Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Born Today In 1910, Author of 'Goodnight Moon' and Other Children's Classics, Margaret Wise Brown

Margaret Wise Brown was born today, May 23, 1910. She was a writer of children's books, including Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, both illustrated by Clement Hurd.

Brown was the middle child of three whose parents suffered from an unhappy marriage, in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.  In 1923 she attended Chateau Brilliantmont boarding school in Lausanne, Switzerland, while her parents were living in India and Canterbury, Connecticut. In 1925 she attended The Kew-Forest School. She began attending Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Massachusetts, in 1926, where she did well in athletics. After graduation in 1928, Brown went on to Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia.

Brown was a lifelong avid beagler and was noted for her ability to keep pace, on foot, with the hounds.

Following her graduation with a B.A. in English from Hollins in 1932, Brown worked as a teacher and also studied art. While working at the Bank Street Experimental School in New York City she started writing books for children. Bank Street promoted a new approach to children's education and literature, emphasizing the real world and the "here and now." This philosophy influenced Brown's work; she was also inspired by the poet Gertrude Stein, whose literary style influenced Brown's own writing.

Brown's first published children's book was When the Wind Blew, published in 1937. Brown went on to develop her Here and Now stories, and later the Noisy Book series while employed as an editor at W. R. Scott. As editor at Scott, one of Brown's first projects was to recruit contemporary authors to write children's books for the company. Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck neglected to respond, but Brown's hero Gertrude Stein accepted the offer. Stein's book The World is Round, was illustrated by Clement Hurd, who had previously teamed with Brown on W. R. Scott's Bumble Bugs and Elephants, considered "perhaps the first modern board book for babies." (Brown and Hurd later teamed on the children's book classics The Runaway Bunny and Goodnight Moon, published by Harper.) 

From 1944 to 1946, Doubleday published three picture books written by Brown under the pseudonym "Golden MacDonald" (coopted from her friend's handyman) and illustrated by Leonard Weisgard. (Weisgard was a runner-up for the Caldecott Medal in 1946, and he won the 1947 Medal, for Little Lost Lamb and The Little Island. Two more of their collaborations appeared in 1953 and 1956, after Brown's death.) The Little Fisherman, illustrated by Dahlov Ipcar, was published in 1945. The Little Fur Family, illustrated by Garth Williams, was published in 1946. Early in the 1950s she wrote several books for the Little Golden Books series, including The Color Kittens, Mister Dog, and Scuppers The Sailor Dog.

While at Hollins she was briefly engaged. She dated, for some time, an unknown "good, quiet man from Virginia," had a long running affair with William Gaston, and had a summer romance with Preston Schoyer. In the summer of 1940 Brown began a long-term relationship with Blanche Oelrichs (nom de plume Michael Strange--at right), poet/playwright, actress, and the former wife of John Barrymore. The relationship, which began as a mentoring one, eventually became romantic, and included co-habitating at 10 Gracie Square in Manhattan beginning in 1943. As a studio, they used Cobble Court, a wooden house later moved to Charles Street. Oelrichs, who was 20 years Brown's senior, died in 1950.

Brown went by various nicknames in different circles of friends. To her Dana School and Hollins friends she was "Tim," as her hair was the color of timothy hay. To Bank Street friends she was "Brownie." To William Gaston she was "Goldie," in keeping with the use of Golden MacDonald as author of The Little Island.

In 1952, Brown met James Stillman 'Pebble' Rockefeller Jr. at a party, and they became engaged. Later that year, while on a book tour in Nice, France, she died at 42 of an embolism, shortly after suffering from appendicitis. Kicking up her leg to show the doctor how well she was feeling caused a blood clot that had formed in her leg to dislodge and travel to her heart.

By the time of Brown's death, she had authored well over one hundred books. Her ashes were scattered at her island home, "The Only House" in Vinalhaven, Maine.

Brown bequeathed the royalties to many of her books including Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny to Albert Clarke, the son of a neighbor who was 9 years old when she died. In 2000, reporter Joshua Prager detailed in The Wall Street Journal the troubled life of Mr. Clarke, who has squandered the millions of dollars the books have earned him and who believes that Wise Brown was his mother, a claim others dismiss.

Brown left behind more than 70 unpublished manuscripts. After unsuccessfully trying to sell them, her sister Roberta Brown Rauch kept them in a cedar trunk for decades. In 1991, her future biographer Amy Gary of WaterMark Inc., rediscovered the paper-clipped bundles, more than 500 typewritten pages in all, and set about getting the stories published.

Many of Brown's books have been re-issued with new illustrations decades after their original publication. Many more of her books are still in print with the original illustrations. Her books have been translated into several languages; biographies on Brown for children have been written by Leonard S. Marcus (Harper Paperbacks, 1999), Jill C. Wheeler (Checkerboard Books, 2006) and Amy Gary (Flatiron Books, 2017). There is a Freudian analysis of her "classic series" of bunny books by Claudia H. Pearson, Have a Carrot (Look Again Press, 2010).

A fictional version of Brown occurs in Sarah Jio's 2014 novel Goodnight June. In the book a series of letters between Brown and the character Ruby Crain are used to show how Crain's friendship with Brown and her Seattle, Washington bookstore were influential in the writing of Goodnight Moon.

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