Runaway Money

A Children’s Classic, A 9-Year-Old-Boy And a Fateful Bequest – For Albert Clarke, the Rise Of ‘Goodnight Moon’ Is No Storybook Romance – Broken Homes, Broken Noses”

September 8, 2000, The Wall Street Journal

Albert Edward Clarke III sits shaded by maple trees on the back porch of his shabby house in South Salem, N.Y., flipping through a children’s storybook. “I read it once about three years ago,” he says, bent over the bright green, red and yellow pages. “And I forgot.”

That happens a lot. “It could be Alzheimer’s,” the 57-year-old says. He chuckles. “It could be Parkinson’s. It could be punch-drunk syndrome. It could be all three.”

Mr. Clarke walks to his silver Jeep parked in the gravel drive and retrieves a black canvas bag. In it are the documents that give legal proof to a family and its means: birth certificates, child-custody papers and a photocopy of an eight-page will.

“I carry it around with me just about everywhere I go,” he says.

He pulls out the will and flips to a familiar passage. “I give and bequeath,” begins the will’s fifth clause, “all of my right, title and interest of every kind and nature in and to all books written by me and published by D.C. Heath & Co., William R. Scott Inc., Harper & Bros., Simon & Schuster, Lothrop Lee & Shepard & Co. Inc., Cadmus Books Agency, Harvill Press and Thomas I. Crowell & Co., and in and to all contracts for the publication thereof, to Albert Clarke, if he survives me.”

He did.

The benefactor he survived was Margaret Wise Brown, a midcentury bohemian who wrote dozens of children’s books. Fifty years later, “The Runaway Bunny” and, most famously, “Goodnight Moon,” sit alongside Dr. Seuss as classics of early-childhood literature.

A third generation of parents is now reading “Goodnight Moon” to its children. The rock-music trio Shivaree included a track titled “Goodnight Moon” on its recent debut CD. A racehorse in Washington state is named Goodnight Moon. Hospitals in California and South Dakota send newborns home with a copy. On a recent campaign stop, presidential candidate George W. Bush cited “Goodnight Moon” as one of his childhood favorites.

“It’s the jewel in the crown,” says Pat Buckley, director of subsidiary rights of children’s books at HarperCollins, publisher of “Goodnight Moon.”

Mr. Clarke was a rascally nine-year-old when he inherited that jewel. Ever since, as “Goodnight Moon” has drifted toward the center of America’s collective consciousness, he has floated on the fringes of society. No steady job. No fixed place of abode. Dozens of arrests. Rarely has his life traced a path through terrain even remotely resembling the world of Ms. Brown’s stories. Over the years, that world has yielded to him nearly $5 million. Today, he has $27,000 in cash.

“I’m an inept bungler when it comes to business matters,” Mr. Clarke says, as ash drops from his cigarette into the folds of his trousers. “If it wasn’t for the fact that Margaret Wise Brown left me an inheritance, who knows? I could’ve been a homeless person. I could’ve been a poor, broken-down homeless person.”

Mr. Clarke’s family consists of himself and two of his children, Sharmaine, 10, and Albert, nine. They have moved seven times in the past five years, their household a jumble of cardboard boxes and photos taped to the walls. Mr. Clarke wears a gray button-down shirt so fresh from its plastic packaging that it still bears a symmetrical grid of creases. “I spend a lot of money on clothes for me and May and Aly,” he says. “We wear them two or three times. When they get all wrinkly and funky, we throw them out.”

The enduring constant is Ms. Brown’s will, always close at hand to protect Mr. Clarke should someone try to wrest from him his inheritance. It is his ticket to flee the neighbors and real-estate agents who he says are prejudiced against his mixed-race children. Even his children’s friends are suspect. Little Albert says his father “says they can come over if we want them to. But it’s a better choice not to because they can get hurt and we can get sued. He’s really smart.” Most important, the will is Mr. Clarke’s physical connection to a woman whose legacy — he believes — encompasses far more than money.

The lives of Ms. Brown and the Clarke family first entwined in 1935. That’s when Ms. Brown met Albert’s grandmother at what is now the Bank Street College of Education, a teacher-training institute in Manhattan. Soon, Ms. Brown and the woman’s daughter, Joan MacCormick, both single and in their 20s, struck up a friendship, eventually summering together in Maine.

