December 1, 2004
Bookforum: “Luxury and Degradation: David Rimanelli on Fannie Hurst:”
“Read It and Weep”
December 2004/January 2005
By David Rimanelli
When an interviewer asked Douglas Sirk whether he had read Fannie Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life, the best-seller of 1933 that Sirk and Ross Hunter brought to the screen in the late ’50s as the gaudily perverse apogee of the women’s weepies genre, the great director commented: “As far as I remember, Ross Hunter gave me the book, which I . . . didn’t read. I had the feeling that this kind of American novel would definitely disillusion me. The style, the words, the narrative attitude would be in the way of my getting enthusiastic.” Having trudged through Hurst’s book with the best intentions of a dutiful schoolboy, I can only sympathize. As the rudiments of the plot were familiar to me from the film, I found myself dwelling on the author’s peculiar style. Hurst’s prose lurches between achingly constipated turgidity and a bookish coed’s bursting, breathless effusions of poetical afflatus. A penchant for redundancy couples with outlandish mixed metaphors; the offspring may well bear an accidental (and hysterical) resemblance to modernist literary modes, as in this killer sentence: “An early memory . . . stalked across the retina of her memory.” Such prose could pass as a translation from Tristan Tzara. Hurst’s second novel, the hugely best-selling, attractively titled Lummox (1923), also garnered a favorable critical response. One reviewer suggested the influence of Gertrude Stein on Hurst’s prose, citing this passage: “It was good to set out the milk bottles. Six in a row. They were so there. Quarts. Bulge. Dimension.” Against this quotation I’ll place a dazzlingly horrid one from Imitation of Life: “There the ocean, as it rolled in, full of lips that seemed to dump their mysterious chatter onto shore and then drag it out again untranslated, was not just part of the monkey-shine of carnival . . . It made Bea secretly ashamed to be caught up in the inner turmoil this old ocean engendered. Old gray crocodile. Old gray devil-man. Old boiling cauldron of old wisdoms. . . . Old pain. Old, old joys. . . .” Hurst’s evocation of thalassic majesty and terror appears on pages 19 and 20. The 1959 reprint of Imitation of Life, which coincided with the release of Sirk’s movie, is 284 pages long-in short, a hard row to hoe.
The daughter of middle-class German Jews from Saint Louis, Hurst was possessed of a steamrolling ambition that enabled her to parlay her modest talent into box office boffo. She was one of the most successful writers of the first half of the twentieth century; today she’s forgotten. In 1915, with her reputation already established by the short stories she had published in the Saturday Evening Post and other periodicals, Hurst began to receive some august invitations. P.G. Wodehouse asked her to tea, as did Willa Cather. When the author of O Pioneers! remarked that, were she still a magazine editor, she would definitely publish Hurst’s stories, Hurst interpreted this adequate compliment as a criticism: Gather, she assumed, didn’t care for her writing but understood that it could sell magazines. “A bleeder under criticism, real or implied,” Hurst wrote in her 1958 autobiography, Anatomy of Me. “I was affected by her words as if a buzz saw were cutting me.” She became a favorite target of snide literary pundits as her fame and wealth bloomed outrageously; parodies abounded, such as Christopher Ward’s Stummox by “Fannie Wurst.” In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, Tom d’Invilliers deplored “Fanny” Hurst as just another one of those authors-of-the-moment who had “not produced among ’em one story or novel that will last ten years.” (In Anatomy of Me, Hurst in turn contributed her own dim view of Fitzgerald, “Princeton’s pride and joy”: “This Side of Paradise held up to a dead-eyed, postwar generation a picture of itself, too often dead drunk. Certainly an authentic interpretation from Fitzgerald’s point of view, an interpretation which reeled because he reeled.”) Fitzgerald also wrote caustically about Hurst to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, who had praised Hurst’s talent, describing her and Edna Ferber as “the Yiddish descendents of O. Henry.” Even friends could be mean. After the commercial success of the original film version of Imitation of Life, John Stahl’s 1934 vehicle for Claudette Colbert, the author Zora Neale Hurston-who served briefly as Hurst’s secretary, becoming a close friend, and whose writing Hurst actively championed-assured her socially progressive patron that the book had attracted “a grand set of admirers.” Prior to that, however, as Brooke Kroeger reports in her sympathetic Hurst biography, Langston Hughes wrote Hurst a rather disingenuous letter “in which he expressed to her his gratitude, ‘as a Negro,’ for her having helped to bring ‘the first serious treatment of the Negro problem in America’ to the screen. A year later Hughes wrote a biting parody of the film entitled ‘Limitations of Life.’. . . Hughes had cleverly reversed all the roles, so that a black Claudette Colbert got her feet rubbed by a white mammy to hilarious and very pointed effect.”
