Fannie, Post, Undaunted
Imitation of Life, Zora Neale Hurston, and the Forgotten Cassandra of Feminism’s Second Wave, Fannie Hurst
In an essay for Slant about the new Blu-ray DVD release of the 1934 melodrama, Imitation of Life, Eric Henderson made a spot-on assertion about Fannie Hurst, the long-forgotten novelist who received what today would be nearly a million dollars for first serial rights to that story.
Hurst, he wrote, “has languished in comparative obscurity for a writer who was ahead of her time in both gender representation and the progressive nature of her politics.” He called it a “pretty damning snapshot of the sexism that drives canonical maintenance” that her work is neither as respected or well known as “the artless, proselytizing scratchings of one Upton Sinclair.”
New York Times, February 23, 1968, 1
- I know something about Fannie Hurst because I wrote her biography, published thirty years after she died on February 23, 1968 at 78. To press Henderson’s point about her lack of recognition, the subtitle had to include the word Writer.
I only learned of her existence by scouring The New York Times Obituary Index for women whose deaths made the newspaper’s front page in 1968.* In Fannie‘s case, and to emphasize just how big a deal she was, the Times devoted another half page inside to her life and work plus a warm appreciation among the day’s editorials. And yet the vast popularity she experienced throughout her adult life vanished soon after she left her grand triplex in the Hotel des Artistes for the last time.
It might seem odd to make the date and placement of an obituary the prime criterion for choosing a person to write about, but that is what I was doing. I was looking for women who led extraordinary lives during feminism’s bleak nadir, from the 1920s to the early 1960s, and who died as its second wave crashed onto the shoreline.
I was a college sophomore in 1968, in the thick of feminism’s new rise but with little to no awareness of its rich history. Women’s Studies would not become an academic discipline for another couple of years. I wanted my next book to answer a question that haunted me while I researched the life of Nellie Bly, the subject of my first biography, published in 1994. During Bly’s lifetime, 1864-1922, the lot of women improved dramatically. Ten years before women won the vote in 1920, for example, women had become prevalent enough in the work force for an economist to be weighing the value of their working outside the home against the cost of household help.
I figured that if I found just the right glorious life, it could provide a way to explain the causes that sent women’s advancement into a fifty-year-long retreat after World War I. Why, in the 1970s, did the ground already broken have to be re-plowed as if it had never been plowed before, making would-be “trailblazers” and “pioneers” of women who really were just clearing out a lot of gnarly overgrowth and underbrush? What caused the erasure of the many societal gains American women had been making since the 1840s?
The Fannie Hurst story had it all: 18 novels and 3 other books; her 140 short stories (not including the dozens of shorts ones for a syndicate); 8 published collections of the stories and 32 films based on her work, including Imitation of Life—twice, the first directed by John Stahl, and the second, in 1959, by Douglas Sirk. Hurst was wealthy enough at her death to fund a hospital’s heart clinic and leave a million dollars each to Brandeis and Washington universities. There was her keen focus on race and gender inequity, on social injustice, and her ubiquity in American popular culture from the mid-1910s until she died. Her many social circles encompassed everyone who was anyone. She hobnobbed with the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including Zora Neale Hurston. New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was her close friend long before he renovated Gracie Mansion and the Lincoln Bedroom was her home away from home while the Franklin Roosevelts occupied the White House. Her “Fannie Hurst marriage” got huge attention, a term coined for the separate residences, then quarters, she and her husband maintained to “keep the bloom on the rose.” She engaged with all the major liberal causes, lost her heft and kept it off with starvation diets, and had a clandestine affair with an Arctic explorer that lasted sixteen years. The press devoted space to her every event and utterance.
Hurst found her way into Undaunted for her astute but unacknowledged pronouncements about women of the middle years of the twentieth century. In the 1930s and ’40s, she never hesitated to call her sisters out for their own role in the backslide and admonished them about their blind willingness to forfeit hard-won gains. In 1934, she did blame the Depression for fostering the counterforces that worked against women’s advancement, and how response in America mirrored the patterns espoused by Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy as they demoted half their populations back to the kitchen. Women in Europe and the United States, she said, were being “jammed down like jacks-into-boxes.” But in 1938, she scoffed while judging an “Ideal American College Girl” competition when belatedly informed that contestants could profess no career choice other than housewife. “If this is the younger generation,” she was quoted as saying, “Ugh.”
