In or Out?: Crockett Johnson, Ruth Krauss, Sexuality, Biography

Ursula Nordstrom, 1969As I wait to hear back from my editor (latest revision submitted January 1st), I continue to tinker with the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  Does my manuscript’s silence on the homosexuality of two important figures — Maurice Sendak (who illustrated nine of Ruth’s books) and Ursula Nordstrom (editor of Ruth, Dave, Maurice) — collude in the closeting of that history?  On the one hand, their sexuality doesn’t figure into their relationship with Ruth and Dave (as Crockett Johnson was known to his friends).  So, then, no need to bring it up.  On the other hand, its absence allows readers to presume that Ursula and Maurice were straight — which is a misrepresentation.  To quote Perry Nodelman on John Burningham’s Mr. Gumpy’s Outing (1970), “Mr. Gumpy’s outing might reveal the degree to which picture books, indeed children’s books generally, replicate counter-productive prejudices about sexual diversity by the forms of silence about it” (133).  Nodelman is talking about a picture book, but the same logic applies to my biography.

Ruth and Dave were both open-minded people.  Their neighbors were a gay couple — Harry Marinsky and Paul Bernard.  Back in 2000, I interviewed Harry via telephone, and I asked him what it was like to be an openly gay couple at that time, in Rowayton, Connecticut. He spoke of how accepting the community were.  He wasn’t a particular friend of either Dave or Ruth, but conveyed no sense that his (or his partner’s) sexuality was an issue.  Similarly, nothing comes up in either Ruth or Dave’s correspondence with Ursula.  When I interviewed Maurice, I was unaware that he was gay and so did not ask him about it. After I learned that he was, I wrote to ask whether or not I should include this fact in the bio.  On the one hand, I said, it’s not part of the story I’m telling; on the other, I don’t want to contribute to the silencing of a history.  I never heard back from him on this question — which is fine.  He’s been extraordinarily generous to me, and my question was a rather personal one.  So, I didn’t pursue it.

Though the sexuality of Ursula and Maurice does not appear to have a bearing on either person’s relationship with Dave or Ruth, sexuality is a key component of a person’s identity.  Since Maurice and Ursula were important people in the lives of Dave and Ruth, I decided that I should at least mention it once.  So, I did, briefly, in the paragraph where (in the context of discussing the Rowayton community) I talk about Harry and Paul.  It’s a minor change to the manuscript, but a significant one — it corrects an omission that upheld a lie.

16 Replies to “In or Out?: Crockett Johnson, Ruth Krauss, Sexuality, Biography”

  1. Hi, Phil. Such an important set of questions. I’ve written about Harlem Renaissance playwright Angelina Weld Grimke, and the same question has arisen. Here’s what I think: it’s important to mention queer sexuality because doing so opens up one’s scholarship and makes it more useful to others. Scholars who are interested in queerness will find that info in the footnote or in the middle of a paragraph that’s mostly about something else. So while Nordstrom’s sexuality might be relatively unimportant in regard to her relationship with Krauss or Johnson, I’d venture that it was quite important to her relationship with Louise Fitzhugh. So by including that info in your book, you’re enabling some future writer on Fitzhugh to ask a whole new set of questions about Harriet the Spy. And that’s just one example of course. So thank you! And by the way: I didn’t mention Grimke’s sexuality in my article on her, and I’ve regretted it ever since.

  2. Thanks, Robin. I appreciate the affirmation — especially from a scholar of your caliber! This question has been in the back of my mind for a couple of years. I feel good about having addressed it, but also wonder whether I could do a better job of addressing it.

    For example, Maurice kept his sexuality from his parents: did he also keep it from Ruth and Dave (whom, in the 1950s, he considered his “weekend parents,” parent figures who understood him better than his biological parents)? I think they must have known, even if they didn’t discuss it. For instance, when Ruth visited him (at his home) after his heart attack, presumably she would have noticed that he was living with Dr. Glynn? So, does one then weave in a reference to his sexuality at that point? My answer is no. First, I think Maurice would rather be seen as an artist than as a gay artist. (I don’t want to overdetermine the way we read him.) Second, it’s too speculative. But… biography is an inherently speculative art. It’s informed speculation. So, perhaps I am wrong?

    I also now feel a need to weave in the fact that Remy Charlip (who illustrated two of Ruth’s books) was also gay. Again, I’ll just mention it once — I don’t want to define him by his sexuality. But, as you say, it may enable the research of others. And Ruth and Dave did have a number of other friends whose homosexuality is public knowledge (Frank O’Hara, for example). So… makes those connections visible, too.

  3. Another reason to mention people’s sexuality, even in passing, is that it reveals patterns of connection, of friendship-circles. Sendak’s pattern of friendships and collaborations with other gay men–Tony Kushner, Bill T. Jones, James Marshall, Arthur Yorinks (right? come to think of it, I’ve always assumed Yorinks is gay because of his connection to Sendak! A little circular inferring, there), etc.–is itself something worth thinking about. And that broad pattern only emerges if queerness is consistently acknowledged. Queerness–and Jewishness! and perhaps left-wing politics?–are deep structures in children’s lit in that they have shaped not only the aesthetics but also the publishing industry. Queerness, Jewishness, leftist politics are all modes of connection; they’re ways that people know each other. And not infrequently, those modes of knowing lead to people collaborating, publishing each other, editing each other, etc. We can only understand children’s lit if we understand these dynamics. So again, thank you for revealing basic facts that are completely relevant to the study of children’s literature and that too often are actively erased.

