Margaret Wise Brown constantly pushed boundaries—in her life and in her art.
ruce Handy, in his 2017 book about children’s literature, “Wild Things,” confesses that he always imagined the writer Margaret Wise Brown to be a dowdy old lady “with an ample lap”—just like the matronly bunny from her classic story “Goodnight Moon,” who whispers “hush” as evening darkens a “great green room.” In fact, Brown was a seductive iconoclast with a Katharine Hepburn mane and a compulsion for ignoring the rules. Anointed by Life in 1946 as the “World’s Most Prolific Picture-Book Writer,” she burned through her money as quickly as she earned it, travelling to Europe on ocean liners and spending entire advances on Chrysler convertibles. Her friends called her “mercurial” and “mystical.” Though many of her picture books were populated with cute animals, she wore wolfskin jackets, had a fetish for fur, and hunted rabbits on weekends. Her romances were volatile: she was engaged to two men but never married, and she had a decade-long affair with a woman. At the age of forty-two, she died suddenly, in the South of France, after a clot cut off the blood supply to her brain.
Many readers now think of Brown titles like “The Runaway Bunny” as tranquil introductions to storytelling, but they were radical for their time. When Brown was emerging as a writer, in the nineteen-thirties, most books for young children drew on classic fables and folktales, providing moral instruction on each page. She rejected this orthodoxy in favor of stories that better reflected the preoccupations of young children, from sensual pleasures (the shape of an apple) to visceral emotions (fear of the dark). When boys and girls are first exposed to reading, Brown argued, they are most engaged by stories about “tables and chairs, plates and telephones, animals they know.” Even though her work embraced everyday subjects, it was far from banal. Brown incorporated influences from avant-garde literature, concentrating as much on the sound of words as on the words themselves. And she often commissioned illustrations from modernist painters who understood the allure of bold color. Brown helped create a new type of children’s literature that provided both aural and visual feasts. Her books—including “Goodnight Moon,” which celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary this year—delighted, surprised, and sometimes disturbed.
Brown was born in Brooklyn in 1910, the second of three children. Her mother, Maude, was a homemaker who had dreamed of becoming an actress; according to Amy Gary, the author of a 2017 biography, “In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown,” Maude was prone to bouts of depression, sometimes refusing to leave her room. Brown’s father, Robert, was an executive at a company that manufactured twine. For most of her childhood, the family lived in a spacious house on Long Island, where she kept busy by chasing butterflies, reading Andrew Lang’s Rainbow fairy-tale collections, and “hitching up all the dogs I could find to pull me around on my sled in the snow.”
Brown’s brashness and tendency toward extremes were evident from a young age. She was a tomboy with a terrible temper. Gary writes that when Brown became angry she sometimes held her breath until she turned blue, prompting a nanny to plunge her head into a tub of ice-cold water. (Such dunkings, Gary notes, “had no lasting effect on Margaret’s innate stubborn streak.”) She and her sister, Roberta, engaged in a bedtime ritual of greeting the objects and the sounds around them and then bidding them good night. Brown had few friends her age, counting among her closest companions a cat, a collie, two squirrels, and dozens of rabbits. After one of the rabbits died, Brown skinned it. According to Roberta, her sister had once joked about becoming a “lady butcher.”
As a teen-ager, Brown attended boarding schools in Switzerland and Massachusetts, and her diaries from that period are full of declarations of intense love for female friends. (Contemporary lesbian scholars often characterize such relationships as “romantic friendships.”) She frets about her weight and her “awful winter moods.”
The “great green room” in “Goodnight Moon,” as first sketched by Clement Hurd. The angular perspective resembles that of Henri Matisse’s “L’Atelier Rouge.”Art work by Clement Hurd
In 1928, Brown enrolled at her mother’s alma mater, Hollins College, in Virginia. She starred in a student production of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s play “The Lamp and the Bell,” which depicts a relationship between two women. Although Brown struggled in freshman English, she tore through the work of Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf. Among the Woolf novels that she read at Hollins was “The Waves,” of which Woolf had professed, “My difficulty is that I am writing to a rhythm and not to a plot.”
