On a winter afternoon in 1941, Margaret Wise Brown (1910-52) was toiling up the side of a snowy Massachusetts mountain with two male friends. There was no chairlift at the fledgling ski resort to whisk them to the top of the slopes, and midway up Brown decided to schuss back down by herself. It wasn’t merely that she was annoyed by the climb, as Amy Gary recounts in the pages of “In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown” (Flatiron, 288 pages, $26.99). The muse was calling her.
For months, Brown had been mulling over the rhythms of a French ballad, one with an “if you/then I” word pattern, with the idea that it might lend itself to a children’s tale. “As she sped down the slope,” Ms. Gary writes, “the book crystalized in her mind.” Back at the tiny, makeshift lodge, she “dashed off a story about a child who tells his mother that he is going to run away. He threatens to turn into a variety of things to escape, but she counters each of his metamorphoses by changing into something that will bring him safely back to her.” Paired with pictures by Clement Hurd, the hurriedly scribbled story would become 1942’s “The Runaway Bunny,” which in the intervening 75 years has sold some seven million copies. In the author’s haste, she committed the first draft to the only bit of paper she had: her ski receipt.
In a biography full of lively anecdotes, this one stands out for the way it encapsulates what must have made Margaret Wise Brown so enchanting to her friends and colleagues. She was adventurous, resourceful and inventive; she also happened to be pretty, witty and given to cheeky nicknames. (She called sexually predatory women “Slitches.”)
If the measure of a good life story is the longing it leaves in the reader to have known the subject, this one more than succeeds. Brown died suddenly in 1952 at the age of 42. She was full of life and promise, still, and on the cusp of a romantic happiness that had hitherto eluded her. A series of short relationships and two long affairs—one with a married father, another with the sleek, androgynous ex-wife of the actor John Barrymore, scaldingly named the “Sappho of Long Island” in the press—had given way to real love with James “Pebble” Rockefeller. The two were shortly to be married when the bride-to-be, after an appendectomy, kicked her leg in the air to show how good she felt and sent a blood clot into her own brain.
Amy Gary tells the story not just of Brown’s romantic life, of course, but also of her august family connections (three men on her father’s side had been vice-presidential candidates); her picturesque little houses in Maine and Greenwich Village; and her place in publishing. Like N.C. Wyeth, another artist with links to Maine, Brown yearned for the respectability that came with producing work for an adult audience, but, as Ms. Gary says, to Brown’s frustration, “when she put her pencil to paper to write something for adults, another children’s story, poem or song poured out” of her. Like Wyeth, her true vocation was in the children’s realm. It is as a writer for the very young that she is near-venerated today, and rightly so. There’s a lightness in her verse, a natural and seemingly accidental beauty that echoes the way children think and speak to a degree that remains exceptional.
To recount the career of the author who gave us not only the nursery favorites “The Runaway Bunny,” “Big Red Barn” and, most famously, “Goodnight Moon” (with its “great green room”) but also more than threescore other children’s tales, Ms. Gary had access to Brown’s diaries, letters and a fantastic trove of manuscripts. She describes her astonishment some 25 years ago when Brown’s sister opened a trunk in her Vermont barn to reveal musty heaps of unpublished songs, poems, stories and musical scores on fragile onionskin paper. Ms. Gary eventually became editor of Margaret Wise Brown’s estate, shepherded dozens of her short pieces into print, and has spent the time since, she says, trying to live inside Brown’s “wildly imaginative mind.”
It is this desire that contributes to what some readers may feel a weakness of the book: that only at the very beginning and very end of “In the Great Green Room” do we hear Brown’s own voice. Each chapter starts with a bit of her poetry, including some unpublished verses, which is something, but in following the events of her life, we are vouchsafed only Ms. Gary’s representation of her thoughts and feelings.
Through a publicist, the author explains that she wanted to keep the reader “in the moment with Margaret” and that the abundance of her sources made paraphrasing the best course. Still, we may feel a bit wistful, as we finish reading this fascinating account, that we weren’t able to get somehow even closer to the undoubtedly bold and brilliant Margaret Wise Brown.