The biggest surprise is discovering Fitzhugh’s lively social presence. Merrill, who first met her in 1948, when she was a 19-year-old student at Bard, described her in his memoirs as a “bright, funny, tiny tomboy from Memphis.” Her school friends back home remembered her as “well-liked and attractive,” and she was tapped by a sorority and invited to dances and parties. An additional revelation is the extraordinary privilege of Fitzhugh’s background, which shares more with Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight’s plucky Plaza Hotel hostage, Eloise, than with Fitzhugh’s similarly assertive but less clubbable Harriet.
Fitzhugh grew up in the Jim Crow South in the 1930s, raised in her millionaire grandparents’ Memphis mansion amid a battery of cooks, nannies, gardeners and other staff — a supporting cast that features in all her books. She was precocious, serious and daintily built, with blond curls like Shirley Temple, and was “the darling of the household,” used to “getting her way.” Her mother was dead, she’d been told, but her father, Millsaps Fitzhugh, a prominent Memphis lawyer with political ambitions, lavished attention on her, and her eccentric, ladylike Grandmother Fitzhugh sang her to sleep with lullabies. Her stepmother, Sally, doted on Louise, writing in her will, “She has been as dear to me as though she were of my own blood.”
But Fitzhugh’s mother, Mary Louise Perkins Fitzhugh Trevilion, was not dead. Her father and mother had divorced, scandalously, when Louise was a baby. Her father had won custody and refused visitation rights. Louise realized that the strange woman who once showed up at her house, only to be turned away by the staff, was her mother. Louise “knew her father had lied to her,” Brody writes, “and that wasn’t something she would forget.” Her mistrust of adults would color all of her work and life choices.
For two years in her teens, Louise went steady with a well-behaved boy named Charles McNutt, who considered her “a little different from the other girls, a little bit more serious and very smart,” but also, Brody adds, “thought her beautiful and was head over heels in love.” While Louise was chastely dating Charles, she fell in love with an ambitious photojournalist from Arkansas named Amelia Brent. While seeing Amelia, she started dating another local boy, Ed Thompson, who dreamed, like Louise, of leaving the South. In 1947, she eloped with Ed only to change her mind as soon as the papers were signed. The marriage wasn’t consummated, and back in Memphis, Millsaps Fitzhugh had it annulled. The next year, Louise moved to New York, to study painting and poetry at Bard. Charles McNutt made the trip east to try to rescue his former girlfriend from her “doomed life as a lesbian,” to no avail. Louise was still in love with Amelia, and soon the two of them would share an apartment in Greenwich Village.