Brown’s career began in New York in 1935, when she entered a teacher-training program at Bank Street, an experimental school of education on the Upper West Side. She had been casting about since graduating from Hollins, taking writing and painting courses and unsuccessfully submitting short fiction to The New Yorker. She told a former teacher she felt like a bunch of peas that weren’t cooked yet “but are doing a lot of whirling about in the kettle.”
Bank Street was run by the formidable scholar Lucy Sprague Mitchell, who hoped to redefine early education by incorporating insights from the social sciences and from research into the lives of children. As Mitchell put it, she aimed to help aspiring teachers “develop a scientific attitude” and “express the attitude of the artist towards their work and towards life.”
Brown was not cut out to be a teacher. Evaluations of her work from 1936 reported that, though she showed a fascination with individual children, she appeared blind to group dynamics and struggled to stay focussed when leading a classroom. One instructor observed that Brown seemed fixated on “words and language,” as if she were more of a poet than a teacher. Another noted, “Much of the time Miss Brown seems to be in a day-dream.”
Brown, however, was drawn to Mitchell’s aggressive critique of traditional storytelling. Mitchell had published a controversial manifesto, in the “Here and Now Story Book,” arguing that children need stories anchored in the familiar before they can contend with fantasy or the unknown. “It is only the blind eye of the adult that finds the familiar uninteresting,” she wrote. “The attempt to amuse children by presenting them with the strange, the bizarre, the unreal, is the unhappy result of this adult blindness.” She went on, “Children do not find the unusual piquant until they are firmly acquainted with the usual; they do not find the preposterous humorous until they have intimate knowledge of ordinary behavior.” Mitchell maintained that the narrative and emotional interests of a two-year-old differ from those of, say, a seven-year-old, and that by analyzing these specific preferences scholars and writers could create texts for each stage of development.
The manifesto was the centerpiece of a children’s-literature class, taught by Mitchell, that Brown took at Bank Street. She was an immediate standout. “Probably she has the most consistent and genuine interest in language of the group,” Mitchell reported, in an evaluation. “Her product, though slight, always shows sensitivity to form, sound and rhythm.”
Mitchell insisted that a young child doesn’t really care about plot. When listening to a story, his enjoyment comes not from any awareness of “a beginning and a middle and an end” but from “the pleasure he gets in the action itself.” This insight may help explain the appeal of the so-called Here and Now approach for Brown, whose writing instructors had criticized her for failing to create narrative arcs or to convey human emotion. One of her Hollins professors had described her as loving words “as she loved sound and color,” but complained about her work ethic. It was as if Brown were refusing to be “bound by law and order.” (She confessed to another professor that she hated writing stories “with plots.”)
Brown was most taken by the idea of writing for five-year-olds. “At five we reach a point not to be achieved again,” she once wrote in a notebook. In a paper on the topic, she argued that a child of that age enjoys a “keenness and awareness” that will likely be subdued out of him later in life. She went on, “Here, perhaps, is the stage of rhyme and reason. . . . ‘Big as the whole world,’ ‘Deep as a giant,’ ‘Quiet as electricity rushing about the world,’ ‘Quiet as mud.’ All these are five-year-old similes. Let the grown-up writer for children equal or better them if he can.”
Brown, on Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia, in 1952. James Stillman Rockefeller, Jr., Brown’s fiancé at the time of her death, said that he had not imagined them having “an ordinary marriage, with children—I just couldn’t really see her in that.”Photograph courtesy James Stillman Rockefeller, Jr.
In Mitchell’s course, students were expected to write drafts of stories and read them aloud to children, taking notes on their reactions and their questions. Though Brown later said that her first effort was overcomplicated—“all decked out like a Christmas tree”—Mitchell was impressed, and she watched with satisfaction as Brown’s interactions with young readers pushed her beyond wordplay and poetry. Initially, Mitchell recalled, Brown “was indifferent, even impatient if asked to think in terms of the work-a-day world around her.” Mitchell continued, “She told me she liked trucks as ‘big, powerful, noisy colors in motion,’ but she ‘didn’t care where they were going or why.’ But, as she listened to children and watched their play, she found they did care about the work of trucks and all the busy machine and human workers around them. From children she gradually learned to find a new kind of magic in the work-a-day world.”
