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

“One who has dared to be gloriously good and gloriously bad in one life. There is 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.”

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

She returned to the literary landscape in September 1947. This was one year after her rewilding of the literature scene. 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. She moved easily through the crowd of ladies whispering about her in oversized tie and tight, tweed trousers.

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, Margaret Wise Brown

Margaret Wise Brown

Place a HeThe following is a He
Oder a SheOn the following: She
This is why it doesn’t add up
To 1 2 3.
Place a HeYou can find out more at a She
Oder a SheOn a He
Before you even think of it, Jack Robinson
You’ve made 3
HeTimes SheDivided by He
Take her away.
nd now what have you left —
A HeOr a She
And what’s this strange geometry
You and I are one in the same.
It is an exceptional place
The secret heart
It is all about what?
It appears to be

Blanche was the Paris’ most beautiful young woman. 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.

Michael and Margaret had first met seven years ago. 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. She returned to New York soon after and was shocked to be invited to lunch by Michael. He had dressed up in fur, asked bold questions about Margaret’s love life, while she drank sherry. Margaret was fifty-five years old; Michael, her third and most unhappy husband, had never seen her poetry. Both were born in an incorrect century and were determined to bend it for their purposes. Margaret was thirty, Michael fifty, and she was on her third unhappy marriage. Her husband had never read any of her poetry.

They were already lovers by the end of World War II; Michael declared she never had loved Margaret the same way as she did; she promised her that they would love each other until their final days.

Margaret Wise Brown

We first met
I never, never, never knew
It was my pleasure to meet you
Then, something suddenly hit me.
Sudden, a shooting star
Things felt better than 8 at the bar.
And that’s the way things are


While you might be wild and witty, it is possible to be both.
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.

Illustration by Leonard Weisgard, The Important Book of 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. The husband of her child had discovered their affair and threatened to lock her up 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. After a while, she gathered her strength and called her husband to ask for a formal apology. The wheels were set in motion for a legal divorce.

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.

Illustration by Leonard Weisgard, The Important Book of Margaret Wise Brown

But we don’t know what ignites that infinite sky between people. What draws them together? The faint trails of letters, diaries, and the memories of others, are all clues to what drives the days between those moments when emotions and time have collided. 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.”

Margaret Wise Brown

Do not speak of love
Only love could show.
Bondage can be greater
Lovers might not know
Beyond the external show
Do not speak of love
The mirrored mirror I is a favorite of many.
Neither ask lovers who are truly true.
The mirror love of this should end
Love can flow even though there are many obstacles to overcome.
The only way to show pain is through love
You can find quiet spots where you go
Talk about love!
All who are knowledgeable

Margaret used the turmoil to create poems and songs that expressed her feelings. 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.

Illustration by Leonard Weisgard, The Important Book of 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. She had spent two years in Switzerland at an exclusive boarding school, memorizing poetry and reciting it to herself. 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.

Margaret Wise Brown

It will.
This heart has no poetry
From you and me
Poetry is not allowed
There are no trees crying out for help
Seas are calm and there is not a wild crash.
Summer bees are not snoring.
This will cover all of these.
Truly unreal war
Und they won’t come back.
It has been for a very long time
Poetry will continue to exist.
You and I are in this heat
The seas crashing is always a sign of trouble
There is always the sound of the bees
It takes a fraction of a second to see.
For us, poetry is all we have.
Between the gun rumble
For as little as one second

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.

Michael was able to see the truth and revert to Christianity after she suffered a collapsed performance. Their relationship had led to her leukemia. She claimed that it was a crime. She wanted Michael to leave her apartment. Margaret begged her to leave, wrote passionate love letters that reminded her of their shared passions, and promised to take care of her during her illness. Michael insisted their physical passion had taken her away from health. If they ever wanted to stay connected, it was only as friends. Margaret declined to meet with her, further devaluing their relationship as an epistolary one.

Margaret felt confused and lost. It seemed like Margaret’s world had been ripped apart, and that its core was gone. She considered suicide. It is odd how we can mistake our tormentors as our muses under the intense emotional beam. Somehow, remembering Michael’s characteristic inconstancy, she grasped at the blind faith that she might change her mind.

Margaret Wise Brown

You have felt loved and accepted by everyone.
Because I felt no shyness, you can watch my face
The joyous encounter of eyes and laughter
Your head is flung
You have a dark, bright appearance
Warm, flowing laughter
In other years, there were more than 100 hidden springs
For the ever-present uncertainty
You would be laughing at them.

Margaret Wise Brown, her pet dog. (Photograph: Consuelo Kanaga. Brooklyn Museum.)

Margaret was out walking along the Indian-summer path, and she picked up a margold to make a note for Michael. She then saw a yellow apple, which had been dropped to the ground. The yellowing grass blended with the marigolds. It triggered her to go back into time, back to her childhood in Switzerland when Mary Shelley, a teenage Mary Shelley, was marching down the shoreline. 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. The song was about the absurdity of death, how it takes the beauty world away. But beauty can persist if one turns toward it and overcomes sorrow. Her loss was so intense that the memory became a line.

Margaret Wise Brown

If the right time is available
Red cherries!
All the songs have been sung
The sweetest words were spoken
The cherry are then red
The promise of spring!
Wild-blooming trees
The wild birds sing!
The wild cherry tree
It has been achieved
Und ich bin mit Ihnen
I am with you
The cherries are now ripe
The red cherry tree
However, the right time is coming soon
Once the cherries are gone
It will all end.
We sing our gentle songs
The cherries turned red when they were first picked.
So I lay on the grass
I feel like the leaves are falling on my head
The time is now, and I dream about it.
The cherries turned red when they were first picked.
Ah, there was once a time!
The cherries turned red when they were first picked.
It was when I was there with you
The cherries turned red when they were first picked.
All the words were 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 pledged to do less for Michael and be less passionate.

