For years, without knowing much of anything about her, I’ve had a certain image in my mind of the children’s book author Margaret Wise Brown (1910-1952). I knew she’d written three of my daughter’s great favorites: Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny, and Scuppers: The Sailor Dog. I had the notion – perhaps derived from Clement Hurd’s illustrations for that old-fashioned house in Goodnight Moon (1947) and perhaps in part arising from her old-school three-decker author’s name – that Miss Brown would be a kindly, half-grandmother/half-spinster, gray-haired of course, peering over the tops of her wire rims as she read stories to children. The sort of staid middle-aged woman who could play Santa’s wife in a small-town Christmas pageant.
What a surprise I got then when I started a little Internet digging on MWB for my blog post last week on Goodnight Moon. “Brownie,” as her friends called her, was something of a swinger and a bohemian. Tall, blond, and green-eyed – the sort of woman people described as striking. She dated Juan Carlos, the Prince of Spain, and had a longtime relationship with an actress named Michael Strange, an ex-wife of John Barrymore. She was an aficionado of the prose/poetry of Gertrude Stein. It’s utterly Brownie that a character in her book The Runaway Bunny is based on a character in a Provencal love ballad.
Brownie did write more than 100 books for children from 1937 to 1952, and they were in good part based on what she learned about little kids while serving as a kindergarten teacher at a high-end New York private school. She was fond of noms de plume, some of them transgender. Golden MacDonald, Juniper Sage, Kaintuck Brown, and Timothy Hay are among the names under which her works appeared. She was prolific. According to the Web site devoted to her, MWB said “she dreamed stories and then had to write them down in the morning before she forgot them.”
Miss Brown never married, but she was a great lover of dogs, mainly Kerry Blue Terriers and poodles. She also favored a handsome little boy who lived in her neighborhood and whose family she was close to. Word has it that she market-tested many of her stories on him. When she died, she left the royalties on Goodnight Moon and many of her other books to this nine-year-old, Albert Clarke, who to this day believes that MWB was his mother – despite what others say. For a truly fascinating side story, read Joshua Prager’s account in the Wall Street Journal of what happened to Albert Clarke as he grew into a hapless adult with those twin legacies from MWB – the royalties and the possibility that she was his mother.
Brownie, as you might expect, was fond of the flamboyant gesture. The MWB Web site tells how she handled her royalties:
She lived extravagantly off of her royalties, including buying a street vendor’s entire cart of flowers with her first royalty check. After having them delivered to her upper East Side apartment, she threw a party for her friends to enjoy her purchase. She would, at times, sell a story to buy a coat, car or airplane ticket to Europe.
Miss Brown died at 42 in Nice, France, of a pulmonary embolism after surgery for an ovarian cyst. At the time she was engaged to a zealous sport sailor, James Stillman Rockefeller Jr. – known to his friends as Pebbles. Pebbles, a descendant of Andrew Carnegie, was sailing round the world and MWB was scheduled to meet him in Panama to be married. She was taking the long way round through France to get there.
The story is that when the doctor was examining her several days after surgery, he asked how she was feeling and Brownie exuberantly kicked a leg in the air to show him. That loosed the embolism that did her in, or so the story goes.