By Benjamin Feldman
January 13, 2008
Selections from MISTER DOG by Margaret Wise Brown and illus. by Garth Williams, copyright 1952, renewed 1980 byUsed by permission of Golden Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
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My father was a gentle, quiet, swarthy man, slow and decisive, both with logic and love. It was Summer-time, 1957. The day at a close, he’d read me a picture book. Sitting beside me on my trundle bed, Daddy was all mine. The four others could wait. My favorite story, for the umpteenth time.
Once upon a time there was a funny dog named Crispin’s Crispian. He was named Crispin’s Crispian because he belonged to himself. In the mornings, he woke himself up and he went to the icebox and gave himself some bread and milk. He was a funny old dog. He like strawberries.
There the dog stood on the facing page, a hairy fellow just like my father. My dad, at all of thirty-eight, seemed so old to me, a benevolent giant, telling a story that made me brave. I hung on every word, bathed myself in the colors and rhythms, headed at last for a happy ending in a five year old’s always tumultuous days. Night after night, my father’s deep voice carried me safely, softly, off to sleep.
Mister Dog’s home was a funny old house, two stories of ramshackle painted clapboard, gables akimbo, chimney perched precariously on top. Despite its obvious structural imperfections, I hadn’t a care when I stepped inside. It was me in that story, my spitting double, out in the woods behind our house. There, a hound named Crispian’s Crispian ran into a boy at the fishing pond. Five-year-old me with my new best friend.
“Who are you and who do you belong to?” asked the little boy. “I am Crispin’s Crispian and I belong to myself,” said Crispian. “Who and what are you?” “I am a boy,” said the little boy, “and I belong to myself.” “I am so glad,” said Crispin’s Crispian. “Come and live with me.”
My childhood copy of Mister Dog lacks its cover. I never knew the author’s name. But the book was precious to me for what it meant, the feeling of being special and loved so deeply by my father when I was young.
Years went by, and I lost track of many things. Then my father died suddenly and unexpectedly when I, too, reached thirty-eight. A piece of me also passed away, leaving me bereft, and my two little daughters without their bed-time story man for months on end. Tattered and stained, my childhood treasure lay on a shelf in my widowed mother’s home where I found it after Daddy died.
One year later, still treading water in a river of grief, I wandered one evening in the West Village, and stopped at the corner of Charles and Greenwich. I peeked over a wall at a very strange sight and chills ran up and down my spine. I looked behind me. No one was watching, and I was alone. There I found the start of healing, a way back to a place once known. In the little clapboard farmhouse that sits downtown, the real Crispin’s Crispian kept his mistress company while Margaret Wise Brown wrote what turned out to be her very last book. The name of it was Mister Dog.
Out in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint, just off Manhattan Avenue, a two family house still stands on Milton Street. The house at # 118, probably built before the turn of the twentieth century, was a genteel, brick-clad residence with a slate mansard roof and elegant ironwork surrounding its yards. Today it’s somewhat the worse for wear, having been cheaply re-clad, its noble crown masked behind asphalt shingles. The original iron gates have somehow survived.
The block looks much the same as it did in 1915. Across the street, immaculate houses from the late 19th century still shine. At the head of the block up by Manhattan Avenue, in what has been for decades a Polish neighborhood, a giant and still well-attended red-brick Catholic church rules the hill-top. Five-year-old Margaret could swing on the gates along 118’s perimeter, listening to the freighters’ horns as they docked nearby. Wharves with magic names end nearby streets. India, Java, spices and silks. Milton was a “city street with high iron gates, a red brick church at the end of the street and the sound of boats on the river,” she later recalled. The ironwork at her home perhaps seemed tall to a five year-old. Perhaps there were other gates, truly tall. It doesn’t matter. When I discovered this house and its connection to her, again my heart thrilled with a bit of repair. I can go there any time, where she was born, this woman who cast such magic on my five-year old soul.
