Misty of Chincoteague author ends up in Rancho Santa Fe

Not a full interview

— When Marguerite Henry died last month at the age of 95, a relationship that began for me more than 35 years ago came to a premature end. Henry and I met for the first and last time in the fall of 1995 at her home in Rancho Santa Fe. She had agreed to discuss the possibility of my writing a profile of her. Henry didn't have time just then for a full interview, she told me, because she had to finish a book about her standard poodle, Patrick Henry, which would bring her published works to a total of some 60 titles.

"I made a promise and I want to keep it," she said of her obligation to her publisher. (She handed in the manuscript shortly before she died.) "But I thought it would be nice if we got acquainted. And for you to meet Patrick."

Patrick had lain down on his side on the floor near us. He looked like a large, curly-haired, black colt. (Standards are at the tall end of the poodle spectrum.) "He's nice to walk over," she said. "You don't step on him by mistake."

Patrick stood up to greet me and permitted me to pat him and scratch his ears. Henry was impressed. It seems I had passed the first test.

On the day of our appointment, Henry was dressed in a pale, soft cardigan. Her home was a traditional ranch house -- modestly appointed and of no particular architectural note -- but with a pretty paddock and stables for half a dozen horses at the foot of the driveway.

Her walls were covered with animal portraits, mainly by Wesley Dennis, her longest collaborator. The sight of one of his horse faces transported me to ten-year-old girldom. Henry didn't seem far behind. She was a small-boned woman, with a patina to her skin that some people are lucky to get as they age; she could have been 75 from her looks and the way she spoke and carried herself.

However, Henry had a certain underlying weariness, politely hidden for the most part. It was as if all that devotion she had inspired among 50 years' worth of avid little girls had drained Henry of some of her energy.

When we settled in our chairs, she asked her helper to bring us some tea and instructed me to collect two overflowing, leather-bound scrapbooks and bring them near her. Henry used them as conversation props.

As she flipped through the scrapbooks, Henry was modest and watchful (not unlike Patrick, who never left the room the length of my visit). Book covers marked her successes following her breakthrough Misty of Chincoteague (1947), the true story of Paul and Maureen Beebe, grandchildren of a hard-working but poor pony trader on Chincoteague Island in the Chesapeake Bay. In accord with every horse-loving child's dream, they catch and tame a wild pony, Misty.

"All the incidents in this story are real," reads an author's note to the first edition. "They did not happen in just the order they are recorded, but they all happened at one time or another on the little island of Chincoteague."

Henry lived a summer with the Chincoteague islanders to research her book. She ate with them and sat in their living rooms. She walked the dunes and listened to the wind in the sea grasses. As I sat opposite her in her house, I could feel her observing, listening.

Henry gently prompted me about my horse days, which started when I was about eight or nine and ended in high school. I told her about my first riding teacher, the ruddy-faced widow Mrs. Howard (later Mrs. Rogers) in her rundown 18th-century estate in the horse country outside Baltimore. Looking back, I realize Mrs. Howard ran her summer camps and gave her riding lessons to raise cash. She was what I now know as land poor.

Back then, to me, she was the high priestess of equestrianism.

Mrs. Howard had us ride around the ring with maple leaves stuck between our knees and the saddle to teach us to keep our seats properly. To allay any fears, she announced to each group of beginners that true horsemanship could not be achieved until you had fallen off seven times. And when you did fall, she'd laugh in such a jolly way, you'd forget to cry. It wasn't long until I was counting up how many times I'd toppled off Postie, the dappled-gray pony she assigned me.

I told Henry about the summer after my freshman year in high school when I visited a ranch in Wyoming and was put in charge of a green, three-year-old, dun-striped mare named Fawn. The summer ended with an informal rodeo, and I led Fawn through the barrel race without a mistake. "It was very low key," I said of the event.

"It was high key to you," Henry corrected gently.

Tea arrived with sweet crackers.

"Patrick says, 'Aren't you going to bring me any?' " Henry said.