The ties drew closer in the 1940s, when Joan MacCormick married Albert Clarke Jr. and moved to a ground-floor apartment on East 71st Street. Ms. Brown had to walk through the Clarkes’ building to get to her own house, a place she called Cobble Court.

In rapid succession, Austin, Albert and Jimmy were born. Though Ms. Brown divided her time between Cobble Court, another New York home and one in Maine, her proximity to the Clarke family bred intimacy. She took the boys to a fox hunt, gave them a stuffed lion’s head, encouraged them to draw. Her apparent affection for the boys, and her striking looks — tall, with blond hair and green eyes — inspired awe and admiration.

“I just remember this beautiful, proud, noble looking lady,” Mr. Clarke says. “She looked extraordinary.”

“She knew kids’ words and ways,” says uncle Jim MacCormick, now 77 years old, who spent two summers in Maine with his family and Ms. Brown. “We didn’t have to look at her like a grown-up.”

They weren’t aware of Ms. Brown’s succession of lovers male and female, including Michael Strange, former wife of actor John Barrymore. Not that the Clarke family was conventional. Mrs. Clarke espoused communism. Her husband, who had attended Yale University on a music scholarship, played the trombone with a traveling ballet company.

“I remember feeling like, where’s my father?” Albert Clarke says. “He only came home like two or three days a month.”

Albert began to show a wild streak. “I got in a lot of fights,” he says. “It started when I was five.”

Mr. MacCormick adds: “When we used to wrestle, he wanted to hurt you. The other boys were just having fun.”

On Sept. 3, 1947, Harper & Bros. published “Goodnight Moon.” It cost $1.75 a copy. Albert was four.

Ms. Brown had conceived and written “Goodnight Moon” all in one morning. The story enumerates and then bids goodnight to all a bunny at bedtime knows. There is a telephone and a red balloon, a brush and a bowl of mush, air and nobody, and the moon. Just 130 words long and alight with a sequence of drawings by Clement Hurd of the “great green room,” the story moves from page to page like an incantation. Security and possession are its themes. Its cadence and increasingly shaded illustrations are as soporific as warm milk.

Most reviews were positive. The New Yorker called it a “hypnotic bedtime litany.” Though some reviewers ignored it altogether and the New York Public Library didn’t stock a single copy, Harper sold 6,000 copies that first fall.

But by 1951, sales of “Goodnight Moon” had slipped to 1,300 copies — perilously close to falling out of print.

In June 1952, Ms. Brown, then 42, was engaged to marry. Her fiance, 26-year-old James Stillman Rockefeller Jr., was a bearded sailor who descended from Andrew Carnegie. Ms. Brown had an impressive catalog to her name, having written nearly 100 books under four names with seven publishers. She began to put things in order.

“It occurs to me that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a Will,” she typed in a letter to her lawyer on May 19, 1952, “so that the rapacious State of New York cannot take one-third of my horse brasses and Crispian,” her Kerry blue terrier. There was real estate, some stock, jewelry, a Chrysler station wagon. And there were the royalties from her storybooks.

On Sept. 23, Ms. Brown set off on a ship bound for Cannes, France, with plans to meet her fiance in Panama in November. On Oct. 30, she was stricken with sharp pains in her abdomen and was rushed to a hospital in Nice. She lived through emergency surgery to remove an ovarian cyst. Two weeks later, on Nov. 13, she died suddenly from an embolism.

The Clarke brothers don’t recall being told that their beautiful neighbor had died. To them, it seemed, she just left and never returned.

A year later, the boys’ father got a job with a baby-dress maker, and the family moved to an old Colonial-style house in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. They stuck out in conservative suburbia. Mrs. Clarke routinely used the dinner table as a pulpit for criticizing President Eisenhower. The father encouraged Albert to draw, allowing him to sketch in pencil on the upstairs walls.

“He drew animals,” remembers Austin Clarke, who is one year older than Albert. “Powerful animals. Tigers.”

In the evening, Albert would often crouch behind the living-room couch and listen to the adults talk. One such night in 1955 — Albert was 12 — stands out. His mother was talking to her sister-in-law.

“Two things I get hit with,” he says. “She says Margaret Wise Brown has left Alby an inheritance. She’s left him about $15,000. And did you know that Margaret Wise Brown is his real biological mother?”

