"Goodnight Moon" author Margaret Wise Brown's little-known poems for the tragic love of her life, and their little-known love-story

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The Eternal Lyric of Love and Loss: “Goodnight Moon” Author Margaret Wise Brown’s Little-Known Poems for the Tragic Love of Her Life

In early September 1947, a year after she rewilded the landscape of literature with Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown (May 23, 1910–November 13, 1952) watched the love of her life fade to black.

Michael Strange, born Blanche Oelrichs, had cast an instant spell on Margaret — outspoken, sophisticated, and self-possessed, so tall Margaret had to lift her grey-blue eyes to meet the black of Michael’s, her tall frame clad in masculine clothing she herself had designed to cling to her curves, with a musical voice unspooling from her haunting dark beauty, a deep velvet laugh, and a reputation for rarely keeping a promise. In her tight tweed pants and long-tailed blazers and oversized ties, she moved effortlessly through the sea of gloves and lace and whispering society ladies.

When her wealthy family of Austrian royal lineage had found her erotic poetry embarrassing, Blanche had emancipated herself under the male nom de plume, which soon became a stage name as she strode into the theater world as playwright and actress, and eventually swelled into a total persona — the name with which she signed her letters, the name by which her intimates addressed her, the name of her self-image.

Michael Strange and Margaret Wise Brown

HE AND SHE
by Margaret Wise Brown

Put a he on a he
Or a she on a she
And it never adds up
To 1 2 3
Put a he on a she
Or a she on a he
And before you can even say Jack Robinson
You’ve made 3
He times she divided by he
Then take away she
And now what have you left —
A he or a she
And what’s this strange geometry
Within the heart of you and me
This place apart
This secret heart
When all is what
It seems to be

In her youth, Blanche had been named the most beautiful woman in Paris. Now, about to turn fifty-eight, Michael Strange was a ghost on a New York stage, her skin sallow, her body emaciated to the size of a child’s after refusing to let her aggressive leukemia keep her from performing.

Margaret and Michael had met seven years earlier. One day on Vinalhaven — the Maine island where Margaret would spend much of her life and write most of her books — she had rowed to a lover’s cottage and found the luscious stranger sunbathing there with her lover. Soon, back in New York, she was surprised to receive a lunch invitation from Michael, who had shown up dressed in fur from head to toe, asking bold questions about her love life while sipping sherry. Margaret was thirty, Michael fifty and on her third unhappy marriage; her latest husband had never read her poetry. Both women were born in the wrong century, bent on bending it to their will; both were accidental radicals, just by living unselfconsciously; both had had affairs with Thomas Wolfe; both were at heart poets more than anything else.

By the middle of the World War, they were lovers; Michael had declared that she had never loved anyone the way she loved Margaret and never would; she had promised to love her until her dying day.

from “THAT’S THE WAY THINGS ARE”
by Margaret Wise Brown

When first we met
I never, never, never knew
That I was meeting you
Then something hit me suddenly
Sudden as a shooting star
I felt things beating 8 to the bar
And that’s the way things are

[…]

You may be wild, you may be witty
And you can’t even drive a car
I’ll never let you drive my car
But you’re my only girl and mighty pretty
And that’s the way things are.

Art by Leonard Weisgard from The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown

Late one night, Margaret’s phone rang. Michael’s voice poured in, sped up with alarm, imploring her to get into a taxi right away. Her husband had found out about their relationship and, in an era when the diagnostic manual of psychiatry classified same-sex love as a mental illness, was threatening to have her locked away in an asylum. A doctor was on his way to “diagnose” her. With her maid’s help, Michael managed to slip out through the back staircase and into the taxi as Margaret was pulling up.

On the disorienting ride through the New York nocturne, they weighed their options and decided to head to the high-society women’s club Michael frequented. There, she collected herself, phoned her husband to demand a formal apology, then set the wheels in motion for a legal separation.

From this point on, Michael became — to use the modern term, hard-won and ahistorical — Margaret’s partner. Soon, they were living across the hallway from each other, in a pair of twin apartments on the East End, with Margaret part nominal tenant and part unnamed wife as she was quickly becoming one of the country’s most original and beloved children’s book authors.