In January 1942, before two thousand Jewish women in town for a convention at the Hotel Astor, she said, “We women are no longer the waiting Penelopes of war,” adding that women should see themselves as a “vital, needed and perhaps even drafted part of it.” The following month, in a commencement speech at Hunter, she urged the college’s then all-women graduating class members to become a “new species of frontierswomen,” poised to seize and hold onto the opportunities World War II would give them and avoid the mistakes of the women of World War I who “managed to get a foot inside the door” and stopped.
In 1943, for an appearance at a New York Times symposium that made Vital Speeches, she asked: “Do we, as in the last World War, step aside when our men come home and resume economically, industrially, almost w[h]ere we left off?” Since World War I, she complained, there had been more “commotion” than “promotion” for women, noting that there was even controversy over whether woman doctors were eligible for service in the military.
Because of the two film versions, Imitation of Life is the best remembered of Hurst’s many stories.** It first came to attention as a magazine serial in Pictorial Review, which began running under the title “Sugar House” in November 1932. The magazine paid Hurst $45,000 for the privilege, which calculates at $974,000 in today’s dollars. Harper & Brothers published the serial as a novel under its new name and released it before the Stahl film hit theaters, starring Claudette Colbert, Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington, and Rochelle Hudson. Sirk’s effort featured Lana Taylor, Juanita Moore, Sandra Dee, and Susan Kohner.
Stahl’s version sticks closer to Hurst’s original story than Sirk’s does. Both center on the lives of two widows, one Black, one white, who join forces to raise their young daughters; the Black child looks white enough to pass. The women form a business partnership and living arrangement in “divine democracy” for such racist times and the subplots unfold from there. Despite the way Pictorial Review and Universal underplayed the theme of race discrimination in their promotional ads, and the adjustments the movie makers made to appease the censors and potential audiences in the South, the race theme remains Imitation’s most powerful element.
Does the story stand up? That was not the consensus at an academic conference I helped organize with historians Nell Irvin Painter and Noliwe Rooks at Princeton in 2000 that we called “Imitating Life: Women, Race and Film.” It featured major scholars like Ann Douglas and the late Cheryl Wall. With Halle Berry as the keynote speaker, we attracted some 700 people to the opening event. In 2004, there were rumors that a Broadway production of Imitation was in the works. On the website of Broadway World, those who commented thought this could only work as high camp and likely not even then. Others disagree. A year ago, there was talk of Beyonce and Zendaya joining forces for an Imitation remake, a Broadway version was once again being considered, and a movie producer with a life-long love of the story changed her mind about pursuing the idea and turned instead to Fannie’s life story as the better choice.
In more recent years, if and when Fannie’s name does surface, it is because of her connection to Zora. The Hurst-Hurston connection is meaningful on several planes. The relationship grew after Fannie picked Zora out at a literary awards competition and then became her mentor of sorts but also an income and housing source as Zora finished her studies at Barnard, which Fannie’s influence helped finance. Fannie backed Zora’s application for a Guggenheim fellowship that didn’t come through. She hired Zora as a live-in secretary but quickly found that her friend made a better driver, especially for the long road trips they took together. About the drives, what follows is from Fannie’s appreciation of Zora soon after her death, for the July 1960 issue of The Yale University Library Gazette:
On our excursions, we repeatedly encountered the ogre of discrimination. At hotels, Zora was either assigned to servants’ quarters or informed that they were full up. When I also refused accommodations, Zora’s attitude was swift and adamant: “If you are going to take that stand, it will be impossible for us to travel together. This is the way it is and I can take care of myself as I have all my life. I will find my own lodging and be around with the car in the morning.” And that was the way it was, although an ironic incident broke its continuity.
One hot August day returning from Vermont, we drove past a well-known Westchester County hotel. An idea struck me. Zora, in her red headscarf and one of her bizarre frocks of many colors, looked hot and tired from a full day’s driving. At my sudden request, we stopped before the Inn. “Do me a favor, Zora. No questions, please. Follow me.” At the dining room entrance, I pushed ahead. A head-waiter appeared, his expression, when he saw Zora, as if a window shade had been drawn over his face. Before he could come through with the usual, “Sorry, everything’s reserved,” I announced, “The Princess Zora and I wish a table.” We were shown to the best in the room.
