Marguerite Henry
1902 - 1997  Class of 2004  Literary Arts
Born Marguerite Breithaupt on April 13, 1902, in Milwaukee Wisconsin,  she was the daughter of Louis and Anna Kaurup Breithaupt, and the youngest of five children. By some accounts a sickly child (rheumatic fever) who was home-schooled until the age of twelve, but by her own account a lively child who went to school, swam, roller-skated and haunted the North Side branch of the Milwaukee Public Library. Read to for hours on end by her sister Gertrude and encouraged by her parents to write and illustrate stories. Marguerite had her first story published at the age of seven. She sttended Milwaukee State Normal School (now the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) where her favorite courses were literature and drama. Married Sidney Crocker Henry of Sheboygan, Wisconsin on May 5, 1923 when she was twenty-one, she moved to a two-acre homestead in semi-rural Wayne, Illinois, close to St. Charles where her husband operated two “five and dime” stores. She wrote for magazines like True Detective, Photoplay and the Saturday Evening Post. She wrote a series of geography books and some minor children’s books, and once was once told by a handwriting analyst that she was “utterly without imagination.” She never learned to cook, but had meals sent in from the nearby St. Charles Country Club. And she had no children of her own.

Those are the bare facts of Marguerite Henry’s life until the age of forty-three. Then, in 1945, her first major book, Justin Morgan Had a Horse, appeared and the flood of crystal-clear, pitch-perfect, best-selling literature for children in the eight-to-twelve-year-old range commenced. It would not stop until fifty-nine books later, with Marguerite’s death in 1997 at the age of ninety-five. She was working on a children’s book about her poodle, Patrick Henry, at the time.

With the success of Justin Morgan, the children’s book editor at Rand McNally, Mary Alice Jones, suggested that Marguerite should visit the Virginia coastal islands of Chincoteague and Assateague and consider writing a book about the wild ponies there. It was an inspired notion. The result was Misty of Chincoteague, published in 1946, possibly one of the most familiar stories in American children’s literature and certainly required reading for every horse crazy preteen girl in the United States.

The book also began a collaboration with illustrator Wesley Dennis that would extend for decades and offer her readers quick, roughly-styled sketches that seemed as warm and fuzzy as the animals she wrote about.

Marguerite the children’s author was, by all accounts, a disciplined writer and a fearsomely persistent researcher. Her desk and bulletin boards were always filled with notes, pictures and sketches and she once said “Often I fill a whole suitcase with notes, but while I am writing my first draft I don’t allow myself one peek. If I did, the story would have a hoppity, hoppity rabbit-like gait instead of zooming along. Even so, my first draft is so bad that I’ve sworn my husband to destroy any I may have lying about if anything ever happens to me. But after the first writing, I go through all my notes, adding things I have left out and checking for accuracy. Then I rewrite a manuscript five or six times. I love rewriting …. .”

Her research was equally disciplined. She created a double set of files for each book as she worked. The first set contained notes arranged by plot incidents and the second set was background, labeled by subject. No detail escaped her attention. Her illustrator Wesley Dennis once found her in the library surrounded by piles of books, looking for the exact kind of broom a stable boy in 16th century Italy would have used. She was working on Gaudenzia: Pride of the Palio, later reissued as The Wildest Horse Race in the World. Marguerite traveled tirelessly in pursuit of her research, also. Her globetrotting took her around Europe and to the Middle East, not to mention down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, in search of the feeling and the details she wanted for her work.

Little surprise then that at the beginning, in 1946, she was not content to return home and write about the Virginia ponies from memory. On the spot, Marguerite negotiated to “borrow” a foal so she could bring it home to Wayne and study it. The long wait until the pony could be weaned, the sad little thing that arrived in Geneva by train in November, cold and frightened in a slapdash homemade crate, the conviction that this shaggy little dirty-white horse was NOT the silken, golden Misty with the white map of the United States on her left shoulder that Marguerite had fallen in love with on the beach at Chincoteague, are all described in the book that details her life in the Fox Valley from 1946 to 1957, A Pictorial Life Story of Misty. To the joy of Marguerite and the neighborhood children who always seemed to be hanging around the Henry property, the next spring Misty showed her true colors – and the map of the United States – by shedding her warm and shaggy winter coat

The Henry home became a veritable menagerie as Marguerite acquired Friday, a Morgan horse she used as her personal mount, and Jiggs, a burro from somewhere near Sugar Grove who served as the model for Brighty of the Grand Canyon. Dogs, cats, even a family of foxes after whom she modeled the hero of Cinnabar, the One O’Clock Fox were all to be found there.

Neither Misty nor Marguerite ever apparently balked at the life of a media darling. Photographers and reporters, curious fans and strangers, all could find the famous little horse and the famous tall author somewhere in or near Mole Meadow. The Henry home was on Army Trail Road and the pastures and riding trails where she and devoted neighborhood children would play and ride were wide open for all to see and enjoy.

During the Wayne years there were open-to-the-public birthday parties for Misty with carrot necklaces and a cake decorated with upright carrots instead of candles, as well as cake for the human celebrators, too. Misty would perform the repertoire of tricks which Sid Henry has taught her, such as balancing her forelegs on a stool and shaking “hands” with visitors. She gave uncounted rides to thrilled children. Misty often traveled to Marguerite’s speaking engagements, most notably one year to the American Library Association convention in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she rode the hotel elevator, stood in on a meeting and attended a cocktail party with the president of her publishing house, Rand McNally. She was indeed the most famous horse in the world. But time marched on and as Misty matured the Henrys honored their agreement with her Chincoteague owners. Misty was shipped back to the Virginia seacoast where she could be bred and live with her own kind. Misty had three foals, and even played a bit part in the filming on Chincoteague of her own life story, the 1961 movie Misty. She died in 1972 at the age of twenty-six, and is preserved, mounted and on display there for
present and future generations of Misty-loving children to visit.

The cold-around-the-heart sadness that Marguerite felt at the loss of her beloved pony was only made worse when Jiggs went off to the Grand Canyon to star in the movie of Brighty and when Friday grew so lonesome they decided to board him out where he could once again be around children and riders. As she approached the age of sixty Marguerite mused upon children She wrote, “To Sid’s and my surprise we had no chick or child of our own, even though we both came from large families. So I spent my young married years in the lively pursuit of word-chasing. And now in my ungrandmotherly years … I am instead taking care of the children I never had.” She received vast volumes of fan mail, most of it from children, some of whom shared their personal troubles and all of whom Marguerite tried to encourage and inspire. For many years she responded to her mail personally, and even when she finally accepted help, she insisted on editing every piece.

A nose for a good plot and the discipline and resources to research thoroughly do not, of course, assure success for a children’s author. By all accounts Marguerite’s genius was her own sense of childlike wonder through which she consistently viewed the world. To her a horse was not just a very large, warm pet or a working machine. “…here is an animal which weighs more than half a ton, often more. His strength is known the world over. In this space age engineers still classify a machine by the amount of horsepower it can deliver. …[and yet a horse] 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.”

Although she continued to write enormously popular books, many about horses, but others about other animals, she and Sid relocated to a home on a golf course in Rancho Santa Fe, California, where he died in 1987. Marguerite continued to write books for children until her death in 1997. She once said, about life, “You’ve got to find someone to share the miracle, quickly, before it is gone,” and she was one to take her own advice.

She received the American Library Association’s Newbery Medal in 1949 for King of the Wind and Newbery Honor Awards for Justin Morgan Had a Horse and Misty of Chincoteague.

© Mary Clark Ormond
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 Best selling children’s author known especially for Misty o