At the same time that Mitchell’s ideas inspired Brown, they offended one of the most powerful figures in American children’s literature: Anne Carroll Moore, the head of the children’s division at the New York Public Library. Moore, who believed in starting children off with Hans Christian Andersen and Beatrix Potter, was suspicious of the social sciences, and, like some of her fellow-librarians, she doubted whether meaningful children’s literature could be engineered through the empirical study of children. As Leonard S. Marcus records in his deeply reported 1992 biography, “Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon,” the two camps engaged in a decades-long standoff—often called the Fairy-Tale War. Moore believed that traditional myths and legends connected children with “higher truths,” and considered stories without morals to be a waste of time. Marcus notes that the library’s internal review of “Goodnight Moon” deemed it “unbearably sentimental.” The book didn’t appear on the shelves of city libraries until 1972—eleven years after Moore’s death, and twenty years after Brown’s.
When Brown started at Bank Street, she was living in an apartment in Greenwich Village. If she wasn’t in class, she was painting or was carousing with other young writers. She kept working on adult fiction, but she also wrote stories for children.
Brown was buoyed by Mitchell’s encouragement. Though writing children’s books was sometimes dismissed as women’s work, Brown knew that she had a talent for it. She sent a stack of manuscripts to Harper & Row, which accepted one of them, “The Blue-Grey Kitten.” (It was eventually published under the title “When the Wind Blew.”) The book was a modest success. Upon receiving her first royalty check, Marcus writes, Brown bought an entire cart’s worth of flowers from a West Village vender, filled her apartment with blooms, and had friends over for a celebration.
In the late thirties, Mitchell invited Brown to become a founding member of the Bank Street Writers Lab, a group of about a dozen teacher trainees who shared “language data” and honed their writing voices. Mitchell, who recognized that Brown had a love of trial and error, much like she did, called her “a kind of scientist.” As Mitchell later wrote, she began to wonder whether this energetic young woman, with her “crazy, penetrating, blind instincts and feeling for language,” could write a best-seller that would bring the Here and Now aesthetic into the mainstream.
In the Writers Lab, Brown worked alongside a number of women who went on to publish children’s books, including Edith Thacher, with whom Brown eventually collaborated on “Five Little Firemen,” published in 1948. The book was imbued with the Here and Now movement’s respect for ordinary things: when a house fire starts, each member of the family inside retrieves something beloved—a pet, a few flowers—before rushing out.
Brown tested the limits of the Here and Now approach. One of her first published stories was inspired by the summer day during her childhood when she and two other girls discovered a dead bird. They took it into the woods and dug a grave, swaddled the bird in leaves, read a passage from the Bible, and sang a mournful song. They said that they hoped to come back every day with a clutch of fresh flowers. (They didn’t.) “The bird was dead when the children found it,” the story begins. “But it had not been dead for long—it was still warm.” Some of Brown’s associates reported feeling a “general revulsion” while reading the story. Even at progressive Bank Street, which offered courses in Freudian theory, depictions of death and sex in children’s literature were controversial.
Margaret Wise Brown sitting outdoors next to a dog.
Brown at her cottage in Vinalhaven, Maine, in 1952. The Only House, as she called it, had some of the uncanny touches of her picture books, including a door on the second floor which opened to the outside—even though there was no balcony.Photograph courtesy James Stillman Rockefeller, Jr.
Brown continued auditioning many other drafts. Studying the opinions and physical responses that her stories elicited made her feel like a literary detective; she called the exercise chasing “leads.” She later declared that children were the true authors of many of her books: she was “merely an ear and a pen.”
At times, when testing out stories on kids, Brown asked them to lie down on mats and free-associate with her. “What is the quietest and quickest thing you can think of?” she once asked. Among the responses: “a mouse sleeping”; “a pussy cat when it paddles its paws in the grass”; “I think of eggs. They don’t make any noise because they’re food.” One day, a boy objected to a line that she had written: “The stars come out.” Stars were always there, the boy explained. Brown conceded the point, and promised to “change it next time.”
