“Biography Captures Hurst’s Life, Gift for Storytelling”
March 26, 2000, F6
By Ema P. Eaton
“Imitation of Life” was the title of one of Fannie Hurst’s most successful novels, made into films several times. It also echoed the story of her extraordinary life.
She became not only a success, but the highest paid magazine short story writer in the country in the 1920s at $4,000 a story. Even so, there were no Pulitzer Prizes, and critical acclaim often had a backhanded ring to it.
But then her readers loved her.
When she died in 1968 at age 82, her obituary made the front page of the New York Times. Even though her name had appeared there more than 200 times, only remaining loyal readers knew who she was.
Hurst’s life and gift for storytelling are excellent material for Brooke Kroeger, her equally gifted storyteller-biographer, a journalist of international repute and author of a biography of National Women’s Hall of Fame journalist Nellie Bly.
A “sob sister” and crusader, Hurst was an overweight girl from St. Louis, Mo., with strict but nonpracticing German-Jewish parents. Although she later would fictionalize her parents’ affluence, she wrote about what she saw and knew first hand of the human condition – – life in a boardinghouse, the existances of shop girls and domestics. Her novel “Lummox” about the suffering and futile life of a servant girl is a crowning achievement.
Her marriage to pianist Jacques “Jack” Danielson, who had Russian citizenship, was kept secret for five years for some reason unknown to this day, according to Kroeger. Their living arrangements, even for sophisticated Manhattan, were thoroughly modern for 1915. They maintained separate apartments in the same building and saw one another by appointment, leaving each one free to pursue their creative careers.
The New York Times reported the marriage in May, 1920, in conjunction with the film premiere of another of her famous novels that was adapted several times by Hollywood, “Humoresque.” Having become a household name, Hurst lent her name to social causes she wrote for newspapers and magazines. Not only was she outspoken on the subject of racial discrimination, she practiced what she preached.
She was a supporter of writers Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy West. She also traveled with Hurston at a time when hotel and dining accommodations were separate, confounding a matre d’ who refused to seat them by referring to her companion as “the Princess Zora.”
Hurst She also was highly critical of women who depended upon their husbands for financial support. Kroeger refers to her “as a vociferous and incisive commentator of the progress of women’s advancement after the granting of the vote in 1920. Fannie had the forthrightness never to hesitate to fault women themselves for the opportunities they squandered, especially after the 20th century’s two world wars.”
Kroeger notes that three of Hurst’s plays were produced on Broadway, but not very successfully; 32 of her stories were made into Hollywood films, although Hurst was not a collaborator and was not pleased with the interpretations. She nevertheless enjoyed a celebrity status among Hollywood celebrities.
Perhaps her greatest fiction was her autobiography, in which she interpreted incidents differently from their origins and so obliquely described her affair of many years with the Arctic explorer and lecturer Vilhjalmur Stefansson that the women he married after the affair was over did not recognize him.
Kroeger’s polite comment is, “As would become plain in the course of researching this book, imagination and a good story line often overwhelmed both Fannie’s ability and her inclination to recall events accurately.”
Copyright Buffalo News Mar 26, 2000
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Upcoming events: Oct. 19: East Hampton Library. Oct. 22: Author’s Talk & Tea: Woodlawn Conservancy. Oct. 26: Talk Back at the Black Box Theater for Nancy Smithner’s “Hear Them Roar: The Fight for Women’s Rights.” Nov. 5: Holiday Book Signing at the Beekman Arms in Rhinebeck, NY. Nov. 6: Brentwood Public Library Nov. 7: NYU Center for the Humanities. Nov. 10: Gotham Center for NYC History/CUNY Graduate Center Nov. 16: Book & Bottle: Suffolk County Historical Society & Museum. Nov. 17-18 Researching New York Conference, Albany. Nov. 20: Brookhaven League of Women Voters. March 10: Keynote, Joint Journalism & Communications Historians Conference, New York City.
Parting shots of: the book launch events of Sept. 1 in East Hampton; Sept. 11 in NYC and Sept. 14 in Cambridge Mass. I’ve got comment and a video (expected soon) of the Sept. 28 event with Angela P. Dodson at the NY Society Library I spoke at the NY Genealogical & Biographical Society Fall Luncheon on Oct. 10 to an audience in which men were very well represented. Oct. 14, I presented on a panel at the AJHA Convention, Little Rock, Ark., on ‘When the Women of Suffrage Got Its Makeover On.” More to come on that.