It was a stormy love that pushed and pulled, but grafted itself onto Margaret’s being. Michael wrote adoring letters and criticized Margaret’s diction at dinner parties. She gave her a golden wishbone necklace and a ring, made her feel like she was too needy, and derided her children’s books as unsophisticated, “silly furry stories,” not Real Literature: an actress and socialite who had not published a poem in a decade and was feeling abandoned by her own muse, deriding one of the most vibrantly creative people of the past century — poet, songwriter, progressive education reformer, author of more than a hundred singularly wondrous books for the young, with which she would earn herself a little red house, a yellow convertible, and the love of millions of children; the author whom the visionary Ursula Nordstrom had no qualms calling her favorite author, despite also publishing Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, and E.B. White. Even Michael’s pet name for Margaret was laced with this ambivalent mixture of affection and disdain: Bunny-no-good.

Art by Leonard Weisgard from The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown

And yet nobody ever knows what electrifies the infinite sky between two people, what magnetizes them together, what roils deep beneath the faint surface trails left in letters and diaries and the recollections of bystanders, what animates the long days between the islanded moments crashed by emotion and frozen in time. Margaret loved Michael with unassailable devotion, not unlike the kind that marked Auden’s relationship with Chester Kallman and inspired his eternal poem “The More Loving One.” At every turn, even through the drama at Michael’s deathbed, Margaret remained the more loving one, true to her lifelong conviction that “you can never in this world love anyone you love enough.”

SPEAK NOT OF LOVE
by Margaret Wise Brown

Speak not of love
Who only love would show
There is a greater bondage
That those who love might know
Beyond the outward show
Speak not of love
Who loves the mirrored I
Nor ask true lovers why
This mirrored love should die
There are hard paths where love can flow
That only pain in love can show
Quiet places where they go
Then speak of love
All those who know

Throughout the turbulence, Margaret channeled the swell of feeling in poems and song lyrics. Decades after her own tragic death, they were published in the digital collection White Freesias; some, including previously unpublished fragments, were later included as chapter epigraphs in the altogether magnificent biography In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown (public library) by Amy Gary, who has devoted her life to stewarding and reviving this remarkable woman’s legacy, bringing many of her out-of-print books back to life and publishing her previously unknown manuscripts.

Art by Leonard Weisgard from The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown

Music had always been Margaret’s salvation — it was only at the piano that her mother came alive from the depression that deadened her all through Margaret’s childhood — but poetry was her first and greatest love. As a girl, during two lonely years at a strict boarding school in Switzerland, she had entertained herself with memorizing poems by reciting them to her favorite music. It was her love of poetry that led her to persuade Gertrude Stein to compose her children’s book — in the simply-worded profundity and playful language puzzles of the literary titan, Margaret saw a natural resonance with children’s minds. Poetry came to permeate her own children’s books. It was the language of her mind — her art of noticing. In poetry — “this facile writing of verse” — she felt she could give voice to “the curse” of all she felt, inexpressible in any other way.

NO POETRY
by Margaret Wise Brown

There will be
No poetry in this heart
Of you and me
No poetry
No winds crying in the trees
No wild crashing of the seas
No drowsy hum of summer bees
All these will pass with this
Unreal war
And they will not come back any
Anymore
For a long time
Rot!
There will always be poetry
In this heat of you and me
Always the crashing of the seas
Always the murmur of the bees
That split second when we see
What for us is poetry?
Between the rumble of the guns
As long as a split second come

Poetry came pouring out of her throughout the war and throughout the private battlefield of her relationship with Michael — a relationship particularly inexpressible, partly for the social stigma and partly for its intrinsic complexities. It was on poetry she leaned when the specter of loss came to hover over that inexpressible totality as Michael’s leukemia progressed and her state of mind became even more erratic.

When she collapsed during one of her performances and was given no more than a year to live, Michael leapt from the edge of reason, the way existential panic often leads the human animal to do, and turned to religion. She declared that their relationship was a sin and had caused her leukemia. She demanded that Margaret move out of their apartments. Margaret pleaded with her, composed impassioned love letters reminding her of all that magnetized them together, promised to care for her throughout the illness. Michael insisted that their physical passion had syphoned her health and if they were to remain connected at all, it could only be as friends. She refused to see Margaret, further demoting their relationship to an epistolary one.

