MAY 23, 2017
I AM A COMPOSER. My two most successful pieces, commercially and artistically, are a choral setting of Goodnight Moon and a violin concerto based on The Runaway Bunny — both stories by renowned children’s author Margaret Wise Brown. So I wasn’t very surprised when I was asked to review Amy Gary’s new biography, In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown, published a few months ahead of the author’s 107th birthday (May 23). To further celebrate, I reread Leonard Marcus’s Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon.
For those unfamiliar with her work, Brown wrote more than 70 books for the youngest of readers. When her estate was being assessed, her executor valued Moon as having a royalty potential of $200. To date, this one little book for two-year-olds has sold more than 48 million copies. Not bad for a story of under 50 words.
My friend John, also a composer, is a fan of a novelist I happen to know. Recently I asked John if he’d like me to set up a lunch date to introduce the two of them. He said, “Absolutely not! I never like to meet people whose work I admire. They are inevitably disappointing.” My reaction to reading these two biographies is similar. The woman whose artistic vision had so inspired me and had charmed generations of preschoolers with her devilish whimsy, sly humor, and adorable anthropomorphizing, was really an unhappy rich girl, probably bipolar, and definitely co-dependent.
Although the two biographies are written in rather different styles, both left me with the exact same impression of Brown as a driven woman, deeply frustrated by her lack of success in writing for adults, in love with a married man for most of her adult life, and hiding a long-time affair with the ex-wife of John Barrymore, “Michael Strange.”
Although the cover art for both books is nearly identical (Margaret in her “great green room”) and both paint a similar portrait of the artist, the likenesses end there. Gary offers a breezy and concise tale of a lost young woman who finds herself writing preschool books and even meets her soul mate, only to die tragically at age 42. Marcus’s nuanced book goes into great detail about all the characters in her literary life: the librarians who refused to order her books, her editors, and more. The former is interested in the author and her world, while the latter places Brown in the context of children’s literature.
Gary, formerly the director of publishing for Lucasfilm and head of the publishing department at Pixar Animation Studios, discovered hundreds of unpublished works by Brown in the author’s sister’s attic. Since then, she has cataloged, edited, and researched all of Brown’s writings (stories, ephemera, and books); bittersweet poems from the author’s papers appear before each chapter. Marcus, on the other hand, is an established expert on children’s literature in the United States. He is the author of Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (one of Wise’s editors, who famously contributed the last line of Bunny, “Have a carrot”) and The Making of Goodnight Moon: A 50th Anniversary Retrospective. He has also curated legendary exhibitions of children’s book art around the world. Both authors obviously have enough street cred and the background knowledge to offer compelling insights into this remarkable woman.
Both books take us through her early childhood as an upper-middle-class elder daughter, a perennially unhappy beauty. Her father, an importer-exporter thankfully unaffected by the Great Depression, moved their family to affluent Long Island, where Margaret spent time running with hounds (a version of foxhunting without the horses) and dreaming up characters. I could have used less of Gary pointing out every time Brown happened to see a bunny cross her path, but I guess that’s to be expected.
After attending Hollis, a women’s college, where her major achievement was letting her father finance a barn for the newly created Women’s Riding Team (the sport she introduced), she came back to New York City and tried to break into publishing as a short story writer, only to be repeatedly rejected. Pressured by her father, who still supported her, she pursued a teaching career, and Margaret Wise Brown the children’s book author was born.
A seminal influence in Brown’s life was Lucy Sprague Mitchell, who founded the Little Red School House in Greenwich Village, where new teaching methods were being developed. (I imagine this was the type of school parodied in Auntie Mame.) Mitchell expanded on the ideas created by John Dewey who, according to Gary, “held that children learned better through a hands-on approach and proposed a less regimented curriculum that didn’t force children to memorize mountains of information. Instead, a teacher was to be a facilitator instead of an instructor.”
By the time Brown walked into the school on Bank Street in 1934, Mitchell’s own books and poems had been in circulation for 12 years. Mitchell spotted something special in Brown during her interview, and she hired her to edit and create work for the curriculum that Dutton published. Brown worked diligently on the curriculum books and created her own stories, which she “auditioned” for her classes.
These books had nothing to do with witches, trolls, glass slippers, or sleeping beauties. Mentored by Mitchell, Brown’s “writings met children at their own stages of development — where they were emotionally and psychologically at that moment. […] Stories about Mother, Father, bed, and breakfast were fascinating subjects for a toddler.”
She became a busy author of books for the youngest audiences, a market that was exploding, and for the first time in her life she was making enough money to support herself. Brown ran in the circles of Greenwich Village bohemians, and at a weekend in Maine met Bill Gaston, a womanizer whom reporters blamed for his wife’s suicide. Smitten at once, she spent nearly the rest of her life hoping he would give up his philandering and love her the way she loved him. That was not to be. In fact, he got married again to someone else, all the while pretending Brown was his one love. He got divorced again, but whether married or divorced, he popped in and out of her life and bed almost at will.
Meanwhile, she was becoming more and more successful, and building her market. Brown was instrumental in enlisting major illustrators and artists of the day to try their hand, under her direction, at drawing picture books. And she even convinced Gertrude Stein to write a book for the toddler audience. She was revolutionizing the market almost singlehandedly.