But let’s be real. Despite the earnest attempts of Kroeger and Daniel Itzkovitz, editor of the newly reissued Imitation of Life (Duke University Press) and coeditor of Queer Theory and the Jewish Question, nobody gives a damn about Hurst’s literary reputation, the manifold social and political causes she backed, her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, or her extreme dieting fads, not to mention her less-than-dramatic personal life (no Vita Sackville-West, she). No, Fannie Hurst lives on because several of her stories and novels were made into movies that people still watch-above and beyond the rest, the third incarnation of Imitation of Life, Sirk’s. (Aside from Stahl’s and Sirk’s adaptations, Hurst’s filmography includes a 1948 Mexican version as well-Angelitos Negros, unavailable even at “class” video stores.)
Like so many best-sellers-these days, like so many novels, period-Imitation of Life is a terrible book desperate to be made into a satisfactory movie. One year after its publication, Stahl, a sturdy if not visionary director, came out with a film version that didn’t stray far from Hurst’s original, much to the author’s delight. For film viewers accustomed to Sirk’s 1959 version, Stahl’s movie comes as a surprise: Although both films adhere to the basic outlines of Hurst’s novel, Sirk’s departs radically in his casting of the Miss Lora character as an aspiring actress; in Stahl’s picture, on the other hand, Miss Bea (played by Colbert) and the overwhelmingly Aunt Jemimaesque Delilah go into the pancake business together. Bea, recognizing the allure of Delilah’s secret flapjack recipe, employs her shrewd business acumen and winning feminine charm to set up shop for them on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Eventually they go corporate, and when Bea asks Delilah to sign the incorporation agreement, the latter hesitates, because Miss Bea glowingly exclaims (my paraphrase), You’ll be rich! You can have your own house! But no: Please don’t send Delilah away. I wants to take care of you and be your cook like always. Ultimately Miss Bea relents, adding with a laugh that she will have to deposit the profits in the bank for Delilah-this is where Delilah makes her first reference to the grand, preposterous funeral that so many of us remember from Sirk’s film.
Whatever her limitations as a writer, though, Hurst deserves our warmest thanks for providing the template for some great movies. (In addition to imitation of Life, I’m reminded of the second film version of Humoresque, starring Joan Crawford and quite removed, plotwise, from Hurst’s heartwarming “Yiddish O. Henry” story.) Stahl’s Imitation of Life provides an unexpected, no less bizarre treat than Sirk’s remake. But the Sirk version, his final Hollywood venture and perhaps the pinnacle of ’50s melodrama, remains the vastly superior work of art, though I still find myself tendentiously explaining why to people who think it’s just treacly junk. (Their idea of Hollywood art is probably American Beauty or The Hours, even if the latter, pompous and excruciating as it is, belongs squarely in the women’s weepies genre.) Aside from its archly contrived compositions and crazy-genius palettes, its quadruple-innuendo high-drama moments and tactically “off” characters, Sirk’s film is a glittering diamond of cinematic art, thanks to his transformation of the pancake queen Miss Bea into the demoniac-of-ambition thespian Miss Lora. Sirk reframes the racial question-the devoted housekeeper’s light-skinned daughter who insists on passing-as the story of two actresses, Lana Turner’s Miss Lora (“I’m going up and up and up!” as she snarls at her feeble love interest, the handsome, clueless, wooden John Gavin) and Susan Kohner’s passing bad girl, Sarah Jane (“I’m white. White!” she shrieks into the mirror as it reflects her hapless mammy in the background). Sirk’s commentary: “The only interesting thing is the Negro angle: the Negro girl trying to escape her condition, sacrificing to her status in society her bonds of friendship, family, etc., and rather trying to vanish into the imitation world of vaudeville.”
Final note: Susan Kohner is the daughter of one of Sirk’s expatriated German-Jewish colleagues.
In this column, writers dilate on their reading enthusiasms of the season.