The Commercial Appeal
“Where Have You Gone, Fannie Hurst?”
October 10, 1999
By Perre Magness, Special to the Commercial Appeal
During the 1920s and 1930s, Fannie Hurst was the highest-paid writer for popular magazines in America. Her name on the cover was sure to sell out an issue. She wrote 26 books, and many movies were made from her work, including Back Street and Imitation of Life, two of the greatest three-handkerchief movies ever made. Yet she has disappeared from not only the literary scene but from popular consciousness. If anyone thinks of her at all, it is with the vague designation “sob sister.” Brooke Kroeger tries to bring Hurst alive in her exhaustive biography, but somehow she misses.
Fannie Hurst was born in St. Louis in 1885, the homely daughter of stolid, unimaginative Jewish parents. Hers was a comfortable life, and she could hardly wait to leave it. Her first short story was published in 1910, and she persuaded her reluctant parents that she had to move to New York. Success came quickly; her stories about the sordid lives of working girls and the trials of immigrants were popular, and soon she was commanding high prices from the magazines that graced every middle-class home’s coffee table. She was singled out in a 1915 article in Vanity Fair as one of the “New York Women Who Earn $50,000 a Year.”
Hurst loved her celebrity. For the next four decades she knew everyone, and everyone wanted to know her. She married a pianist named Jacques Danielson in 1915, but for the first five years kept the marriage secret. When the news finally broke, the couple described their marriage as a sort of noble experiment. They lived in separate apartments in the same building, they each had their own friends and activities, and the system “kept the bloom on the rose” of romance. Hurst explained, “We are willing to pay the price in mutual sacrifices toward the preservation of one another’s individuality.” It apparently worked; despite an affair with Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Sefansson which lasted until 1939, she said nothing interfered with her devotion to Jacques.
As Hurst’s fame increased, she lent her name to many worthy causes. She became a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and through that friendship met even more important people. Kroeger insists that Fannie Hurst was consistently involved in progressive causes and women’s advancement, but she admits that mostly the writer just lent her name rather than doing any substantive work on issues.
More troubling is Hurst’s attitude toward her Jewish heritage. She was unmoved by religious ritual and frequently embarrassed by her co- religionists. Her unwillingness to press the Jewish case as Hitler came to power is at odds with her expressed opinions. Her attitude toward African-Americans is also contradictory. On one hand, she was an early supporter and a real friend of author and folk-tale collector Zora Neale Hurston, but her portraits of black characters are, as Kroeger says, “wince-worthy.”
Despite her fame, Hurst hankered after critical approval. She felt slighted by her alma mater, Washington University, when it took years to acknowledge her with an honorary degree, and she wanted to be taken seriously as a literary, not a popular, writer. When Hurst died in 1968, an editor summed up her reputation as “basically a fairly corny artist . . . Her stature as a storyteller was high; as a writer, low.”
A check of the public library and the Internet shows that while a few of Hurst’s books can be gotten from the stacks, only one is available in a reprint, while videos of the various versions of movies based on her stories are on the shelves. Nothing in this biography makes me want to rush out and search for her work.
Kroeger has written a detailed and thoroughly documented biography. There are 87 pages of notes, a chronological list of her stories and novels and a list of films based on her plots. Despite all this, Fannie Hurst never comes alive. I don’t really know about her feelings toward her parents, the source of her ambition, her real feelings toward her husband and lover, the depth of her commitment to her stated causes. All I know is that she wanted to be famous, and she was.
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For National History Day contestants. Upcoming — January 30: Iona College. February 4: Sagamore Hill. March 27: Ephemera Society of America. April 4: Avon-on-Sea Public Library, Avon CT June 4-6: “Métiers et professions des médias (XVIIIe-XXIe siècles),” Université de Lausanne. Link to past appearances.
Coming March 2020: Front Pages, Front Lines: Media and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage, Linda Steiner, Carolyn Kitch, Brooke Kroeger, eds.