From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the beloved children’s book by E.L. Konigsburg about a pair of siblings who run away from home and begin living in the Museum of Modern Art, celebrates its 50th anniversary today.
Revisiting the book today The Smithsonian notes that Elaine Lobl Konigsburg’s novel was inspired by many true stories and people in her life. A failed chemist who grew up in suburban Pennsylvania, she began writing as a hobby when she wasn’t taking care of her three kids. Often, while taking art classes in New York City, Konigsburg would drop off her children at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and her daughter Laurie inspired the book’s protagonist Claudia.
Once after seeing a piece of popcorn on a historical chair behind rope at the Met, Konigsburg couldn’t stop thinking about how it got there. “Had someone sneaked in one night—it could not have happened during the day—slipped behind the barrier, sat in that chair, and snacked on popcorn?” she wrote in an article for the Met’s Museum Kids magazine. The anecdote, along with this story, helped inspire her to write From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler:
In October 1965, Konigsburg found a more specific inspiration—one that set the mystery at the heart of the book in motion. At the time, the New York art world was obsessed with the question of whether a sculpture purchased by the Met for $225 was actually a work by Leonardo da Vinci. (It is now believed to be a da Vinci from 1475.) Konigsburg reimagined the statue as “Angel,” the could-be-a-Michelangelo that captures Claudia’s imagination and leads her to the mansion of the titular Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. As in real life, the fictional heiress purchased the statue for a few hundred bucks.
The timelessness of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler might be due to the fact that while its premise seems completely impossible in 2017, back in 1967, before constant video surveillance and motion sensors, before the idea of kids running away from home became so awful, the idea of sneaking into the Met and living there seemed a tiny bit possible, at least in my mind as a child reading the book.
While a few of the period rooms and locations referenced are gone from the museum, like the Fountain of Muses, the Met will be hosting art tours in July based on the locations in the book. And hey, maybe if you just stay a little bit after closing in a bathroom or some ancient wooden chest, you can live out the fantasy of the book too. Just don’t smoke in the bathroom, okay?