About the legacy, there is no doubt. About his maternity, “it’s delusional thinking,” says Austin Clarke. (Ms. Brown bequeathed to Austin one title, “Sailor Dog.” His most recent monthly royalty check was for $13.88.) Albert “resents the life he had. It’s a fairy tale that makes him feel better.” Uncle Jim MacCormick, Mr. Rockefeller and just about everyone else surviving who knew Ms. Brown or the Clarkes during that time express similar views. Albert Clarke’s birth certificate lists Joan MacCormick as his mother.

“Nobody ever even intimated to me that she might have been pregnant,” says Leonard Marcus, author of a 1992 biography of Ms. Brown titled “Awakened by the Moon.” “It’s the kind of thing that would have come out. On that basis, I’m kind of skeptical.”

Still, Mr. Marcus, who never interviewed Albert Clarke, notes in the book that a close friend of Ms. Brown’s wondered “whether Margaret had chosen him as her principal heir because he looked so much like the kind of child she herself might have had.” The biography describes Albert as “a beautiful, blond, cherubic boy.”

Holding up a photo of himself when he was 12 next to one of Ms. Brown, Albert Clarke, his hair now white, his nose misshapen from multiple breaks, says the resemblance is clear. “The chin, the shape of the mouth, the nose, the shape of the eyes,” he says. “I believe she is my mother.” Besides, he says, the inheritance is strong proof of his maternity. He adds: “Isn’t that why most people leave money to most people?”

Even so, within the family, recognition of Albert’s inheritance came slowly. They seemed unaware that by this time, the fortunes of “Goodnight Moon” were turning.

In March 1953, the book had been spotlighted in “Child Behavior,” a syndicated parental-advice column. “It captures the two-year-old so completely,” the authors wrote, “that it seems almost unlawful that you can hypnotize a child off to sleep as easily as you can by reading this small classic.” Sales rebounded. In 1955, the year of Albert’s revelation behind the sofa, annual sales reached 4,000 copies.

On Jan. 15, 1957, when Mr. Clarke was 13, the executors of Ms. Brown’s will finished appraising the estimated value of past and future earnings from the rights to the 79 titles bequeathed to him. Total value: $17,530. The copyright to “Goodnight Moon” was put at $500. Ms. Brown’s will stipulated that Albert not receive any money until he turned 21.

In the intervening years, the trajectories of Ms. Brown’s book and the boy who inherited it began to diverge with strange symmetry. Sales of “Goodnight Moon” climbed slowly but steadily from year to year. Albert spun out of control. When he was 15, he was arrested for smashing a traffic light. Months later, he was arrested for taking a car out on a joyride. He joined the Yorktown Heights High School wrestling team, but a fistfight got him kicked off. In 1960, Austin spoke at his graduation on “The Responsibility of the Individual Toward Himself.” Albert, now 17, dropped out of school and left home.

Albert ended up six miles down the road, in Peekskill, N.Y. He slept in an abandoned railroad car. He stole pastries and milk from predawn deliveries left outside shops. Twice a week, he raided his family’s kitchen through an upstairs window. He used a sledgehammer to empty parking meters of change.

That same year, sales of “Goodnight Moon” reached 8,000.

Albert joined the merchant marines, but after a brief stint in the Caribbean was discharged for a dispute with an officer. Back in Westchester County, Albert, now 19, was arrested for burglary. Four months later, he was arrested for vagrancy.

It was with relief when on May 4, 1964, Albert and his father visited the Manhattan office of Samuel Nadler, a lawyer recommended by an aunt. It was Albert’s 21st birthday. Mr. Nadler “told me $75,000 had accumulated since Margaret Wise Brown had died and that it was mine,” he says. “I felt like somebody was telling me I had a million bucks.” He was thenceforth to receive royalty checks regularly from the publishers.

Mr. Nadler counseled Albert to put the money into U.S. savings bonds. Instead, he gave $35,000 to his family. A few days later, he spent $4,000 on clothes for himself and younger brother Jimmy and plunked down $3,000 for a Chevy Impala.

Minutes after he and Jimmy pulled out of the dealer’s lot, another car rammed them broadside. “We were scared, so we kept on going,” Albert says. By the time he turned 22, his $75,000 inheritance had dwindled to little more than a badly dented convertible and 14 pairs of alligator shoes.

Acting as lawyer, trustee and self-appointed friend, Mr. Nadler started the young Mr. Clarke on a strict $125 weekly allowance. That was 1965, the same year that President Lyndon Johnson launched the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The act allotted nearly $300 million to school library funds over four years. Almost immediately, sales of children’s books picked up. In 1966, Harper sold nearly 20,000 copies of “Goodnight Moon.” Mr. Clarke’s royalties that year totaled $21,484, according to Mr. Nadler’s records.