She often summoned her childhood memories when writing drafts, but she also tried to reorient herself to the level of children or little animals. Occasionally, she’d even lie low on a patch of grass, to feel again what it was like to be very small. While working on “The Fish with the Deep Sea Smile” (1938), she wrote to her publisher that she was fascinated by children’s passionate engagement with smells and colors and sounds—“so fresh to their brand new senses.” When you talk to a child, she later told one of her former Hollins professors, “he may not be listening to you at all—he will just be feeling the fur collar on your coat.”
In 1937, Lucy Sprague Mitchell persuaded an independent publisher in New York, W. R. Scott, to begin acquiring children’s literature, and to hire Brown both as a writer and as the division’s editor. Brown immediately began incorporating her interest in modernism into the picture-book genre, which at the time was undergoing an artistic and pedagogical revolution.
As Brown later put it, she saw children’s literature as “one of the purest and freest fields for experimental writing.” Until the early forties, she continued attending the Writers Lab, where modernism was a frequent topic of conversation. Mitchell extolled how modernism allowed the reader to make “the interpretation for himself from the images evoked.” The group’s participants realized that many of the artistic techniques of modernist writers and artists—repetition, rhythm, absurdism, changes in perspective, a subjective point of view, a rejection of sentimentality—aligned not just with the Here and Now philosophy but also with the emotional and sensory interests of young children.
Brown once observed that Gertrude Stein shared with little kids an “accidental playfulness” with words. This feeling was a fundament of poetry. Children learning to speak, Brown later explained on a radio program, “sort of half-chant their ideas.” She continued, “If they like the sound of the words at all, they repeat them, and make a pattern of them.” Powerful picture-book writing, she said, depended on “writing words that will be heard.” This sensual enjoyment of language was evident in “Bumble Bugs and Elephants,” one of the first titles that Brown wrote and published for W. R. Scott. It employed a conceit that she returned to repeatedly—the juxtaposition of large and small—with a clever nod to a certain famous English fairy tale: “There were three little pigs . . . and a great big pig.”
In 1939, Brown wrote and published “The Noisy Book,” the story of a temporarily blind young dog, Muffin, who must rely on his hearing as he makes his way through the world with bandaged eyes. Brown did not heed the concerns of a staff psychologist at Bank Street, who expressed trepidation that the bandaged eyes evoked castration.
Brown was ecstatic when Gertrude Stein herself agreed to write a picture book, “The World Is Round,” for her imprint. The book is striking, in part because of its lack of punctuation: “Everywhere there was somewhere and everywhere there they were men women children dogs cows wild pigs little rabbits cats lizards and animals.” Critics have noted the influence of Steinian wordplay on several Brown works, including “The Important Book,” “Four Fur Feet,” and “Red Light, Green Light,” which features repeated variations on the sentences “Red light they can’t go. Green light they can.” Barbara Bader, a historian of children’s literature, has described “Goodnight Moon” as “abstract in form and concrete in substance,” and its prose as “closest to Gertrude Stein and to the utterances of children.”
The illustrations in “Bumble Bugs and Elephants” and “The World Is Round” were made by Clement Hurd, an American Fauvist who had studied with Fernand Léger and was known for his use of bright, flat colors. Brown met Hurd in 1938, after she saw a set of paintings that he’d done on the ceiling of a mutual friend’s Connecticut property. She asked if he’d consider doing some illustrations for her; in her view, children were often more accepting of Surrealist and abstract art than adults were. Hurd became a mainstay of Brown’s, executing the drawings for “Goodnight Moon” and “The Runaway Bunny,” among others. He tended to draw the animals in her stories in profile, and, in these works, one can trace the evolution of his pictorial style. The “great green room” in “Goodnight Moon” has been likened to Henri Matisse’s “L’Atelier Rouge,” and elements in “The Runaway Bunny” may have been inspired by Georges Seurat’s “The Circus.”