Here on Milton Street Margaret took her exercise in what she later called the “painful shy animal dignity with which a child stretches to conform …” And here in Greenpoint she spent the first five years of her emotional life, building, brick by brick that “ ‘wild and private place,” a place to which we return truly only by accident.”
The Brown family moved away from Milton Street when success at the American Manufacturing Company allowed Margaret’s father to build a house in then bucolic Beechhurst, Queens. They moved again to Great Neck, and Margaret finished her schooling at Virginia’s Hollins College after graduating from Dana Hall and studying in Lausanne at Chateau Brillantmont. Suffering through a failed romance, she then chose a different path from that of most of her classmates. Margaret moved into her own flat at 21 West 10th Street while studying at the Bank Street College of Education. There she became an adherent of Lucy Sprague Mitchell, working in the avant-garde of enlightened children’s literature, and soon her own work took shape. With the appearance of The Noisy Book in 1939, Margaret Wise Brown established herself in the forefront of American picture-book authors. Known today chiefly as the author of The Runaway Bunny and Goodnight Moon, Margaret developed long-term relationships with several publishers and illustrators, and produced more than 100 works for children during the next thirteen years.
Her tumultuous affair with Michael Strange, a wealthy socialite and ex-wife of John Barrymore, lasted many years. The two co-habited in Strange’s apartment at 10 Gracie Square during Michael’s divorce from her second husband, Harrison Tweed, and then occupied adjacent apartments at 186 East End Avenue. After spending her first royalty check buying a flower vendor’s entire cartful of blossoms for her home, Margaret devoted some of her income to renting a separate writing studio, an unheated wooden cottage that sat in a back lot behind a tenement on the west side of York Avenue between 71st and 72nd Streets. There she spent the days writing, and many evenings held dinner parties in a living room with walls Margaret covered with animal fur. Crispin’s Crispian, a Kerry blue terrier given to the author by her lover, had the run of the place. The two-story cottage, nick-named Cobble Court, had been part of a farm family’s dairy operation in the previous century, and more recently was used as a neighborhood dining room.
By the time I was born in 1952, Margaret Wise Brown was long-accustomed to the company of elegant, well-educated New Yorkers, and lionized by many. Her eccentric personality and extravagant life-style are hardly what one might imagine for the author of tender children’s books. On a whim she’d make extravagant purchases: exquisite china, a shiny Chrysler touring car. During an April vacation in the Georgia Sea Islands that year, Margaret met a dashing man at an evening cocktail party. A decade and a half her junior, James Stillman Rockefeller, Jr. was a “gentle-spirited romantic and sailing enthusiast,” about to embark with two buddies on a three-year, around-the-world voyage in his sloop Mandalay.
“Pebble” Rockefeller’s boyish manner and lack of pretense (despite both Carnegie and Rockefeller lineage), charmed the ever self-effacing Margaret. During an early morning walk on the beach the day after they met, James inquired if Margaret had ever been married. Her suitor was as much younger than she as Michael Strange was her elder. Along with her answer, and with uncharacteristic immodesty, Margaret told James of her more than seventy published children’s books, and the one kept by Queen Mary by the royal bedside. Margaret let down her guard, confessing that one day she’d write “something serious.” Suddenly, she felt again a rare event in her troubled life. The “fidget wheels of time,” as she was fond of saying, slowed mercifully, and love crept in.
