E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is, like its close contemporary Harriet the Spy, one of those books that you can love as a small child that holds up astonishingly well to adult rereading.
Part of it is that the fantasy of the story is always compelling. The Mixed-Up Files tells the story of two children who run away from home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and over the course of the book’s 50-year life — it’s celebrating its golden anniversary this year — it has instilled in multiple generations the deep desire to live in an art museum, surrounded by beauty and luxury. What could be better?
In celebration of the book’s 50th anniversary this year, the Met offered the next best thing: a tour of the highlights of the museum as experienced by the book’s protagonists, Claudia and Jamie Kincaid. The tour was technically meant for children ages 7 to 11, but earlier this month, I secured permission to tag along anyway and fulfill some childhood dreams.
In The Mixed-Up Files, the Met is the perfect hiding place: comfortable and also beautiful
Snobby, dreamy Claudia Kinkaid, who at 11 years old knows “she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away,” decides to run away from her middle-class home in Greenwich, Connecticut, because she feels vaguely that she has too many chores, and also she is bored. But that’s not what The Mixed-Up Files is about. It’s about the way Claudia chooses to run away.
Claudia, who is truly a role model to any adult, combines relentless practicality with a romantic soul. She chooses the Met as her destination because it is beautiful, and she loves beauty, and because it is comfortable, and she worships comfort. She chooses to take her 9-year-old brother Jamie along because he is cheap, never spends his allowance, and cheats at cards, so he has amassed a fortune that will keep her in luxury. (Jamie’s life savings are $24.43 in 1967 dollars, which in 2017 dollars works out to the astonishing sum of $178.42.)
Claudia plans out every detail of the escape plan. She and Jamie run away on music lesson day so they have their musical instrument cases to pack extra clothes in; Jamie is instructed to hide his trumpet in the blanket at the foot of his bed to avoid suspicion. Once they get to the museum, she embarks on an ambitious program of self-improvement: She and Jamie are to learn everything there is to know about one gallery for every day they spend at the museum.
It’s here that the plot, such as it is, enters the picture. The Met has just acquired a statue of an angel for $225, and the curators suspect it might be a previously unknown work by Michelangelo. Claudia and Jamie become determined to prove that it is, and their quest for proof takes them, eventually, to the statue’s former owner. That owner turns out to be our narrator, the titular Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, who also strikes me as a role model on rereading — perhaps because in her love of beauty, comfort, and practicality (her customary research outfit is a white lab coat and ornate pearl necklace) she resembles nothing so much as a grown-up Claudia.
But what is most memorable and evocative about the book is the details of Claudia and Jamie living in the museum: picking out an elaborate Elizabethan English bed to sleep in and then realizing with disappointment that it smells musty; hiding from their classmates in an Egyptian tomb; sneaking into the restaurant fountain at night to bathe. It’s enough to make anyone want to pack a trumpet case full of extra underwear and try their luck sneaking past the guards at the Met, alarms or no alarms.
Some of Claudia and Jamie’s favorite art isn’t at the Met anymore, but it’s still worth the trip
The Met’s Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler tour begins where the Fountain Restaurant used to be, in what is currently a classical art gallery. The loss of this restaurant in the 1970s made more room for the museum to display its collection, which is a net good, but I have always experienced it as a minor tragedy because Konigsburg’s description of the Fountain Restaurant — accompanied in my edition by a full-spread two-page illustration — is so dreamy:
Now about the restaurant. It is built around a gigantic fountain. Water in the fountain is sprayed from dolphins sculptured in bronze. The dolphins appear to be leaping out of the water. One their backs are figures representing the arts, figures that look like water sprites. It is a joy to sit around that wonderful fountain and to snack petit fours and sip espresso coffee.
Claudia and Jamie themselves don’t lounge around the fountain eating cakes — Jamie’s strict budget would never allow for such a thing — but they bathe in it after hours, using powdered soap they pilfer from the restrooms and carry to the fountain in paper towels. And they find coins there, thrown in by hopeful wish makers; this is to become their major source of income during their time at the museum.
The gallery where the restaurant used to be is currently built around a much smaller, plainer fountain that has absolutely no dolphins or water sprites whatsoever, but I will grudgingly admit that the classical statuary on display there is very lovely.
The tour group was there to admire some sarcophagi, because Claudia hides her violin case in “a beautifully carved Roman marble sarcophagus.” Such is Konigsburg’s careful eye for detail that we know that Claudia’s sarcophagus had no lid, because the logistics of two small children wrestling with a heavy marble lid don’t bear thinking about, but Saturday’s tour spent most of its time in front of one of the lidded sarcophagi, “because I think it’s more fun,” our docent said cheerfully. Its carvings tell the story of Theseus and the minotaur, which probably was more fun for the children of the tour group to discuss than the elaborate battle scene of the lidless sarcophagus nearby would have been.
Next we whisked quickly past Marie Antoinette’s writing table, where Claudia yearns to sit and pretend to be Marie Antoinette, and onward towards The Bed. The Bed is the only bed in the Met that meets Claudia and Jamie’s exacting standards: with “a tall canopy, supported by an ornately carved headboard at one end and by two gigantic posts at the other,” for Claudia, who “had always known she was meant for such fine things,” and for Jamie, an explanatory sign describing the bed as the “scene of the alleged murder of Amy Robsart, first wife of Lord Robert Dudley.” I myself have never been able to set foot in the Met without going on a pilgrimage to look for The Bed, and I am not alone.
Tragically, the bed that the tour saw was not the authentic Bed. The Amy Robsart bed was sold years ago, and its closest equivalent is shut up in the English wing, currently closed for renovations. Meaning that the one we saw wasn’t even English, but a bastardized French equivalent that utterly failed to offer either giant footboard posts or rumors of murder. Whatever; it was fine.
For our final stop, the tour visited the marble statue of Cupid sculpted by a 15-year-old Michelangelo, currently on loan at the Met. (The only Michelangelo in the Met’s permanent collection right now is a sketch.) It’s the closest equivalent there is to the angel sculpture of the book, but that’s a piece that cannot really be approximated in real life. Konigsburg’s angel, “the most beautiful, most graceful little statue [Claudia] had ever seen,” is exactly as beautiful and mysterious and ethereal as the reader imagines it to be. Michelangelo’s Cupid, while undoubtedly lovely, is disappointingly solid and real in comparison.
But that doesn’t mean the tour was a waste of time. What’s magical about the Met in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler isn’t so much the specific works of art that Claudia and Jamie see as it is the museum itself: enormous and beautiful and teeming with old and beautiful objects.
“More than a quarter of a million people come to that museum every week,” Konigsburg writes as Claudia and Jamie enter the Met. “They come from Mankato, Kansas, where they have no museums and from Paris, France, where they have lots. And they all enter free of charge because that’s what the museum is: great and large and wonderful and free to all. And complicated.”
Today the Met is only sort of free — there’s a suggested donation, so technically you can pay a penny to get in, but the sign would prefer you pay $25 — but if anything, the museum has only gotten bigger. One of the shocking things about the map our docent distributed of the Met in 1967 is how much of the current gallery space was given over to storage rooms back then. So while the art currently on display may not be an exact match for the art Claudia and Jamie saw, there is acres more of it now.
And 50 years later, it’s still great and wonderful and complicated, and — although the pedantic Claudia would despair at my grammar — well worth running away to. And so is From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.