Brown’s most aesthetically provocative book was also one of her most adorable: in 1946, she published “Little Fur Family,” in collaboration with Garth Williams, who later illustrated E. B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web.” For the first edition of “Little Fur Family,” which had a print run of seventy-five thousand copies, Brown insisted that the book’s cover be wrapped entirely in the fur of New Zealand rabbits. The result prompted one child to try to feed his dinner to his copy of the book and another to offer her copy to a pet kitten as a companion. Marcus, the historian, told me that Brown’s use of real fur was quite possibly a nod to the work of the Surrealist artist Méret Oppenheim, who, for her 1936 work “Object (or Luncheon in Fur),” covered a teacup, a saucer, and a spoon with the fur of a gazelle. The book, like the leopard- and zebra-skin sofas that Brown bought to decorate her New York apartments, was mischievous, erotic, and a little sinister.
In 1942, Brown left W. R. Scott to become a full-time writer. She was developing a dreamy, melancholy, intuitive style—she’d call her stories “word patterns” or “interludes.” Though she continued to embrace elements of the Here and Now school—and collaborated with Mitchell on several titles, including “Animals, Plants, and Machines” and “Farm and City”—her more mature works incorporated elements of poetry and music, and had the intentional pacing of good theatre or ballet. Brown spoke of creating a “literature of the speaking voice, like the Bible,” with purposeful stops, starts, repetitions, and do-overs.
She sprinkled many of her stories with surprising non sequiturs or sophisticated phrases—children, she once said, want “a few gorgeous big grownup words to bite on.” In “The Little Island” (1946), Brown writes of “little waxy white-pink chuckleberry blossoms” and, a few pages later, meditates on the concept of faith. She delighted in making sensual observations. A shoe is “warm when you take it off.” A daisy has a “ticklish smell.” Seaweed squeaks. Brown also led children into existential terrain; among her preferred subjects were “getting lost and getting found” and “shyness and loneliness.” She once asked, “How can you have the here and now without an emotion?”
Brown usually took fifteen to twenty minutes to write the first draft of a story—they were often scrawled on the backs of envelopes or on shopping lists. She then took a year or two to massage the pacing and the timing of the text. She claimed that she never had “any idea at the beginning of a story of what the end will be.” Around 1940, Brown began psychoanalysis with Robert Bak—who later became the president of the New York Psychoanalytic Society & Institute—and she grew increasingly interested in interpreting her dreams. She came to believe that one of her main creative challenges as an artist was allowing her unconscious to erupt on the page—from the “child that is within all of us . . . perhaps the one laboratory that we all share.” In an undated note, she wrote, “Lewis Carroll dreamed most of his books.” In 1950, she published “The Dream Book,” which invited readers on a journey through the fantasies and fugues of various characters, animal and otherwise. In an essay on how to write for young children, she declared, “A child’s own story is a dream; but a good story is a dream that is true for more than one child.”
Brown’s papers are kept at Hollins University and at the Westerly Library, in Rhode Island. Letters and diaries written during her early adulthood in New York have a giddy energy. As she ages, she doesn’t lose her exuberance, but she becomes darker. In a series of letters to a female lover, she appears to threaten suicide. In a diary entry, she recounts a string of nightmares. Snippets of some of her unpublished work make the story of the dead bird feel tame: kittens are crushed in the hands of inattentive children; mice plummet to their death from the talons of raptors in flight.
The book editor Ursula Nordstrom, who worked with Brown on several of her most famous titles and referred to her as Miss Genius, later recalled Brown’s telling her that the very temperament that allowed her to write beautiful children’s books—her sensitivity to tremors of feeling—could also make her profoundly unhappy. As Brown once wrote, “The child had never known, the girl was never sure, the woman the longer she was herself, was least of all certain.”
Brown’s most productive period coincided with a time when she was at her most psychologically fragile. In 1940, she met Blanche Oelrichs, an actress, poet, and dilettante. Oelrichs went by the name Michael Strange—a nom de plume that she’d taken on in order to elicit from her editors a “fair opinion” of her poems.
Strange had grown up in New England society and was married to the actor John Barrymore from 1920 to 1928. A Profile in this magazine, published in 1927, described her as “full of Italy,” “highly emotional,” and “singularly impetuous and full of fire.” Sometimes Strange toured the country performing a show in which she read aloud Bible passages, and poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Walt Whitman, while a harp played in the background.