While on a ski trip with another lover who had designed the ski slope (that was the upper-crust gang she ran with when she wasn’t a Bohemian artist), Brown was, according to Gary, freezing. Halfway up the slope, she decided that she simply had to “write down a story […] before she forgot it”:
She decided to turn back and told the men she would wait for them in the little lodge down the hill. Margaret had heard a haunting French ballad with a word pattern that she knew would make a good children’s story. In the song, a woman attempts to leave her lover by changing into different animals. With each metamorphosis she dreams up, he threatens to transform into something that will keep her close to him. The lyrics were adult and dark, but that “if you, then I” dynamic was something she was certain she could use.
By the time her date returned to the ski shack, Margaret had completed The Runaway Bunny “on the only available piece of paper she had: her ski receipt.”
Marcus doesn’t offer the story, but confirms that Brown based her book on the French ballad. He writes:
Working with the structure of the original ballade, she transformed the story of a lover’s pursuit of his beloved into a fable of childish adventuring and maternal devotion and strength. For the young reader, the mother emerges as a reassuring bridge between the real and imaginary worlds, for while the bunny child escapes into a succession of other-than-human guise — as a fish, a flower, a bird — his mother nearly always overtakes him by adopting a human form.
Gary also offers the reader another (possibly apocryphal) story on the creation of Brown’s masterpiece, Goodnight Moon. A “beguiling word-patterned poem, ‘Good Night Room,’” which she included in a textbook she was writing for Mitchell,
spurred an incredibly detailed dream that night. In the dream the room was hers, but the color scheme was that of her downstairs neighbor’s — bright green walls in the living room accented by red furniture with yellow trim. […] Instead of saying good night to the things in her childhood room, in the dream it was her black telephone, lamp, and brush she bade good night. She wrote the story down as soon as she woke. Too impatient to wait for a typist, she called Ursula Nordstrom and read it to her. Ursula agreed it was almost perfect and decided to publish it.
Marcus described the story thus: “Goodnight Moon is a here-and-now story but one so supercharged with emotion, so freewheeling […] as to render it a cunning transparency of Bank Street ideas and their opposites.”
The other main character in the Brown saga is a doozy; when Glenn Close finishes playing Norma Desmond on Broadway, perhaps she should lend her considerable talents to playing Margaret’s other great love, the aptly self-named Michael Strange.
Strange was born Blanche Oelrichs and had achieved a certain celebrity during the 1920s when she started an affair with John Barrymore and published a book of erotic poems that became a best seller. Brown and Strange met in the summer of 1940 and, I glean from both books, Strange spent the next decade mentally abusing her; despite the pain that Strange caused, Brown kept going back for more. Neither book puts the relationship in terms quite so harsh, but one can read between the lines.
According to Marcus, “The name Michael Strange had simply come to her one day ‘in full […] from nowhere.’” According to Gary,
Michael was everything Margaret wished she could be. She was outspoken, sophisticated, and sure of herself […] She was welcomed at the Algonquin Round Table and was a courtesy niece of the Astors and Vanderbilts. She disdained everything about Hollywood, but actors and movie directors flooded to her doorstep. […] Her perfume […] smelled of lemon verbena and reminded Margaret of tiger lilies. Margaret kept it to herself that the next day she smelled that perfume on one of [Bill Gaston’s] pillows.
The two women became lovers — Brown being referred to as “Bunny” and Strange as “Rabbit” — and moved into apartments across the hall from each other on the Upper East Side, and continued to fight daily. According to Gary, “When Margaret made a seemingly innocuous comment that she liked lightning and thunder […] Michael raged at her. How could she be so insensitive?” She continues:
Margaret knew she had a terrible fear of storms, and her remark was inconsiderate. Michael retreated to her bedroom, and Margaret slept on the couch that night. She was angry with herself that she ruined Michael’s first day in her new house. She reflected on the shifting sands that were Michael’s moods and on her own desire to please. What did Michael really want — a friend with her own thoughts and opinions, or a statue standing silent? She was tyrannical with Margaret, then wanted her to stand as an independent person.
Gary also quotes from a houseguest’s diary: “Immediately after dinner M. S. attacks M. W. B. in most violent and abusive terms. M. W. B. leaves the room and building.” Strange was ever more envious of Brown’s success, belittling her for not writing for adults and wasting time with her “little stories.”
Strange tried time and again to reinvent herself as a performance artist (this term was not used then), touring the country reciting poetry to classical music for dwindling audiences — until her return to New York, where Brown would buy up half the seats to make sure the house was full. In 1950 Strange died of leukemia, with Brown outside her hospital door. As destructive as the relationship had been, she was bereft.
Her story almost had a happy ending when she met James Stillman Rockefeller Jr. They fell in love with each other, and as reported in both books, it certainly seemed like the real thing. Rockefeller even contributed a beautifully written tribute to Brown as a foreword to Gary’s book. The two planned to sail around the world on his yacht — but she died of a blood clot while recovering from an appendectomy in the hospital. She was only 42.
As my composer friend John said, sometimes it’s better not to meet your idols. Reading both books, I felt rather as though I were watching a pile-up — crash after crash.
But then, one thinks about the work, of the contributions she made to the world of children’s literature — and to humanity. Of course, I am personally and eternally grateful to her for inspiring my music.