy  (1996)

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