By the time Brown met Strange, who was twenty years her senior, Strange had married her third husband, a prominent lawyer, and was spending much of her time dining at women’s clubs and moaning away hangovers. They began a torrid affair. Eventually, Strange left her husband and persuaded Brown to move into an apartment across from hers, in a building on the Upper East Side, near Gracie Mansion. The lovers entered and left each other’s residence as they pleased, and shared a butler named Pietro.
One of Brown’s diaries documents the first few years of the affair, a relationship that seems to have existed mostly after sundown, accompanied by House of Lords gin Martinis. (Brown and Strange were regulars at the Algonquin and Sardi’s.) The journal is often exhilarating to read. Many nights, Brown writes, the two wandered Manhattan like a pair of cats, their stroll interrupted by groups of flirtatious young men or passing taxi-drivers issuing dire warnings about “bad men lurking in doorways.” Walking with Strange down the dark city streets was, Brown writes, “a heightened experience”—even better than poetry.
Strange, whom Brown sometimes addressed as Sir Baby or as the Rabbit M.D.—Brown’s nickname was the Bun—could be cruel and spiteful. Brown writes in her diaries of “angry eyes dark and wild.” Weakness and self-doubt were anathema to Strange, who criticized Brown’s halting way of speaking and her interest in psychoanalysis, not to mention the way she prepared and served tea.
Most distressing, perhaps, was Strange’s apparent disdain for Brown’s profession as a children’s-book author. Brown had harbored doubts about the legitimacy of her work; someday, she said, she hoped to become a “real” writer. Although she never published a novel for adults, one of her most admired picture books, “The Runaway Bunny,” seems to slyly capture her rocky dynamic with Strange. Published in 1942, the story begins with the titular character announcing a plan to escape the clutches of a mother bunny. “If you run away, I will run after you,” the mother says. Attempting to flee, the little bunny morphs into other things: a fish, a bird, a sailboat. Eventually, exhausted by his mother’s good-natured pursuit, he surrenders: “Shucks. I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.” The story taps into a universal childhood longing for independence, but it can also be read as a metaphor for a stormy romance. Brown and Strange’s relationship remained turbulent, but they stayed together, on and off, until 1950, when Strange died, from leukemia.
In 1947, Brown published what is now her most famous book, “Goodnight Moon.” The action in this spare, poetic story about a bunny at bedtime is slow-moving, and the scene never really changes. As the young rabbit tosses and turns in a green-walled bedroom, saying good night to various things in the room—a mouse, a comb, a red balloon—Clement Hurd’s illustrations, in deep jewel tones, slowly dim, panel by panel, and a soft scrim of stars outside the window begins to brighten.
Through the years, “Goodnight Moon” has been imitated dozens of times; picture books aimed at helping children fall asleep are so common that they have spawned parodies, including the 2011 best-seller “Go the Fuck to Sleep.” But none of these books come close to achieving the surreal quality of “Goodnight Moon,” which marries elements of the Here and Now movement with the feeling of a hallucinatory reverie. The book combines the virtues of her best work: inspired nonsense (“goodnight mush”), repetitive language, enveloping visuals. Marcus, in his biography of Brown, describes the book as “a cunning transparency of Bank Street ideas and their opposites.” In time, it became a breakout commercial success; it has now sold more than forty million copies.
“Goodnight Moon,” like many modernist works of art, is full of tantalizing ambiguities. Is the book’s wishing everything and everyone good night—“Goodnight nobody,” “Goodnight comb”—a meditation or an incantation? And who, exactly, is doing the wishing? Why is the doll house illuminated? Some of the strangest, most discomfiting aspects of the book are the panels in which an adult bunny sits quietly in a rocking chair on the far side of the room, knitting and observing the shadowy, flickering goings on. Like a ghost, she’s sometimes there and sometimes not.