Mr. Clarke began to wander across the country. His weekly allowance from Mr. Nadler often arrived via Western Union. The arrests continued: possession of marijuana, attempted burglary, malicious mischief. In 1970, a three-year relationship with a woman he had met and married all in a week ended, and he picked up and went to Puerto Rico. There, he met Zaida Maria Mendez Williams. The couple had two daughters over four years.

Mr. Nadler raised the allowance to about $250 a week, then to $300. Mr. Clarke spent his days at the beach, his nights at the movies. He was idle, comfortable and content.

The week Mr. Clarke’s second daughter was born, he was arrested for possession of marijuana. To avoid prison, he decided to return to New York. Just before leaving, Mr. Clarke asked his wife if he could take their older daughter, Arracellis, with him. When she said no, he grabbed Arracellis and bolted for his car.

“I was carrying Celli like a football,” he says. Ms. Williams chased him down and slashed his arm with a razor, he says. He dropped the girl. “I went to the airport by myself,” he says, showing a faded scar above his left elbow. Years later, Ms. Williams committed suicide, according to one of their daughters.

Mr. Clarke’s return to the mainland coincided with the 1975 publication of “Goodnight Moon” in Britain, the first of many foreign printings. Two years later, the book was introduced in paperback. For the first time, annual sales topped 100,000. Mr. Clarke’s share came to $32,093.

Mr. Clarke drifted through New Orleans and San Francisco, Thailand and India. The arrests continued; here for petty larceny, there for criminal trespassing. His allowance rose to roughly $500 a week. Arrests followed for grand larceny, menacing, resisting arrest, criminal possession of a weapon, criminal trespass, assault. According to police records, he usually got off with fines, though he once served six months in Westchester County Penitentiary for disorderly conduct after a fight in a parking lot. (The sentence was extended for getting into another fight while in jail.)

“I won most of those fights,” he says. “I’ve broken people’s noses, knocked their teeth out.”

Ties to his family were nearly severed. In the fall of 1984, he learned of his father’s death months after the funeral.

Soon after, Mr. Clarke visited Austin at the Department of Corrections in Albany, N.Y., where he worked as a public-information officer. Mr. Clarke hasn’t seen Austin since, though they speak on the phone every year or so. Later, Mr. Clarke traveled to Hawaii to visit his younger brother, Jimmy, who had become a follower of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. He saw Jimmy just once more before the younger brother committed suicide in 1995.

By the late 1980s, baby boomers who had grown up with “Goodnight Moon” were reading it to their own children. In 1986, sales topped 200,000 copies. The next year, the 40th anniversary of its debut, cumulative sales surpassed two million copies. Mr. Clarke’s 1987 take was $103,328.

Mr. Clarke was wandering the streets of Manhattan. He took up residence in his Dodge van with Othlia Theresa Peoples, a homeless woman he met on Avenue of the Americas. “I helped her sober up,” he says. Mr. Nadler raised Mr. Clarke’s allowance to about $800 a week — the equivalent of an annual salary of nearly $45,000.

In 1991, “Goodnight Moon” appeared as a board book. The new publishing format — thick, glossy pages impervious to a child’s clutch and drool — was an instant hit with both new and replacement buyers. For the first time, Mr. Clarke’s annual royalties topped $200,000.

The next year, Mr. Marcus’s biography of Ms. Brown appeared. Albert’s mother, the woman he calls Mrs. Clarke, sent him a copy. It was their first contact in years. After that, he saw her only once, just months before she died of cancer in a Maine nursing home in 1998.

Also in 1992, Mr. Clarke received word from a lawyer that Mr. Nadler had died. The lawyer told him that the man who for 28 years had wired him his allowance, bailed him out of jail and paid his taxes had been dutifully salting away the difference between incoming royalties and his weekly allowances. Mr. Clarke now had $488,708.56 in the bank, to do with as he pleased. “When he told me that, I leaped out of my chair,” he says. He adds: “In his wisdom, [Mr. Nadler] may have known that I wasn’t ready for it.”

With Mr. Nadler gone, the publisher, now named HarperCollins, began to deal with Mr. Clarke directly. “We have a devil of a time sometimes finding him,” says Ms. Buckley, the HarperCollins director of subsidiary rights. The publisher mails Mr. Clarke his royalty checks every April and October.