Michael replied with a short telegram informing Margaret she was dying and that her only request was complete silence. Margaret could not confront her dying mother, as she couldn’t face the fact that she was in imminent danger.

Margaret Wise Brown

Can I write before your go?
Only one verse
Qui loved you so?
One verse is important to know
How I loved you, ere you go
This would be written in rhyme
It would sound beyond time.
It would be a good idea to keep the moment simple.
We are far beyond the little year.
This I can’t write my dear.
Before you start, so I write.
These are just a few of the many words.
Qui 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 replied by messenger and thanked Margaret for her flowers. He also demanded that Margaret stay away from the show, as she would lose the energy she had for it. Margaret’s doctor called her to repeat the warning. She then offered the half-extortionist promise that they could have a future relationship if Margaret would agree to not contact her.

However, there was no tomorrow. 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.

Michael appeared to disappear into thine own ether after the show. 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.

Margaret Wise Brown

Do not be melancholy.
Happy, unspoiled days sharing them with you
Crystal still, like flies in amber
It is crystal clear
One tear cannot change the past, one distance can not be overcome
My thoughts, being kind thoughts.
It is necessary to steal from the dark night in order to get where you want to be

Clement Hurd Art Goodnight MoonMargaret Wise Brown. 1947.

On Valentine’s Day, as snow fell over Manhattan, Michael called. Margaret began to write again. She carefully measured how much she was able to express her love, despite being burned by months of silence and fearful of another breakup. 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.

Margaret Wise Brown

Cracked is the heart of might
You are loved fully
Mind flattened
Bright thoughts are what soared
A fluttering heart has lost its rhythm
It is broken up into multiple parts and not complete
A small lifetime of whizzing by
The time wasted is also wasted.
Unfed brain by a halfhearted heart
That dies for lack of another’s
As the smiles spread across your face
Words flow freely
Success or failure is the key to your success
It is now or never.

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.

After deciding to stay in Switzerland for a couple more days, she was hopeful that Michael would reconsider her decision. 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.

One man put a piece of chloroform on his wife’s face as he was riding the train to Rome. Her purse was gone, along with all her cash and documents. 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.

Because her mind compartmentalizes trauma in a strange manner, it is possible that she would have become more upset if Michael had not wasted so much of his time anticipating loss. 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. Bunny no-good.

Margaret Wise Brown

Would you believe me when I say that I love to you
It’s not true
Let me show you how much I love and care for you
The outward appearance is not the same as the inward one
You smile then
Because you already know.

Michael was too sick to remain at home, so she moved into Boston Hospital for Leukemia. Margaret accompanied her and rented a room in a nearby hotel. She spent many days at the hospital as well as nights there. Michael couldn’t sit straight up, and Margaret was soon sucked into the chair, which ripped her lips.

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 couldn’t speak but Margaret was able to see her protestation written on some paper. If she didn’t comply, the doctor took her paper and threatened to send Michael into a psychiatric unit. 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.

Michael called at midnight to tell Margaret that she had regained her voice and was panicked by the fact that her husband was about to die. Margaret attempted to contact the hospital but was turned down. When daybreak approached, Margaret was still struggling to know what to do. 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.

Margaret Wise Brown

Keep this in mind
First spring snowdrop
It’s all green and mysterious, wet and unpredicted.
The white flowers emerge from the shadows.
Never forget it.
Keep this in mind
And never forget it:
The bees flew around you
They bloomed!
The hot, drowsy fields that smelled like summer.
It was noon-time aroma
Never forget it.
Keep this in mind:
Lightning bug
It’s your catch,
There was light.
You held the item in your palm.
Keep this in mind

Illustration by Leonard Weisgard, for The Quiet Noisy Book of Margaret Wise Brown

Michael survived 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. Through the door, she could hear Michael crying out for her. Her entry was denied by her doctor.

The door was finally opened after an interminable time. 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. Margaret told her that a small part of herself would be lost when she was gone but another Michael would continue to live forever.

Margaret Wise Brown

To get there
This world is yours.
You loved the world so much
A lover must be lost to the world
Shadows pass you by.
In the fast green grass, unloved
In the dark-green trees, sorrow is green
This is what you don’t want to see
Solitary bird sings
A lover must be lost.

Michael was killed in a car accident. Obituaries described her then as being the ex-wife of her second husband.

It was reported in the newspapers that her son died at her funeral.

Margaret was not mentioned.

Margaret Wise Brown

To whom does your heart go?
Do you love someone?
At the dark hour of night
What are you thinking about?
Where does your wild and young heart want to go?
These dark night dreams
Which face is it?
You can turn on the light when you do.
To whom does your heart go?
What are your dreams about?
The wild and undeveloped wastes of nowhere
Do you love someone?
Everybody lives apart from the rest.
Warm silence in the dark.
His secret heart
Everyone has their own place.
At night, it is dark
The lights are dimming

Margaret fell in love after her lengthy bereavement. 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.

Margaret contemplated writing a biography about their life together, but Michael died. Margaret also had her journal:

There is so much more to the story than just one’s charming humanity on a scale that is larger and deeper than any other. 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. The preservation of some of the highest points in all of their years. Consider that five is a milestone we cannot reach again. We can only keep it and then we will most likely go down. 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. She will not be left in limbo. Instead, let the living world grow living monuments of trees and words to ensure that we never lose this shining life that was shared with 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.

Giving = Being Loving

Over the past decade, I spent hundreds of hours and thousands each month writing. MarginalianIt was known for the infuriating name Brain Pickings its first 15 years. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Consider donating if you feel this work makes your life easier. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.

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