One of the few living people who knew Brown well is James Stillman Rockefeller, Jr., her fiancé at the time of her death. Rockefeller was not with Brown in France when she died. She was on a solo vacation, and developed the blood clot soon after having emergency surgery, in Nice, for what was either an ovarian cyst or an inflamed appendix.
Rockefeller, known to his friends as Pebble, is now in his late nineties. He lives with his wife, Marilyn, on a large property outside Camden, Maine. I met with him there not long ago, and he showed me some photographs he had taken of Brown in 1952, when she was living at a summer house that she had bought on the nearby island of Vinalhaven. Her place there, which she called the Only House, had some of the uncanny touches of her picture books, including a door on the second floor which opened to the outside—even though there was no balcony.
In one of the photographs, Brown is nude, sunbathing on a rock beside a swimming hole. “She was so many different people that it’s hard to pin her down,” he said. “Who was she? What was she like? Those are difficult questions.” I asked Rockefeller, who met Brown at a party in Georgia months before she died, whether they had discussed having children. “She was so full in her own life,” Rockefeller said. “And yet there must have been a lack, somewhere along the line. But whether she would like an ordinary marriage, with children—I just couldn’t really see her in that.”
In the Life piece on Brown, from 1946, she proclaimed, “I don’t especially like children,” but she wrote of wanting to have some of her own before she turned thirty. Subtle assertions of her legacy appeared in The Hollins Alumnae Magazine—nestled among wedding and birth notices. In a note published in 1945, she wrote, “How many children have you? I have 50 books.”
Rockefeller gave me photocopies of half a dozen letters that Brown had written to him from the hospital in Nice. After her French vacation, she was planning to meet Rockefeller in Panama, where they would marry and then embark on a honeymoon on his boat, the Mandalay. One of the letters, apparently written soon after the surgery, said, “In spite of the chance that it might be other complications . . . my heart is more happy thinking that we might have conceived to-gether.” She went on, “Even if we lose it this time we know we can do it again.”
Two weeks later, on November 13, 1952, she was preparing to be discharged. As she reported in a letter to Rockefeller written that morning, she was to leave the hospital and be carried “in a sedan chair by four of the village boys” to the hilltop estate of a friend, Chateau Barlow, where she would continue her convalescence. When Brown, in a puckish effort to demonstrate her good health to the medical staff, kicked up her leg, can-can style, she dislodged a blood clot, blacked out, and died.
A few dozen yards away from Brown’s house in Vinalhaven, Rockefeller erected a headstone for her. The inscription was composed by Brown herself: “MARGARET WISE BROWN / Writer of Songs and Nonsense.”
Obituaries were brief. The Times noted that she was “one of the most prolific writers of stories for the very young,” but made no serious claims about her literary merit. During the next decade, people who knew Brown began to contend that she was much more than a commercial success. In 1958, the influential children’s-book editor and critic Louise Seaman Bechtel published a fourteen-page appreciation of Brown in the journal The Horn Book, describing her as more poet than storyteller, and declaring her the “laureate of the nursery.”
A few days after visiting Rockefeller, I went to Brown’s island house, which he now owns. From time to time, his children use the property, which has undergone a few renovations: most notably, the upstairs door to nowhere has been turned into a bay window.
Inside, many of Brown’s belongings are still there. When I visited, her old Victrola had a record of Gene Krupa’s “Jeepers Creepers” on the turntable. Brown had filled the home with luxuries and curious objects, as if a Victorian-doll-house designer had collaborated with Magritte or Picasso. The living room contained a red velvet divan and ruby-colored oil lamps. There was no sign, however, of a set of bespoke chairs that Brown had installed: their legs had been shortened, to make the room feel bigger. Scanning the bookshelves, I saw titles by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lytton Strachey, and Michael Strange. I came across a white, cast-iron doorstop in the shape of a rabbit. Outside, I walked past a cold spring where Brown had stored butter and milk and champagne.
Soon after Brown met Rockefeller, she told him, “I hope to write something serious one day as soon as I have something to say.” By then, she had written about a hundred manuscripts. “But I am stuck in my childhood, and that raises the devil when one wants to move on.” ♦
Published in the print edition of the February 7, 2022, issue, with the headline “The Fairy-Tale War.”