James kept his plans for his sailing trip, but first they were betrothed. Margaret’s new lover saw her off at dockside for her solo vacation trip to the Cote D’Azur on September 23rd. After visiting, Cannes, Eze and St. Paul de Vence, a side trip to Florence was cancelled when she developed acute abdominal pain, diagnosed in a French hospital as an ovarian cyst. Its removal was accompanied by a prophylactic appendectomy. Despite predictions of a full recovery, Margaret lay in Nice’s Clinique des Augustins in a somber mood. On October 30th, she penned a note on Cobble Court stationery, a codicil to her will she rewrote the past August:
I wish my ashes to be given to James Stillman Rockefeller, Jr. and thrown into the Atlantic. They can put a stone up … according to the Will if my family wishes…For Walter Varney, [an old friend of Michael Strange's] thanking him for his generous help to me and my friend Michael Strange, I give this check dated October 20th for $2,000 and the care of my dog if he wants him. Otherwise he goes as in the Will…I ask [that] James S. Rockefeller, Jr. have anything of mine he wants since he is the closest to me, and that he is to have the use of Cobble Court and 186 East End Ave. until all is settled. He has the keys and I consider these places to he his home as well as my own.
Despite her deathbed preparations, by November 13th, the patient was ready for discharge. When her nurse arrived in mid-morning, Margaret was in a jaunty mood. She did an imitation of a one-leg high kick, but suddenly, without warning, she fell unconscious and passed away. An undetected embolism had formed in her leg and suddenly traveled to her brain.
Mister Dog was the last of her works published during Margaret Wise Brown’s life, around the time that I was born. I’ve always felt that the book were written just for me. Over five decades, it’s given me confidence, strength and finally, hope. My father died in the very same way. Though no can-can artist, he, too, was felled by a stroke, passing instantly from my life. As a child I never knew Margaret, but when I stood on Charles Street I knew that we’d crossed paths. It’s possible to miss someone you never met, who died before you could hold a spoon. I do, the child who didn’t know her name. Because of Margaret’s understanding of what makes little children tick, what repairs their hurts and pains, what can make them whole and well, I feel I knew her while she was alive.
Her work has born fruit that she of the giant imagination would never know, she who told whimsy what to do. Goodnight Moon sold 6000 copies in 1947, the year of publication. Sales leveled off to 1,500 copies a year for many years thereafter and then began to rise. By 1970, almost 20,000 copies a year were sold. Then an explosion: during the next two decades, almost four million copies of the book were sold. Heaven knows what the total is today.
Though creator of magic for uncountable souls, Margaret had no children of her own. In an act that failed to surprise many of her friends, she willed the royalties from most of her works published up to the time of her death to Albert Clarke, a little boy who lived in the tenement through which she passed on her way to her back yard writing cottage. And though Margaret didn’t know my name, I feel like I was mentioned in her will. Stroll down Charles Street, stop and gaze. The clapboard house is #121. There on a lot on a northeast corner, behind a stucco wall, sits Cobble Court, trucked down in 1967 after threatened with demolition when the 1335 York Avenue and its neighbors were assembled for a new nursing home.
My father’s long gone, but I can still stand there, under the moon, hearing his smooth voice reading the story one more time: You can be the boy who belongs to himself. A few steps away stands a woman with taffy-colored hair in a poodle cut with a funny black dog, softly reminding me how the words go:
Crispin’s Crispian was a conservative. He liked everything at the right time –dinner at dinner time, lunch at lunch time, breakfast in time for breakfast, and sunrise at sunrise, and sunset at sunset. And at bedtime –
At bedtime, he liked everything in its own place— the cup in the saucer, the chair under the table, the stars in the heavens, the moon in the sky, and himself in his own little bed.
The 1940 Tax Lot photos taken as a WPA make-work project show every tax lot in the city. 118 Milton Street is gorgeous and still well-kept in its pre-war photo.
The quoted material in M.W. Brown’s own words is taken from Leonard S. Marcus, Margaret Wise Brown – Awakened by the Moon, Beacon Press, Boston: 1992, Chapter 1. Brown’s own words cited here from Marcus’s book appeared in articles written by her for the 1951 and 1952 Grolier book of Knowledge annuals, cited in Marcus’ work.
The events concerning Brown’s relationship with Rockefeller are for the most part paraphrased from Marcus, op. cit. and his interviews with J.S. Rockefeller, Jr.