Marguerite Henry: Forever Young
“No matter how old she became, she was still a 10-year-old at heart, and she was able to capture all of the fantasies that nine- and 10-year-olds have about animals, especially ponies,” says Beth Sutton, remembering Marguerite Henry, the beloved children’s author who died last November at age 95.
“I’ve never met anyone who had such a total innocence about her,” says Sutton. “She was 88 when I first met her, a tiny, child-like person with bright, sparkling eyes, still energetic and full of wonder. She had made horses her life’s work and life’s love. Sharing that with kids was her greatest joy; it was what she lived for.”
Sutton was 10 years old when she had her first contact with the author of Misty of Chincoteague and 58 other books. “She sent me a very sweet reply to my fan mail, and that started my great affinity for her.”
Thirty years later, in 1990, Sutton met the woman whose books had inspired her to study literature and to write two children’s horse books of her own. By phone between Sutton’s home near Charlottesville, Virginia, and Henry’s home in Rancho Santa Fe, California, the two had become friends and champions of a common cause &mdash the Misty of Chincoteague Foundation. Since its inception the foundation has been passionately supported by several generations of Misty readers.
The author’s career began in an atmosphere as simple and pure as the stories she told. Born in 1902 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Marguerite Breithaupt was the youngest of five children. She had rheumatic fever for most of her childhood, but it didn’t keep her from having fun.
In a 1952 autobiographical sketch for The Junior Book of Authors, she wrote: “I was born into a family of three sisters and one brother, so instead of having one mother to hover over me, it seemed as if I had a whole flock of mamas and two papas. . . . no youngster had a happier period growing up.”
The homebound youngster relied on books for entertainment and a doting father (a printer by trade) who encouraged her to write by supplying reams of multi-colored paper and fat pencils.
It worked. In 1913, when she was 11, a women’s magazine paid her $12 for her story about children playing hide-and-seek in autumn leaves.
“The only horse we had was Bonnie by name but not disposition,” Henry wrote. “She was flighty and had a habit of biting my brother in the breeches. She was sold without my ever really knowing her. In fact, I had to wait until I grew up to learn about horses.”
Soon after she graduated from Milwaukee State Teachers College, Marguerite married Sidney Henry. In 1939, they bought a small frame cottage on two acres in Wayne, Indiana, which they named Mole Meadows. Sidney ran “Henry’s 5-and-10,” and Marguerite wrote magazine articles and books based on meticulous research.
In 1945 she heard about ponies who swam ashore from the wreck of a Spanish galleon and still lived on an island off the coast of Virginia and Maryland. Intrigued, she visited Chincoteague’s Pony Penning Day with her illustrator, Wesley Dennis. There she met the Beebe family — and Misty.
“The first time I really saw Misty, my heart bumped up into my throat until I thought I’d choke,” she wrote in A Pictoral Life Story of Misty. “It was a moment to laugh and cry and pray over, especially if all your childhood you’d wanted a pony and couldn’t have one on account of your rheumatic fever.”
A deal was made with Clarence “Grandpa” Beebe–$150 offered and accepted on a handshake. When Misty was ready to be weaned, Beebe put her in a crate and shipped her by rail to Mole Meadows, where a whitewashed little stable, a legion of neighborhood kids, and the Henrys waited. Misty became an adored member of the family, the neighborhood and the town&mdashand Misty of Chincoteague, the book, spilled from Henry’s pencil onto paper.
Henry was truly happy. “I thought I was a townish person,” she told a biographer in 1947. “I had always been interested in the ways of boys and girls and birds and pups and foals and green growing things. Now, for the first time, I found myself in the midst of all this lively treasure, And I, too, began to live!”
Two years after Misty’s publication, Henry’s King of the Wind, the story of the Thoroughbred foundation sire Godolphin Arabian, won the highest accolade a children’s book can garner, the Newbery Medal of Honor. Many consider it her best work.
Over the next 13 years Misty came to share her meadow with the subjects of other books&mdasha Morgan horse named Friday (Justin Morgan Had A Horse)and a burro (Brighty of the Grand Canyon). Henry concentrated on her writing every morning, then stopped for the animals’ carrot break at noon. Afternoons belonged to the children and visitors.
