REVIEWED: In The Great Green Room

great green

In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gray. (Biography, 2017).

This compelling biography charts the life and loves of one of the most successful and pivotal authors of literature for children in the 20th century. Despite the fact that Margaret Wise Brown died at the absurdly young age of 42, she wrote and published scores of books, articles, poems, songs and short stories. She’s probably best remembered for Goodnight, Moon–yet that’s only one of many of her recognized classics.

And now, thanks to author Amy Gray, we have an intimate portrait of the quirky and conflicted, yet exceptionally talented and unconventional, yet lovable woman behind the stories we (and our children and grandchildren–and given time, probably their grandchildren’s grandchildren) have come to treasure. Her personal life was anything but whimsical and ended far too soon, but it makes for fascinating reading.

I assume that many who review this book will focus on her unconventional love life and that is of course an important component of who Brown was. But it’s hardly the only thing of interest here. A product of wealth and privilege, but a person who followed her own path and succeeded on her own terms, her struggle for respect (and indeed, self-respect) in a society that too often looked down on “children’s writers” as practitioners of something less than “serious literature” certainly merits comment. With her uncanny ability to bring to life the young child’s point of view when experiencing an ever-new and wondrous world, Brown produced lasting literature, indeed. Yet on some level she had internalized the dismissive viewpoint of “kid lit” held by many–including at least one of the two great loves of her life.

Thus Brown is often seen unsatisfied and struggling (and mostly failing) to produce work for adults that even approached the undeniable quality of her works for children.

Reading of the ways she helped modernize the entire field of books for young people is another topic of import and well-examined here. As an editor, as well as a writer, from the 1930s through to her death in 1952, she brought many truly fine artists into a field that had to many seemed beneath the talents of top-flight painters and illustrators. Hey, she even got literary giants the likes of Gertrude Stein to try their hand at writing for the young! Along the way, she devised a slew of innovations that enriched the field of book design and marketing.

Oh, but now I must get into the sex stuff–right?

Yes, it matters–and Gray handles it in an appropriately matter-of-fact and respectful manner–as just one of many important parts to this extraordinary person’s extraordinary life. It seems Margaret Wise Brown was, in our modern parlance, bisexual–at a time when that would’ve been an extreme scandal, if exposed. So much so that her many loyal friends hid all but the most subtle hints from public view until well after her death.

The story of how Gray became fascinated with Brown’s career and life story (including the hidden truths) is in itself another interesting part of this volume.

In any case, neither of Brown’s two long-term love relationships ‘fit’ with what was considered proper in her time (and would raise more than a few eyebrows even today).

The male in question, Bill Gaston, was a wealthy playboy and notorious philanderer. Charming and goodhearted in his way, the man was utterly unwilling (or unable) to be monogamous with anyone.

On the latter count, the same could be said about Michael Strange–the acerbic and outspoken artist, poet, actress and all-around gender-bending eccentric who Margaret also came to love. The wealthy ex-wife of old-time movie star John Barrymore, known as Blanche before adopting her flamboyantly unconventional Michael persona, you might think she (if anyone) would be supportive in Margaret’s battle for respect in a field some tended to look down upon. (The years-long refusal of New York City’s high and mighty Public Library System to include her books on their hallowed premises provides one absurdly amusing sidelight in that regard.)

But in any case, you would be mistaken. Michael often cruelly undermined and even mocked Brown’s achievements. A strange, prickly woman–but Brown couldn’t help but love her. It was a difficult relationship, yet it was the one that would never completely burn out–even after her passion for Bill had long evolved into sex-less friendship and a falling out that was only repaired in the course of Michael’s ultimately fatal illness.

And then, in what no one could’ve guessed would be the last year of her own life, Brown met ‘Pebble.’ James Stillman Rockefeller, Jr. (Pebble was a family nickname) was rich, handsome, younger and while unconventional in his own right was the most socially acceptable love she’d ever had. Their love-at-first-sight was to be tragically derailed, though Rockefeller’s remembrances are used skilfully by Gray to bookend the whole story.

If any doubt lingers, I’ll say it in some many words: This is a touching and very readable, informative and thoughtful biography. I recommend it highly.

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