Margaret was shattered with incomprehension. Her world seemed to have come undone, hollowed of its center. She contemplated suicide. (It is strange how, under the blinding beam of emotional intensity, we so easily mistake our tormentors for our muses.) Somehow, remembering Michael’s characteristic inconstancy, she grasped at the blind faith that she might change her mind.

IN GREATER AMICUS
by Margaret Wise Brown

For having felt well loved by you
For having felt no shyness that you should watch my face
For the joyous meeting of eyes in laughter
The fling of your head
And the dark bright look of you
The warm flowing laughter
From a hundred hidden springs in other years
And for the constant uncertainty
Of when you would laugh

Margaret Wise Brown with her beloved dog. (Photograph: Consuelo Kanaga. Brooklyn Museum.)

One Indian-summer day, walking in the cemetery where they had buried their dogs, Margaret picked up a marigold to press into a letter for Michael, then noticed a ripe yellow apple that had dropped to ground, blending into the constellation of marigolds in the yellowing grass. The image hurled her into a time machine, back to a day during that childhood loneliness in Switzerland, when her class was being marched down the lake shore on which the teenage Mary Shelley dreamt up Frankenstein. She heard an old French ballad that impressed itself upon her imagination: “The Time of the Cherries,” composed during the Parisian Commune Revolution of 1871, told the story of a young ambulance nurse shot during the revolt, her blood blooming through her white uniform, as red as the cherry juice that painted the streets of Paris in the cherished season of the cherries, forgotten during the bloody revolution. It was a song about the senselessness of death and how it drains the world of beauty, but how beauty persists when one chooses to turn toward it and rise above sorrow. The memory of the ballad blended with the intensity of her loss and became a lyric.

WHEN THE CHERRIES ARE RED
by Margaret Wise Brown

When the time comes around
When the cherries are red
And the songs are all sung
And the sweet words all said
Then the cherries are red
And the promise of spring
In that wild blooming tree
And the wild birds that sing
In the wild cherry tree
Has been realized
And I am with you
And you are with me
And the cherries are ripe
On the red cherry tree
But the time will soon come
When the cherries are gone
And the end will have come
To our own gentle song
When the cherries were red
And I lie on the grass
And leaves fall on my head
And I dream of the time
When the cherries were red
Oh there once was a time
When the cherries were red
When I was with you
When the cherries were red
And the words were all said

Margaret’s loving letters seemed to only widen the rift. She saw no other way of remaining in Michael’s life than to acquiesce to the asexual relationship. She vowed to become less needy, less passionate, anything Michael wanted her to be.

Michael responded with a terse telegram, informing Margaret that all she needed from her was total silence. She was dying, and she could not face it, so she could not face Margaret.

TO A FRIEND DEPARTING IN TIME
by Margaret Wise Brown

Could I write before you go
But one verse
Who loved you so
But one verse that you should know
How I loved you, ere you go
I would write it in a rhyme
That would ring beyond our time
That would keep this moment clear
Far beyond our little year
But this I cannot write, my dear
So I write before you go
All these words
Who loved you so

Just before Christmas, Michael summoned her last energies for the final stop on her tour — a performance at one of Broadways’s smallest theaters, with only five hundred seats. When Margaret learned that the tickets were not selling, she couldn’t bear the thought of Michael performing to a half-empty house on opening night, so she bought rows of empty seats and enlisted friends in attending. She left a vase of flowers in Michael’s dressing room, along with keys to the Connecticut house where she was staying, and a note of apology that winter had kept her from finding a permanent home to move out of their apartments into.

Michael responded by messenger, thanking Margaret for the flowers and demanding that she stay away, or else her energy for the performance would be syphoned. She had her doctor call Margaret on her behalf to reiterate the admonition, then added the extortionist half-promise that if Margaret could comply with not contacting her, they might be able to have a relationship in the future.

But there was no future. When she took the stage in the theater filled by Margaret and vacant of her, Michael’s daughter — who had come to see Margaret as her closest ally with her turbulent mother — gasped in the front row at the sight of the ghostly childlike body on the stage: a skeleton in a Grecian gown, mortality incarnate in a spectacle of life.

