“Fannie: The Talent for Success of Writer Fannie Hurst”
August 8, 1999, B14
By Wendy Smith
WITH HER dramatic hats, flashy jewelry and stylish clothes, Fannie Hurst was the model of the popular female author in her long heyday during the years bookended by World Wars I and II. She was one of America’s best-paid and most successful short-story writers in a period when mass-circulation magazines made their contributors household names; her novels sold well and were snapped up by Hollywood, which turned “Back Street” and “Imitation of Life” into tear-jerking classics.
The tireless Hurst also kept herself in the public eye as a dedicated promoter of liberal causes, particularly feminism and civil rights, and she was always willing to crank out a nonfiction piece on anything from her diet – she famously shed 40 pounds in the 1920s – to her marriage. (When it was revealed in 1920 that she and pianist Jacques Danielson had been wed for five years but lived apart, “a Fannie Hurst marriage” became the catchphrase for a modern union of equals.) She even had some modest late-life success as a television personality: Her enormous faux-emerald ring caught viewers’ eyes, and her affected Mid-Atlantic accent, acquired early to replace the plebeian midwestern cadences of her native St. Louis, was just what early network audiences expected from a celebrity author.
Like most pop fiction, Hurst’s books did not outlive their cultural moment and are little read today, though academics frequently cite them as windows into immigrant life and working women’s struggles during the first half of the 20th Century. As she did in her previous biography of journalist Nellie Bly, Brooke Kroeger makes it her business to recapture for contemporary readers Hurst’s prominent place in American popular culture, limning a busy life in an enjoyable narrative. Kroeger prefers to illuminate her subject’s significance and personality primarily through quotations and brief comments, an approach that can be frustratingly elliptical, but the unpretentious, readable text partly justifies the author’s decision to eschew extended analysis.
Kroger certainly conveys a vivid impression of Hurst’s forceful personality in her first chapter on Fannie’s undergraduate years at Washington University.
“Her vitality was legendary on campus; she never seemed to sleep … classwork always came a distant second to acting, writing, editing, sports … a dorm-mate remembered Fannie not as brilliant but as robust and vigorous, someone who ‘enjoyed living in every fiber of her being’ … Nothing seems to have sated Fannie’s need for attention.” Entertaining though this section is, it would have been more meaningful if it had been immediately followed by an account of Hurst’s childhood, so that readers could discern the origins of her driven nature in her upbringing and her relationship with her parents, identified in the opening pages only as “comfortable, assimilated German Jews with deadening middle-class aspirations.” Instead, Kroeger waits until the narrative reaches 1940, when Hurst was at work on an autobiography, to turn back to Fannie’s birth in 1885 and to summarize her first 18 years in a scant 18 pages.
This odd decision leaves glaring unanswered questions in the story of Hurst’s early years as an aspiring writer, reluctantly living at home for a year before moving to New York City in 1910 against her parents’ wishes. Even after her shopgirl stories began to make her reputation and she was enjoying “the freewheeling, freethinking atmosphere of New York on the cusp of the Roaring Twenties,” this dutiful daughter still wrote her parents every day and made lengthy visits to St. Louis four or five times annually. Kroeger’s statement that “the hold of home was very difficult to throw off” appears in a vacuum, since we as yet know nothing of the childhood experiences that created that hold. Nor do we understand the psychological forces that drew Hurst to the lives of poor immigrant women as subjects for her fiction, a lack that muffles the impact of her triumph in bringing this neglected material into the literary mainstream.
Biography fans looking only for a good story well told will probably not be bothered by this portrait’s analytic shortcomings. Kroeger chronicles Hurst’s myriad activities with engaging verve; her summaries of the stories’ and novels’ plots are lucid, her critical judgments gentle. (Once again, however, the contrast between the lavish praise of Hurst’s editors and the generally savage assessments of literary critics cries out for evaluation it does not receive.) The biographer obviously likes her subject, and readers will share her affection. The detailed account of Hurst’s publishing career reveals a no-nonsense working writer who generally tried to do her best – and get the best pay for it – but didn’t complain when changing tastes reduced her commercial value in the 20 years before her death in 1968.
Hurst does not seem to have been an introspective woman, and it must be admitted that there are times when her own words are so suggestive that they require no elaboration. “Wise is the man or woman who does his mental, spiritual and physical valeting in propinquity to no one,” she wrote in a 1923 magazine essay. “The perils of propinquity lie in moral, mental and physical unfastidiousness” – a comment that explains a great deal about Hurst’s essential aloofness (never entirely masked by her gregarious manner) and at least hints at the possibility that an overbearing parental embrace prompted it. Kroeger’s discussion of Hurst’s nearly two-decade affair with the American Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson is well positioned after this quote: Even though her biographer does not explicitly say so, Hurst’s remarks on propinquity display a belief in compartmentalizing one’s life that must have served her well when juggling husband and lover.
“Fannie” brings to our attention an intriguing, appealing woman who for a time played an important role in American cultural life. As is often the case with Hurst’s fiction, the pleasures of lively storytelling and a warm authorial heart compensate here for lack of depth.
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