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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

For the next few mornings, we're going to be talking about American lives. We'll hear about the life stories of a business tycoon, a sports hero, and this morning, one of the best-loved writers in American literature. For many, Louisa May Alcott is synonymous with her most famous character, Jo March, the spirited sister in the Alcott classic "Little Women."

And while the real Louisa and the fictitious Jo do have many things in common, in fact, their lives are very different. The real life of Louisa May Alcott is the subject of the newest "American Masters," premiering on PBS tonight.

Harriet Reisen wrote and produced the film, and she joins us from our studio in New York. Welcome.

Ms. HARRIET REISEN (Writer, Producer, "The Woman Behind Little Women"): Thank you very much.

WERTHEIMER: We so identify the March family in "Little Women" with the Alcotts. Basically, you make the point in the program that a lot of this was marketing.

Ms. REISEN: Yes. I think Louisa made herself a brand, called the Children's Friend, and she suppressed the fact that she had written pulp fiction that included stories about spies and transvestites and drug takers, and that her own life was very atypical.

WERTHEIMER: She really did grow up in an extraordinary political atmosphere. Her father, a very free-thinking educator, he and the family were friends with some of the most famous people of their day. What is it about this man Bronson Alcott that he was so attractive to so many people and yet somehow never quite managed to earn a living and take care of his family?

Ms. REISEN: Well, as Louisa put it, he was a man in a balloon with his family holding the ropes trying to hold him down to earth. He seemed to live on air and in the air and had no concern about earning a living. And it didn't seem to bother him that his family was literally starving.

WERTHEIMER: At the same time, people like Ralph Waldo Emerson thought he was -he referred to him as a demigod. His friends were Hawthorne and Thoreau and Longfellow. And what a peculiar man he must have been.

Ms. REISEN: Well, he was an idealist, ahead of his time, and people like Emerson saw that. So, he guided himself by his own stars. And it was interesting in that Bronson Alcott explored Eastern religions. And actually, towards the end of her life, Louisa May Alcott confessed that she believed in reincarnation. So, she's not the little woman you thought she was, and her life was no children's book.

WERTHEIMER: One of the big differences, of course, in the real life and the children's book, is economic. The March family in "Little Women" were not wealthy. They lived in genteel poverty. The real Alcott family lived in serious, grinding, horrible poverty and real need. I mean, they went hungry.

Ms. REISEN: That's right. They really ate bread and water for stretches. She was hungry, and she worked to rescue her family from poverty. And part of her story is a real Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches tale.

WERTHEIMER: We're going to play a little clip from the documentary. This is Elizabeth Marvel, who plays Louisa Alcott. She has been reading her diaries, the diaries that she wrote when she was a little child, and she's talking about the impact of being very poor.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Woman Behind Little Women")

Ms. ELIZABETH MARVEL (Actor): (as Louisa May Alcott) Little Lou began early to feel the family cares and peculiar trials. I never forgot this experience. My little cross began to grow heavier from this hour.

WERTHEIMER: So, from the time she was a little kid, she began to vow a mighty vow that she was going to see to it that her family didn't have to be poor.

Ms. REISEN: That's right. She said I wish I was rich, I was good and we were all a happy family this day. And she'd just turned 11 when she wrote that.

WERTHEIMER: But you know the impression that you have in "Little Women," I mean, the sort of high-mindedness, it's just a huge contrast with what really drove Louisa May Alcott - and not in a good way - which was being very poor.

Ms. REISEN: That's right. She said money is the means and end of my mercenary existence. And she wrote what she called moral pap for the young because it pays well.

WERTHEIMER: Now, what about the book "Hospital Sketches"? That was a collection of letters that she wrote when she was a nurse in a Civil War hospital here in Washington. That was, according to your documentary, a breakthrough book. Why was that?

Ms. REISEN: It was a breakthrough because she wrote from what she knew. She had been writing flower fables, children's stories and sentimental stories for story papers, for shop girls, that were really based on her reading. "Hospital Sketches'" was based on this dreadful but fascinating experience she had as a nurse in the Civil War hospital and the aftermath of the bloody battle of Fredericksburg.

WERTHEIMER: One of the most interesting things that Bronson Alcott says in the film you have, he said about her when she went off to do this stint of nursing in Washington that he's sending his only son to war.

Ms. REISEN: Louisa actually wound up having to be not only the breadwinner and take that classically male role, but when her younger sister died, she took the role of the daughter who doesn't marry and who takes care of the aged parents.

WERTHEIMER: But she was, in many ways, wasn't she, a feminist? I mean, remaining unmarried, earning money and so forth - she was in control of her situation.

Ms. REISEN: Well, that was very much part of it. She saw her mother really dependent on this improvident husband and she saw the position of most married women who she felt were marrying as an economic solution, and she said I'd rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe. And she said, and I love luxury, but freedom and independence better.

WERTHEIMER: What do you think is the legacy of Louisa May Alcott? The kind of sweetness of "Little Women" or something else?

Ms. REISEN: Oh, I think it's something else. I think it's really empowerment, empowerment of women and girls around the world and since the time "Little Women" was published in 1868. I came across a comment from a Korean woman who said, you don't grow up to walk two steps behind your husband when you've met Jo March.

The countless number of women who say that they believed that they could do something, they could take fate by the throat and shake a living out of it, is another thing that she says, because Jo March was a very flawed, passionate character who did not always do right and made lots of mistakes and succeeded and drove herself and didn't pay attention to the things girls weren't supposed to do. So I really do think that's her legacy.

WERTHEIMER: Harriet Reisen wrote and produced the film on the real life of Louisa May Alcott, which is the newest "American Masters." That's on PBS tonight. Harriet Reisen, thank you very much.

Ms. REISEN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: You can watch scenes from "The Woman Behind Little Women" on our Web site at npr.org. Tomorrow, the life of America's first tycoon: Cornelius Vanderbilt.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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