'Misty of Chincoteague' tale gallops on Horse: Marguerite Henry, who died recently, wrote 59 books, but her tale of two orphans and a horse remains a breed apart.

Remember When

December 28, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

There aren't many books more widely read by Maryland children than "Misty of Chincoteague," the story of two orphans, Paul and Maureen Beebe, who live with their grandparents in Chincoteague, Va., and dream of rearing a wild pony.

The heart-warming tale, which has charmed readers for 50 years and has been translated into a dozen languages, was written by Marguerite Henry, who died at her home in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., last month at the age of 95.

Henry wrote 59 books, including "King of the Wind," "Justin Morgan Had a Horse," "Brighty of the Grand Canyon," and "Born to Trot." But it was her tale of the white pony with brown markings that has become her most enduring work.

"Misty," often called the "Black Beauty of this generation," was written after Henry visited Chincoteague Island to see the annual wild-pony roundup and decided it would make a great children's novel.

The book used the names of real people, places and situations, including Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Beebe, who operated a horse ranch there, as well as their grandchildren Paul and Maureen Beebe.

"The first night I was here I went out to Grandpa Beebe's ranch and there were Paul and Maureen sitting on a fence," Henry told The Sun in 1960, the year her book was made into a movie by 20th Century Fox.

"I asked them what they most wanted in the world and they said a pony. Grandpa Beebe sold the ponies every year and they never got a chance to keep one," she said.

In the novel, Paul and Maureen work odd jobs to earn enough money to buy their dream pony, Phantom, a wild and high-spirited mare from the Assateague game preserve.

Paul, the young hero, rescues Phantom's foal, Misty, from a whirlpool during the somewhat treacherous swim from Assateague to Chincoteague, and then, with his sister, Maureen, raises the pony on their grandfather's farm.

Actually, Henry bought Misty in 1946 from the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department and took her home to her farm in Illinois. Henry kept the mare in a meadow near her home, and Misty quickly became a favorite of children. After 11 years, Henry sent Misty back to the Beebes, who kept the mare on their ranch until her death in 1972.

The film version of the book starred Arthur O'Connell and Anne Seymour as Grandpa and Grandma Beebe, and Pam Smith and David Ladd (son of actor Alan Ladd) as Maureen and Paul Beebe. It was filmed on location on both Chincoteague and Assateague islands. Misty, then 14 years old, was played by another pony.

The movie also featured Sun reporter Ralph Reppert, who had been sent to Chincoteague with photographer A. Aubrey Bodine to write a feature on the making of the movie for the Sunday Sun Magazine.

Reporter turned extra

Director James Clark, spotting Reppert, talked the reporter into playing a brief scene in which he buys a pony.

"In the shooting, I bought a pony from Arthur O'Connell. While the two of us loaded the animal into a small trailer, I told him my son would be tickled pink with this pony, exchanged some other small talk, and then wished him good luck with his pony ranch and drove off," wrote Reppert of the experience.

Reppert was paid $100 for his appearance as an extra, minus $10 to join Actors' Equity and a $5 contribution to the Actors Retirement Fund.

"When I got my $100 it has shrunk to $85. Still not bad for two or three minutes of work," wrote Reppert.

Misty remained in the news even after the release of "Misty of Chincoteague."

When the powerful March 1962 nor'easter rolled up the East Coast and drowned 55 ponies on Assateague, The Sun said, "There was one bright spot in the storm news today. Misty, the pony hero of the film 'Misty of Chincoteague,' apparently is safe."

Actually, Misty, who was expecting her third foal, rode out the storm in the safety of the Beebes' kitchen. Ten days later, Misty gave birth to a filly, which Beebe named Storm.

In 1972, Misty died "on the island where she was born and which she made so famous," reported The Sun. She was 26.

When she died, her skin was not interred with her bones. It was tanned and shipped to Glen Burnie, where it was stuffed by taxidermist Charles Oxenham and his wife, Bea, reported The Evening Sun.

"It was nerve-wracking. You'd better believe this is the hardest thing I've ever done," Oxenham told a reporter.

'The story lives on'

The project took a year, but afterward Misty was returned to Chincoteague. Today, she is on display at the Chincoteague Pony Farm. A bronze replica of the famous pony stands on the old Beebe farm on Ridge Road, which is open year round for tourists.

At Misty's death, an editorial in The Sun said, "What distinguishes Misty from her fellow Chincoteagues and from all other ponies everywhere was her story. Here was a classic story of childhood and innocence, of the bond which can grow between a child and an animal, between two children and between them and their grandparents.

" What the story illuminates, in its simple and low-key way, is the human capacity for warmth and unselfishness which is a capacity not always predominant and which, to go by the rest of the news, sometimes may not be there at all.

"Misty is dead, and that's the least of it. The Misty story lives on, a tiny light in the gritty gloom."

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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