Following a good meal and some levity, Zora made a remark that revealed for an instant her mental innards. “Who would think,” she soliloquized as we resumed driving, “that a good meal could be so bitter.”
Soon after Fannie and Zora connected, Hurston would take her own celebrity turn, which Fannie helped along with introductions to editors and such. Fannie wrote the preface to Zora’s first book, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, but of course, while Hurst was receiving advances of $5,000 for her novels and numerous short story collections—the equivalent of the low six figures today—Hurston could command no more than $500 for work that endures with great esteem. In an essay about Fannie that Zora herself wrote for The Saturday Review in 1937, she alludes to the way Fannie reimagined her own life encounters and experiences to write her stories. Zora tells of a drive across the state of New York and into Canada and how it figured in the creation of one of Fannie’s novel that she does not name. The timing–from Fannie’s papers, I could date it to 1931–and everything else that occurred on that trip, including the sub rosa visit to Fannie’s lover on tour, leaves no doubt that Zora meant Imitation of Life.
I admired Fannie’s choices of topics and plots if not the overwrought, slang-heavy prose that encased her best insights. Despite the style, respected academics like Ann Douglas, in 1996, called Hurst’s work “a rich and neglected source on the emergence of modern female sexuality.” It remains neglected still.
To me, the life of Fannie Hurst is important both as a self-made woman’s success story during years of the twentieth century when that was hardest to achieve, and as a seer for women of what was to come. She grew up in the boarding houses of German-Jewish St. Louis, graduated in 1909 from Washington University in its first class to admit women, moved to New York to become a writer and within a decade, achieved enormous national status that she sustained until she died. She dabbled in journalism, as so many novelists of her era did, which is also why she has a cameo in Undaunted alongside Edith Wharton, Gertrude Atherton, and Mary Roberts Rinehart. Noteworthy in nonfiction beyond Hurst’s essays and No Food With My Meals was the three-part series she reported about her trip to Russia, undertaken with the help of her Russian-born, Russian-speaking pianist husband and published in McCall’s in January, February, and March of 1925. Russia, with its grand experiment in socialism was thought to be where women had achieved full equality.
I love how she replied to Edward R. Murrow, when, in an early 1954 episode of his popular CBS television program Person to Person, he asked Fannie why she wrote so often about women, about social justice, and about the underdog:
It may be true but it isn’t because I’m particularly interested in women, although I like women. I think it’s because I’m interested in minorities, Mr. Murrow. I’m interested in the people who have to contend with the pressure of larger groups and I’m interested in women also because a great deal of what’s happened to us makes us more interesting in our evolving processes that you mere men. Don’t forget that in the last hundred years, nothing so much has happened to you in the way of change or your social status.
Perhaps The New York Times, in its memorial tribute, explained her best. Hurst’s greatest strength, the editorial said, was “an ability to infuse her romances with the pulse of life,” creating recognizable people whose emotional crises were real:
Critics might disdain her for lack of literary qualities, but millions found Miss Hurst’s heart-throb stories unforgettable. One reason was her empathy for the problems of others, as exhibited in her eagerness to give time and money to projects for civic betterment. Gracious and delightful, Miss Hurst charmed adults, but even more she captivated the children to whom, for a number of years, she told stories in Central Park.Fannie Hurst spoke unabashedly to the human heart,
That is the best epitaph for any writer.
*In addition to Hurst, the six front page obituaries of women I found—surprisingly just under a third of all the front page obits the Times ran that year—included the Alabama governor Lurleen Wallace; the modern dancer Ruth St. Denis; the actor Tallulah Bankhead, the atomic scientist Lise Meitner, and Hurst’s middlebrow literary nemesis, Edna Ferber.
**Back Street, about the pathos in the life of a long-serving mistress, falls in line right behind Imitation. Stahl directed the first of its three film versions, too.
***UPDATE: Only a couple of weeks later came a new Blu-Ray DVD release of the 1922 Frank Borsage silent film of Hurst’s short story for Cosmopolitan, “Back Pay.”