  4. Thanks, Robin — good points, all! I have no idea about Arthur Yorinks’ sexuality. But it’s true that the others you mention are gay (or were gay, in the case of the late James Marshall). Someone should write a book about the many prominent children’s literature authors who were GLBTQ. Margaret Wise Brown was bi. Edward Lear and Edward Gorey were both confirmed bachelors. There’s a silenced history waiting to be uncovered.

    On Jewishness: Ruth was culturally Jewish (and yes, this is of course in the bio.). So is Maurice, but I don’t dwell on this in the book — in large part because I assume that people already know this. It’s a balancing act. On the one hand, I don’t wish to be reductive; on the other, I don’t want to omit an important identity category.

  5. Hi Phil,

    I appreciate your decision to include this information in the bio. I think that you are absolutely right: For better or worse, we as a society tend to assume heterosexuality when nothing is mentioned to the contrary. Whether an omission is intentional (purposely suppressing non-straight orientations) or simply deemed not relevant, it leaves the reader assuming straight without even really thinking about it. Until such a time when one’s sexual orientation is not presumed straight until told otherwise (and I hope for that future every day) I think it is important to point out that individuals who are famous or well-respected *in their own rights* as artists, writers, scholars, what have you, can *also* be gay. It does not need to be dwelled on and it certainly doesn’t need to define their work (I think you are right to focus on Sendak as an artist and not a gay artist, since the former would seem to be how he’s chosen to present himself to the world), but it is important to mention nonetheless, if only to raise the visibility of the continually suppressed LGBTQ community.

  6. “Someone should write a book about the many prominent children’s literature authors who were GLBTQ. Margaret Wise Brown was bi. Edward Lear and Edward Gorey were both confirmed bachelors. There’s a silenced history waiting to be uncovered.”

    I would LOVE to read that book!

    The article on Gorey I recently posted on FB suggested that he may have been asexual — another silenced, invisible sexual identity.

  7. Thanks, Ashley! In another small change, I’ve now included Remy’s sexuality. So… doing my part for visibility! Amy: Why not write the book yourself? That is, one way to approach research is to write the book that you’d like to read.

  8. Well, it’s not quite the book folk are envisioning, but Michelle Abate and I do have a collection of essays on queer kid lit forthcoming from U of Michigan press, called Over the Rainbow. Featured are essays by Robin B (above) and many other kid lit scholars, such as June Cummins, Roberta Trites, Tom Crisp, Claudia Nelson, Cat Tosenberger, etc. It does speak in various ways to that “silenced history” and emphasizes how many important kid and YA book writers have been or are queer.

  9. Kenneth: Looking forward to it! We need books like Over the Rainbow. Thanks to you and Michelle for editing it! On a related note, love your essay in Julia & Lynne’s Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature.

  10. Thanks! I really appreciate that. I wasn’t sure myself if the piece came out ok. I do like the conceit of picturebook psychology and have you, among others, to thank for helpful nudges in that direction.

  11. The mention of Remy Charlip brought back memories of driving
    Ruth and my children Karen and Craig to see Remy in the
    Paper Bag players. Performance in New Haven…and Ruth would not go on the I95. Hundreds of stop lights later we
    arrived late and Remy greeted Ruth from the stage. In all the years I knew Ruth and Dave no one mentioned or I presume thought of sexual identity. Jackie

  12. Jackie: I ended up including a brief mention of Maurice’s sexuality and Remy’s. My reasoning is reflected in the conversation above — I didn’t want to keep queerness silent. If we are ever to teach the people of North Carolina (and Kansas and etc. etc.) that gay people are human (and thus deserving of human rights), then we need to do a better job making queer lives visible. Having said that, I also note that — in this time period — sexuality was not a subject of discussion (as you note, above).

  13. Hi, I am James Marshalls sister and am working on a docudrama about his life. I wonder if you would be interested in speaking with me?
    Thank you,
    Sincerely,Cynthia

  14. Michael Patrick Hearn has asked me to inform any readers of this post that Arthur Yorinks is not gay. At the time Robin Bernstein asked (in comment number 3), I said, “I have no idea about Arthur Yorinks’ sexuality” because I had no idea about his sexuality. Thanks to Michael Patrick Hearn, I can answer Robin’s question (and yours, if you were wondering): Arthur Yorinks is straight.

  15. This is a fascinating discussion. The extent to which an author’s sexuality (gay, straight, fluid, etc) might or might not affect one’s writing for kids is worth pondering. I certainly agree with those who think it is important to mention the person’s sexuality, even if just in passing. By the way, the term for the cultural assumption that everyone being striaght is “heterocentrism.” This is in contradistinction (love that word) to “heterosexism” which is discrimination, etc. against homosexuals.

    Another aspect of the whole discussion is the sexuality of the kids themselves. Certainly many kids are gay or grow up to be. For them to have positive images of themselves in the form of gay adults or gender-atypical kids in books they read is tremendously important. I talk about this quite a bit in my book, FRIENDS OF DOROTHY: WHY GAY BOYS AND GAY MEN LOVE THE WIZARD OF OZ, which, by the way, is about all stories set in the marvelous land: the Oz books, the MGM movie, Wicked, etc.

Leave a Reply to Amy Bennett-Zendzian Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.