“From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” Fifty Years Later

The first paragraph of E. L. Konigsburg’s 1967 book “From the Mixed-Up
Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
,” about two young runaways who become
entangled in an art-historical mystery, is a masterpiece of graceful,
efficient exposition:

Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of
running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a
knapsack on her back. She didn’t like discomfort; even picnics were
untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the
icing on the cupcakes. Therefore, she decided that her leaving home
would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to
somewhere. To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and
preferably a beautiful place. And that’s why she decided upon the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

After just six sentences, the reader knows Claudia intimately, and is
ready to go to the Met.

On Saturday, that’s where I went. The Met was offering two dedicated
tours in honor of Konigsburg’s beloved book, which turns fifty this
year. The hour-long trek, advertised for kids aged seven to eleven, was
free with museum admission and first come, first served. (There were
also “Mixed-Up Files”-themed cookies at the café in the American Wing,
and a selfie station for recreating the book cover, which Claudia, no
doubt, would have regarded as gauche.) Around 1:30 P.M., having obtained
clearance to attend the second tour as an unaccompanied adult, I walked
up the museum steps, wading through strollers and selfie sticks. In the
“Mixed-Up Files,” Claudia and her brother Jamie—chosen as her travelling
companion because of the twenty-four-dollar fortune he’s amassed by
cheating at cards—take a train from Connecticut to Grand Central
Terminal and walk all the way uptown. As they approach the perpetual
hubbub outside the museum, Jamie becomes convinced of the wisdom of
Claudia’s plan. “I think you’re brilliant, Claude. New York is a great
place to hide out. No one notices no one,” he says. (Despite the
compliment, his sister corrects his grammar immediately; both Claudia’s
pedantry and her pathological independence insured that the young me
would deeply identify with her.)

Claudia and Jamie spend a week hiding in the Met, scattering their
possessions among various urns and sarcophagi, crouching on top of
toilets when the guards patrol at night. Their caper can’t be perfectly
retraced anymore: the chapel where they say a desultory prayer was
closed, in 2001, and the ornate canopy bed that Claudia slept in has been
dismantled, to many a visitor’s
chagrin
. On
Saturday, our tour guide distributed a handout comparing the museum’s
floor plan in the nineteen-sixties, which appears across two pages in
Konigsburg’s book, to the expanded floor plan today. Undeterred, we
walked through the Greek and Roman galleries and sat down in front of
the ancient sarcophagus in which Claudia hides her violin case.

We were sitting, the guide explained, in a hall that was, when
Konigsburg wrote her book, a restaurant, with tables surrounding a large
central pool. Inside the pool was a bronze sculpture of whimsical
dancing figures—the “Fountain of the Muses,” which was sculpted by Carl
Milles and now resides outdoors, in South Carolina. In the “Mixed-Up
Files,” Claudia and Jamie take baths in the pool one night. Our guide
read from the scene, in which Claudia and Jamie climb “under the velvet
rope that meant that the restaurant was closed to the public. Of course
they were not the public.” It’s a delightful scene, combining the
pleasures of being naked in public, of unexpectedly profiting—as Claudia
scrubs herself down with the powdered soap she’s been hoarding from the
public restroom, Jamie discovers the trove of wishing coins on the floor
of the pool—and, above all, of getting away with something, which
remains the underlying thrill of the book.

Elaine Lobl Konigsburg was an unpublished stay-at-home mother of three
when she started working on the “Mixed-Up Files.” (She would eventually
write twenty-one books and win two Newbery Medals, for the “Mixed-Up
Files” and for the brilliant “The View from Saturday,” published in
1996.) Back then, on Saturdays, she would take the train down from Port
Chester for art lessons and drop her kids off at the Met. She’d meet
them at the museum afterward. One day, as they were walking through a
gallery of French furniture, she saw, behind a velvet rope, a single
piece of popcorn on a blue silk chair. When Konigsburg died, in 2013,
the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a private event in her
remembrance, and her son Paul recalled his mother wondering aloud about
that piece of popcorn. The moment was “burned into shrapnel
memory

for her, he said, and it provided the kernel, so to speak, of the whole
book.

There were other real-life inspirations for the “Mixed-Up Files.” The
book features a small angel statue, possibly sculpted by Michelangelo,
that attracts huge lines of museumgoers each day. Konigsburg took her
inspiration for the crowds from the 1963 visit of the “Mona Lisa” to the
museum, which drew a million people in three and a half weeks, and her
inspiration for the object from an article she’d read in the Times about a statue that the museum had acquired at auction, for two hundred
and twenty-five dollars, from the estate of a woman named Mrs. A.
Hamilton Rice. In the book, Claudia and Jamie become amateur art
historians, investigating the provenance of this piece; Claudia, in
particular, becomes obsessed with the statue. (In real life, curators
eventually concluded that the sculptor wasn’t Michelangelo; Konigsburg
gives her characters a happier ending.) On Saturday, our tour guide sat
the kids down in front of a Michelangelo statue of Cupid and asked if
there were any ten-year-olds in the crowd. Hands shot up.
Eleven-year-olds? There were a few. “Well, Michelangelo was just
fifteen when he sculpted this statue,” she said. The kids looked
universally dismayed.

On the train home, I reread the thirty-fifth-anniversary edition of the
“Mixed-Up Files,” which I had picked up at the museum gift shop. It was
even better than I remembered. It’s very sophisticated, with the deep
story unfolding subtly under the narrative surface. In a short,
mysterious prologue, Konigsburg’s wry narrator announces herself as Mrs.
Basil E. Frankweiler, and then drops clues about the story in
parenthetical asides, addressed to her lawyer, which begin on the third
page: “(Since you always drive to the city, Saxonberg, you probably
don’t know the cost of train fare. I’ll tell you. . . .)” In one of
these asides, she suddenly tightens the loop for the reader—“(And that,
Saxonberg, is how I enter the story. Claudia and Jamie Kincaid came to
see me about Angel.)”

The Q train kept stopping. I was struck by how tenderly Konigsburg wrote
Claudia and Jamie—readers will remember the pleasure and financial
anxiety of each meal they take at the Automat—and by the humor she found
in their voices. Claudia’s main reason for running away is, vaguely,
“injustice,” and when the narration shifts to Jamie’s perspective
Konigsburg uses “sculpture” as a verb. But there is no sentimentality in
the book. The kids aren’t homesick for their parents, they don’t
romanticize the museum, and there’s not a hint of moral instruction
throughout the whole thing. They do have their adventures: at one point,
they rent a post-office box and send the Met an anonymous letter, which
they type on a display Olivetti that’s sitting out on Fifth Avenue; they
even get a reply. But, as Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler tells Claudia, the
real adventure is coming home with a secret. “Secrets are the kind of
adventure she needs,” Frankweiler says. It’s an adult conclusion,
complicated and true.

I got off the train and kept reading as I walked, the way I used to when
I was a kid. I banged into a bus stop on Myrtle Avenue and flinched when
tree leaves brushed my cheek. Somehow, I reached the last page just as I
got to my stoop. Museum guards had discovered a violin case and a
trumpet case and sent these odd objects to lost-and-found. “They are
still there,” Konigsburg writes. “Full of gray-washed underwear and a
cheap transistor radio. No one has claimed them yet.”

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