After the show, Michael seemed to vanish into thin air. Sick with worry, afraid to reach out directly less she violate Michael’s conditional promise, Margaret tried to find out where she had gone. Eventually, Michael’s daughter broke her mother’s vow to secrecy and told Margaret that she had gone to Switzerland for an experimental treatment of radiation, blood transfusions, and vitamin injections.

MELANCHOLY
by Margaret Wise Brown

Let no melancholy thought be here
My happy untouched days with you
Like flies in amber, crystal still
And crystal clear
No tear can change, no distance jar
And so my thoughts being gentle thoughts
Must steal across the night to where you are

Art by Clement Hurd from Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, 1947.

On Valentine’s Day, as snow fell over Manhattan, Michael called. They began writing letters again, Margaret carefully calibrating just how much love she let herself express, burned by the cold months of silence, terrified of another rupture. She longed to visit Michael at the clinic before it was too late — a longing Michael must not have actively discouraged, for soon Margaret was crossing the ocean of sky and checking herself into a Swiss hotel.

But a letter from Michael already awaited her, reinstating her ban on contact — her doctor, she said, was ordering Margaret to stay away because their relationship was a source of stress and all stress ought to be eliminated if she was to achieve remission.

CRACKED IS THE HEART
by Margaret Wise Brown

Cracked is the heart that might
Have loved full well
Flattened the mind
Where bright thoughts soared
Fluttering heart that has lost its thump
Divided into many parts, not whole
And one small lifetime whizzing by
And the time wasting, wasted.
The brain unfed by the halfhearted heart
That dies for lack of another’s
While the face smiles on
The words flow on
To success or failure
Time is gone.

By some superhuman feat of self-transcendence — which might just be the other name of love — Margaret, in all her devastation and majesty of spirit, responded that she would do anything for Michael, for her health and her happiness, even if that meant removing herself, erasing herself.

She lingered in Switzerland for another couple of days, hoping Michael would once again change her mind. When she didn’t, Margaret headed to Italy to visit an artist with whom she was working on another book. She was at the peak of her powers, her books having finally crested into the tipping point of popularity despite — or perhaps because of — their bold deviation from convention in the way they captured the poetic pulse-beat of children’s emotional reality.

On the train to Rome, a man pressed a rag of chloroform over her face. She awoke to find her purse, with all of her money and her documents, gone. But he had left her valuables — her manuscripts and journals. When she managed to return to America, she discovered that her former publisher — to whom she had brought some of the era’s greatest illustrators, and for whom she had secured Gertrude Stein’s children’s book — was not only taking credit for her ideas, now that they were finally being celebrated, but was suing her for future rights on unpublished manuscripts with other publishers.

In that strange way the mind has of compartmentalizing trauma, she might have been more perturbed by these violations were she not so wholly consumed by anticipatory loss as Michael wasted away. When the Swiss clinic failed to grant her remission, she returned to their twin apartments and gave herself over to Margaret’s care, leaning on the very instrument of survival she had once derided — Margaret’s “silly furry stories”: To lift her spirits, they began writing a collaborative series about two bunnies living together, Rabbit M.D. and Bunny-no-good.

COULD I TELL YOU THAT I LOVE YOU
by Margaret Wise Brown

Could I tell you that I love you
And never say it so
Could I show you that I love you
Without the out the outward show
And then you smile
Because you know.

Michael grew too ill to be at home and moved into a Boston hospital specializing in leukemia. Margaret went with her, renting a hotel suite across the street, spending every day and many nights at the hospital. When Michael could sit up at all, she was swallowed by the chair in her room, her lips cracked with blood.

One day, the doctor in charge of her case, who seemed uncomfortable with the couple’s closeness, pronounced that Michael was to have no more visitors — her only interaction was to be with hospital staff. Michael was too weak to speak, but she scrawled a protestation on a piece of paper she tried to hand to Margaret. The doctor snatched it away and threatened to send Michael to the psychiatric ward if she did not comply with his command. When Margaret begged him to give Michael something to help her sleep through the agony, he declared that the only thing keeping her awake was her “hysteria.”