“If a troop of Scouts or Bluebirds arrived on a pouring-down drenching day, we brought Misty into the house where she shook hands all around and posed obligingly for all the Brownie cameras that came out of pockets and bags,” Henry wrote in A Pictorial Life Story of Misty. “While the children ate popcorn and apples, Misty enjoyed a measure of oats in a pan placed on a needlepoint chair. To everyone’s astonishment, she never spilled an oat.”
When Misty was 13, Henry honored her promise to the Beebes, and Misty went back to Chincoteague to be bred. She had three foals&mdashPhantom Wings, Wisp o’Mist and Stormy&mdashthe subjects of subsequent books.
Marguerite continued to travel, research and write&mdashand the praise, awards and fan mail mounted accordingly. Among her well-know works were Sea Star (1949), Black Gold (1957), Gaudenzia, the Pride of the Palio (1960), Stormy, Misty’s Foal (1963), The White Stallions of Lippiza (1964), San Domingo, the Medicine Hat Stallion (1972), and Misty’s Twilight (1972), and Brown Sunshine of Sawdust Valley (1996). Her books were translated into 12 languages. Misty became the subject of a 1961 motion picture, as did Brighty in 1967. Justin Morgan had a Horse was filmed by Walt Disney Productions in 1972, and King of the Wind came to the screen in 1990.
Henry’s beloved illustrator, Wesley Dennis, died in 1966. And in 1972, when she was 26, Misty died in her sleep on Chincoteague.
The year after Misty’s death, Marguerite and Sid moved to a green ranch house on a hill in Rancho Santa Fe, California. When Sid died in 1987, Marguerite stayed on in the house, which was surrounded by huge eucalyptus trees and had a red brick patio in the back separating it from her workroom. Even when she was in her 90s, she wrote every morning and entertained children and visitors in the afternoon, often on the patio.
And she had a constant, devoted companion. “I have a standard poodle, Patrick Henry, who attracts nieces, nephews and godchildren&mdashnot to mention neighbor boys and girls who help me with suggestions while my new pop-up book is a-brewing,” Marguerite wrote for a Simon & Schuster website, SimonSays.com. Responding to queries as to why she devoted so much time to horses and other animals, Henry wrote: “It’s exciting to me that no matter how much machinery replaces the horse, the work it can do is still measured in horsepower. . . even in this space age. And although a riding horse often weighs half a ton and a big drafter a full ton, either can be led about by a piece of string if he has been wisely trained. This to me is a constant source of wonder and challenge.”
Patrick, too, was apparently a source of wonder and challenge to his diminutive mistress. She was working on a manuscript about the big black poodle when she died. Though it was almost finished, it will probably never be published, according to Susan Foster Ambrose, a neighbor and close companion of Henry’s in recent years.
“Marguerite never had anyone write with her or for her,” she explains. “Someone would have to unite the different parts into a whole, and it would lack authenticity. It’s tempting, because he is certainly a dog to be honored. But I think it wasn’t meant to be.
Ambrose, who first met Henry when the author was signing books after the 1990 screening of King of the Wind in Del Mar, California.
“She had a different question for every person,” says Ambrose. “Marguerite had this incredible sense. She could read not only the hearts and minds of animals, but she also had this sense about children and adults. Species or age didn’t matter. And she was extremely humble. She didn’t see herself as the extraordinary writer and human being all of her readers knew her to be.”
After a series of strokes, Henry died on November 27, 1997, at home, with Patrick by her side. It was her wish that her ashes be scattered in the Pacific Ocean, just as Sid’s had been. A niece and nephew did the honors.
The elderly Patrick is being cared for by Ambrose and another neighbor, who constantly receive calls from fans inquiring about his well-being.
In the months before her death, Henry’s concerns about Chincoteague were somewhat eased. On July 29, 1997, on the fiftieth anniversary of Misty’s publication, the foundation dedicated a life-sized statue of the famous pony on a corner of the Beebe Farm.
Another tribute is in the works. Ambrose plans to start on a biography of Henry when her current book project is completed. “I asked her four or five years ago if she’d like for me to write her biography,” she says. “Marguerite said `Yes, but for now I want you to just be my friend. When I’m gone you can write about me.’ This book will be my gift to her and my children. She was like a grandmother to them and an inspiration to all of us. She was so much more than her writing. The life lessons she shared with us we’ll carry for a lifetime.”
In the words of Grandma Beebe: “Nothing ever dies as long as there is the memory to enfold it and a heart to love it.”