My grandfather, illustrator Garth Williams - part 3

When I talk about my aunts and uncles on my mother's side it gets confusing in about a second.

My grandfather was married four times and had six children.

And my grandmother also remarried and had a second family. So my mother, who is the eldest child, has four sisters, three brothers and a step-brother, and her youngest sister is nearly forty years younger.

Like I said, confusing.

Garth Williams and family reunion

Family reunion with Grandpapa Garth and all his daughters. From left: my aunt Jessica, my mother Fiona, my brother Garth, Grandpapa Garth, his wife Leticia, me, my aunt Bettina and her son Darren. On the steps: my aunt Estyn, her son Maro (leaning in), my aunt Dilys (on Estyn's lap) and Estyn's husband Nick.

Garth Williams with wife Dorothea Dessauer in New York City

After their wartime separation my grandparents were never reunited and they eventually divorced. My grandmother, Gunda, stayed in Canada.

My grandfather, Garth, returned to New York from England. He married Dorothea Dessauer who was from a Austrian Jewish family. She had been sent to England in her teens to escape the anti-semitic persecution at home. Ultimately her parents were killed in Auschwitz. She and Garth met at the London artists' co-op.

Garth and Dorothea had two children, my aunts Estyn and Jessica. They moved to Aspen, Colorado, when Aspen was becoming a town full of artists and musicians and were an integral part of the town's cultural life.

Dorothea and Garth too eventually divorced. 

Alicia Rayas, 3rd wife of Garth Williams

After Garth had moved to Mexico he married Alicia Rayas, who already had a son, my uncle Juan, and Garth and she had a second son, my uncle Dylan.

Garth Williams with family in Switzerland

Garth's final marriage was to Leticia Vargas Arredondo and at the age of sixty-six he became a father for the last time, to my aunt Dilys.

I feel lucky to have this sprawling extended family Mexico, Canada and the United States. So even though I grew up in Europe, when I moved to the U.S. I had family here, and within driving distance in Canada.

When I started writing these blogs, my aunt Dilys sent me a lot of the photographs that I've been posting, including this one, that is labeled as the location of the Laura Ingalls Wilder book On the Banks of Plum Creek.

In preparation for illustrating the Little House in the Prairie series, Garth met with Laura and travelled to several of the locations.

Location of Laura Ingalls Wilder book On the Banks of Plum Creek

Covered prairie wagon - Laura Ingalls Wilder Garth Williams illustration

Garth Williams visiting Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead in De Smet South Dakota

Garth standing in front of the Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead in De Smet, South Dakota.

I think this picture must have been taken in 1986. He was invited to come back to De Smet to give a talk (he had visited the town in the '40s while researching the Ingalls Wilder books). Apparently there were so many people in attendance at the 1986 event that he kept signing books for six hours.

Garth Williams illustration from the Rabbit's Wedding

I think that The Rabbits' Wedding, a book that he both wrote and illustrated, may be his most beautiful work. The pictures have a dreamy softness and you can practically feel the thickness of the rabbits' fur.

The book tells the story of a black and a white rabbit who decide to marry.

The book gained national attention when it was attacked in an Alabama newspaper for promoting interracial marriage (!!!). As a result, Alabama libraries pulled the book from their shelves.

Garth Williams illustration from the Rescuers

This is one of my favorite illustrations by Garth, showing many of my favorite things — tea, an ambitious project, and knitting with friends. It's full of the warmth and charm that make his drawings so delightful.

Garth Williams next to cover of Charlotte's Web

Garth died twenty-two years ago, at the age of 84.

Yet his legacy remains very much alive, both in my own life and in the culture at large.


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  • Did your grandfather ever do family portraits? I would kill for one done in his imitable style.

    Stacy Campbell on

  • What book is the “strive to excel” illustration from?

    Meg on

  • Dear Barbara,
    I would love to know what happened to your aunt Bettina. She was one of whom I shared a house with, for some months, in Mexico City , in1964 or 5. We visited your grandfather’s house in Guanahuato briefly….and of course I adored his illustrations. I am now 82, was British, but have lived in France for 50 years.
    With warmest wishes, Susan Cerezo

    Susan Cerezo on

  • What was the names of Garth Williams parents, your great grandparents?

    Laura Wilder on

  • You’ve laid it out clearly, but I still have trouble keeping your family straight in my mind. Still fascinating. 😳

    Barbara Ball on

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