Margaret left, then returned with a bouquet of Michael’s favorite flowers — primrose. Too anxious to antagonize the despot in the white coat less he deliver on his threat, she sat in the hallway holding the flowers until nightfall, then handed them to the nurse they had befriended to leave by Michael’s bedside, and left.

An hour past midnight, Michael called, having regained her voice, panic-stricken that death was at her doorstep, beseeching Margaret to escort her through. When Margaret called the hospital to ask permission, she was denied. As daybreak neared, she was still struggling with what to do when the phone rang. One of the nurses urged her to come immediately — Michael was in mortal agony, the doctor had left without a prescription for pain relief, and it seemed like the time had come.

THINGS TO REMEMBER
by Margaret Wise Brown

Remember this
And never forget:
The first spring snowdrop,
All green and wet and unexpected,
A white flower blooming out of the dark
Never forget it.
Remember this
And never forget it:
That the bees flew about you
And the flowers bloomed
In the hot drowsy fields that smelled of summer
And smelled of noon
Never forget it.
And remember this:
The lightning bug
You caught in your hand,
And there was the light
In the palm of your hand And you held it.
Remember this

Art by Leonard Weisgard for The Quiet Noisy Book by Margaret Wise Brown

Michael lived through the night. By morning, Margaret was sitting outside her door, heavied by the knowledge that Michael’s estranged son — the only one of her three adult children who would not die by their own hand — had refused to go see his mother. She could hear Michael crying for her through the door. The doctor barred her from entering.

An infinity later, the door opened. The nurse came out with the solemn permission to enter — Michael, she said, had died. But when Margaret rushed in to close Michael’s eyes, kissing them and taking her hand into hers, the hand squeezed back, vivified by the familiar touch of love. In these last moments together, Margaret promised to read Michael’s poetry each morning in the long loneliness to come. She told her that when she is gone, a part of her own soul would also go, but in another Michael would live on forever.

THE BROKEN POEM
by Margaret Wise Brown

For you to go
And leave this world
So much you loved this world
The world must grieve a lover
The shadows lose you as they pass
Unloved across the swift green grass
Sorrow is green in the dark green tree
That you no longer see
Song of solitary bird
Unheard
The world must grieve a lover.

When Michael died, obituaries described her as the former wife of her famous second husband.

The papers reported that her son had been at her deathbed.

No mention of Margaret was made.

WHO DOES YOUR HEART RETURN TO
by Margaret Wise Brown

Who does your heart return to
Who do you really love
In that blue hour of evening
Who are thinking of
Who does your wild young heart turn to
In those dark dreams of night
Whose is the face before you
When you turn out the light
Who does your heart return to
Who are you dreaming of
In the wild wastes of nowhere
Who do you really love
For everyone lives in a life apart
In the warm dark silence
Of his secret heart
And everyone has a place to go
In the dusk of night
When the lights burn low

After her long bereavement, Margaret would fall in love again. By the time of her own untimely death — by medical misconduct in a Parisian hospital after a minor operation, buried under her chosen epigraph: “Writer of Songs of Nonsense” — she was engaged to be married. But it was a different sort of love, more a lullaby than a ballad, comfortable in its simple ease, free from the uneven passions that roiled between her and Michael — those syncopations that fed Margaret’s spirit and pen in ways no one, not even she, could understand.

While Michael was dying and Margaret was considering writing a biography of their shared life, she had written in her diary:

What is there to tell beyond the endearing humanity of one on a scale more intense and larger than others? And the significance — aliveness and honesty in their own years… All the long-range back and forth in the shuffle and shuttle of being alive. And the preservation of a few of the heights in all the years. For I believe that at five we reach a point not to be achieved again and from which ever after we at best keep and most often go down from. And so at 2 and 13, at 20 & 30 & 21 & 18 — each year has the newness of its own awareness to one alive. Alive — and life. That is the significance of… one who has dared to be gloriously good and gloriously bad in one life. No Limbo for her. Rather let life itself grow living monuments out of trees and living words so that death can never take from our half-lives this radiant living that was lived among us.

Complement with Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to her soul mate and muse, then revisit Moomins creator Tove Jansson’s almost unbearably beautiful letters to the love of her life, who inspired her most beloved Moominvalley character.

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It was not a request

Friday, October 7, 2022

This week's 10 things worth sharing ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