That same year, the publisher asked for permission to cut most of the verses of “Silent Night” from the text of Ms. Brown’s “A Pussycat’s Christmas.” Katherine Tegen, a former editor of children’s books at HarperCollins, recalls a letter Mr. Clarke sent in response. “He was somewhat contentious in his request that some things be left alone,” says Ms. Tegen, now editor-in-chief of children’s books at Disney Publishing Worldwide Inc., a unit of Walt Disney Co. His letter “was peppered with exclamation points.” As a result, “we kept out some of the cuts we wanted to make,” she says.

A few months shy of 50, Mr. Clarke was expecting his second child with Ms. Peoples. He hadn’t been arrested in five years. And with nearly half a million dollars, he felt secure. In 1993, he bought a home for his family, a $230,000 townhouse in Highland, N.Y.

Two years later, Mr. Clarke and Ms. Peoples split up and got involved in a rancorous custody dispute. Eventually, Judge Mary M. Work in Ulster County Family Court in Kingston, N.Y., citing evidence that documents Ms. Peoples’s past abuse of Mr. Clarke and their children, gave Mr. Clarke custody of Sharmaine and Albert. She also told Mr. Clarke to apply for a parenting program. He didn’t. “I didn’t want to go through any s— like that,” he says.

Over the past few years, “Goodnight Moon” has shone ever brighter. In 1996, Mr. Clarke received $270,771. In 1997, $333,209. In 1998, $461,539. Last year, “Goodnight Moon” topped many millennium-inspired best-of lists, and Mr. Clarke’s royalties totaled $572,370. So far this year, he has received $341,000.

The increasing royalties have underwritten Mr. Clarke’s frequent moves. He bought a cottage on Cape Cod in 1997 for $100,000 and sold it the next year for half that. He bought a house in Southampton, Mass., for $360,000 in 1998 and sold it in 1999 for $225,000. Last October, he paid $262,000 for the house in South Salem. Over the years, Mr. Clarke has given away money and belongings to friends, including three SUVs and a $230,000 townhouse.

In June, he was down to his last $21,000. His accountant told him that he owed $90,000 in taxes. So Mr. Clarke asked the royalties department at HarperCollins to send him his payment ahead of schedule. (He also receives royalties from Golden Books Publishing Co. Last year, the company sent him $23,830.) On June 20th, a check for $125,000 arrived from HarperCollins.

Last month, the Clarkes picked up and moved again, to the Appalachians. The move came just after the completion of an investigation that Mr. Clarke says the New York Department of Social Services conducted after receiving a complaint alleging that he verbally abused his children. The department declines to comment.

Mr. Clarke is having a $153,000 house built, to be paid for — as usual — with cash. He intends to spend his days as he has for years: hiking, reading — worn volumes of Tolstoy, William Blake, Flaubert, Frederick Douglass and others lie about his living room — doing push-ups and pull-ups, hanging out in coffee shops and browsing in markets. He will greet his children at the school-bus stop, help them with their homework, cook buffalo meat for them.

He recently began drafting a will. He probably won’t have much money to leave to his stated beneficiaries — his four children. Instead, he likely will pass along pretty much what Ms. Brown left to him: the enduring value of a bedtime story.

Two years ago, President Clinton extended the Clarke family’s hold on that value when he signed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. The new law, approved after intensive lobbying from the entertainment industry, gave Mr. Clarke possession of most of his copyrights for 20 years more. Mr. Clarke will be a few months shy of 100 in 2043 when “Goodnight Moon” slips from his fingers.

And it appears that the book’s popularity will continue to wax. In May alone, “Goodnight Moon” was read aloud on the television show “ER,” dissected at a symposium on Ms. Brown at the Bibliotheque Nationale in France, and parodied in a risque fashion-spread in Lucky magazine that began; “Goodnight room. Goodnight chest. Goodnight girl who’s half undressed.” Total sales of the book have surpassed 11 million copies, making it one of the best-selling picture books of all time.

But of all Ms. Brown’s books, “Goodnight Moon” isn’t Mr. Clarke’s favorite. He is partial to “Pussy Willow.” “This little furry gray kitten gets lost,” he says, affecting a childlike voice. “He’s wandering past different kinds of things, different types of trees. And then, all I remember is that he finally realizes he’s home because he sees a pussy-willow tree.”