"I had rheumatic fever as a child," she explained, "so I had to stay in while everybody else was riding. It was very hard." It was years before the doctors pronounced her fully recovered. "So here I was, practically a grown-up, and I couldn't ride. So I went [to the stable] myself and said, 'Now where do I begin?'

"I was just free and easy," she said, laughing. "When you really are so strong about what you want to do, people help. I was thrilled the first time I got on a horse, I couldn't stand it."

What is it about horses? I wondered out loud. "I don't know," she said. "Girls are so mad for them."

I told her the depths to which my passion dragged my father, a corporate lawyer. He had to hitch a horse trailer to his Volvo and haul my borrowed pony Goldy to the state fair where I was riding in the show-jumping competition. Dad wasn't a complete stranger to such things, however. He grew up riding mules in rural Virginia.

Henry brightened. "Really? I barely got to know mules, and I fell in love with them," she said. "You can find nice mules," she said. "That was the last story I did, Brighty of the Grand Canyon. I enjoyed it as much or more than anything."

But she kept coming back to Misty. In the scrapbooks were photos of Misty when Henry had her. (Henry eventually returned her to the Beebes after keeping her for several years.) There was a picture of Misty standing on a table.

"She was terrible to begin with, but she turned into something beautiful," Henry said.

Another picture showed Misty with a colt, one of two after her return to Chincoteague. "Did that work out?" I asked.

"No, I think she was happier the way she was. I really do." Henry flipped to another page, where humans were in the picture. "And this was Grandpa [Beebe]'s oldest son. He was as mean as the grandfather was good."

After Misty came out (followed by a movie), Chincoteague's economy boomed as tourists came to watch the annual roundup and bid on Mistys of their own. (Some 25,000 people still attend the event.) The natives, however, didn't benefit from the prosperity. Over the years, they've been forced off the island as newcomers from nearby Washington, D.C., and Virginia suburbs have driven up property prices and taxes. In fact, a relative of Paul and Maureen was forced in recent years to sell off the pasture where Misty once roamed. Paul died in a car accident as a young man, and Maureen is a retiree living on social security. (According to one obituary, Henry and she remained friends over the years.)

Within Misty of Chincoteague's rosy child's fantasy of catching and taming a wild horse for one's very own, Henry was careful to include the naturalistic details that, to an adult's eyes, show a harsher reality. In the Beebes' world, a nickel was a treasure -- not just for the children, but the adults, too. Nearly all the food they ate they raised on their farm. Cornbread and pole beans were regular fare. A candy bar was a rarity. Paul and Maureen went shoeless all summer. And their clothes were faded from many washings.

"I like [to write] things the way they are because I don't have much of an imagination," Henry said. "I like facts. I have always been surprised at the response my books have had. I never thought they came from me. They were just there."

My copy of Misty, which was one of several of Henry's books to win awards, now sits on my little boy's bookshelf. When I looked for it recently, before writing this appreciation, I had trouble finding it.

In my mind, Misty's cover was still robin's-egg blue, its color when it was given to me as a hand-me-down by Ba Jackson some 35 years ago. Ba, who was ten years or so older than me, had outgrown her horse books -- of which she had quite a collection. As she went off to college, she willed them all to me. I was ten.

The once-blue binding on my Misty of Chincoteague has browned to a tan. The book opens up onto a two-page Wesley Dennis watercolor of backlit, black storm clouds billowing over the flat salt marshes of Assateague, the island where the wild ponies live, across a narrow channel from Chincoteague. In a shaft of light, a brown and white pony gallops along, white tail plumed behind her.

"To Ba with love from Mummy, Christmas, 1947," reads the inscription on the title page. "Mummy" was Frances, my mother Ruth's best friend. Both have been dead more than ten years.

My visit with Henry had stretched more than an hour. Though she never complained, she seemed to have tired. As I got ready to leave, she asked, with a smile, "Can you just forget me completely?"

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