Margaret Wise Brown

Margaret Wise Brown

by Hugh Gilmore

Once upon a time a girl named Margaret grew up to be a lady who wrote the greatest children’s book ever. It’s called “Goodnight Moon.” One day when she was a grown-up, Margaret kicked up her heels – just to show how lively she was – and almost at once fell dead.

Her full name was Margaret Wise Brown, and she was in Nice, France, on a book promotion tour. She had to enter a hospital for surgery. Most accounts say it was for appendicitis. The operation went well. In fact, when the doctor came around to see her, she stood up and did a quick cancan-style leg-kick to show him she hadn’t lost her athletic vigor. That was typical of her. This time, however, the sudden exertion loosened a blood clot that went right to her heart and killed her within minutes.

She was 42.

Only 42. But she had written more than a hundred children’s books besides “Goodnight Moon,” including her “Noisy Book” series – published under the pen name of Golden MacDonald. She had collaborated well with illustrators, including Clement Hurd, Ruth Krauss, and Garth Williams. Though she was popular, she didn’t earn much in royalties during her lifetime.

In fact, one of her biographers, Leonard S. Marcus, (“Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon” 1992), says the executors of her will in 1957 valued her 79 published titles at $17,530 (“Goodnight Moon” at only $500). Since then, however, those values have risen amazingly. “Goodnight Moon” alone now sells about a million copies a year. (Her other big seller is 1942’s “The Runaway Bunny” – also illustrated by Clement Hurd.)

But earnings provide only one measure of a book’s worth.

Many people feel no children’s bedtime book is more pleasurable to read aloud than “Goodnight Moon.” It contains only 146 words, a number that belies its intoxicating charms and sweet, soothing rhythms. They invite a loving tone of voice. Add Clement Hurd’s pictures and Brown’s wit to the slow charm of hearing your own voice grown soft at the end of the day … well, only magic can happen. There is no finer bliss. “Goodnight Moon” is now enchanting its third generation of devoted readers.

Which, once again, shows how strange the world of children’s book writers can be. So many of them did not enjoy their own childhoods. Quite a few never had children. Many did not particularly like children, not in the aggregate at any rate. Analysts say that writing children’s books seems to be a way for them to correct their own imbalanced and unhappy early lives.

Margaret Wise Brown was born to a well-off family in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in 1910. But her parents divorced. She was sent to boarding school in Switzerland. She later boarded at Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Mass., and later at Hollins College in Virginia.

She was beautiful, athletic and popular. After college she taught at the Bank Street School in New York and later went into publishing, working as an editor for many years while writing her books.

According to those who knew her well she retained a playful, childlike enthusiasm all her life, to the point of tiring and occasionally exasperating those who knew her. To use a contemporary expression, she never seemed to “come down.” She was in and out of psychiatric therapy all her life and, though bubbly, filled with self-doubt. Her attractiveness made her quite sought after by various suitors and would-be swains. At the time she died she was engaged to James Stillman Rockefeller, Jr.

The person with whom she experienced the major love of her life, however, was “Michael Strange” – the pen name of John Barrymore’s ex-wife, Blanche Oelrichs. Their love affair is said to have begun as a mentoring relationship (Oelrichs was 20 years older), but turned into a deep, but mutually exhausting, co-habitation. Blanche Oelrichs/Michael Strange died of leukemia in 1950.

The final twist to the story behind “Goodnight Moon” lies in this story reported by the Wall Street Journal: Every copy sold brings royalties to Brown’s named heir, Albert Edward Clarke III. He was only 9-years-old, the son of a friend of Brown’s, when she bequeathed the copyrights for all her writings to him. Valued at only $500 originally, the “Goodnight Moon” copyright alone brought Clarke millions of dollars over the years. According to everyone who’s weighed in on this man, he squandered nearly all of it. He was said to be a frequently violent drug abuser who committed crimes for which he was jailed. The money seemed to have brought him little happiness.

What’s more: he once said that his favorite Margaret Wise Brown book was not “Goodnight Moon,” but “Pussy Willow.”

Hugh Gilmore’s recent memoir remains on Amazon’s Kindle Top-100 list. It is available in both e-book and paperback formats.