November 21, 1999
“Excellent Biography Opens the Life of Fannie Hurst”
November 21, 1999
By Emily McCormack
T HE 20TH CENTURY was still brand-new when Fannie Hurst heard the siren call of New York City. There, away from the constraints of provincial St. Louis and her possessive middle-class parents, she understood that she must write.
And write she did. Hurst was a woman of many parts, and her biographer, Brooke Kroeger, has captured them in her excellent biography.
Hurst’s success came quickly. No starving in freezing attics, sleeping in parks; no despondency or suicide attempts. Hurst knew what her greatest talent was: She could tell a story. For more than six decades, she told them – short stories, novels and novelettes – all translated into more than a dozen languages. “Back Street” and “Imitation of Life,” both made into movies, are Hurst’s most memorable novels.
Publishers vied for her works. “A Story by Fannie Hurst” on a magazine cover assured vast increases in sales. Her greatest fans were women, and not just ordinary women. They were a special breed, known as “shopgirls.” It’s a word that tells much about America’s class-consciousness.
Shopgirls knew their place in society and, even worse, accepted it unquestioningly, as opposed to Hurst, who knew her worth and aimed for the top, amid the male executives, power-brokers and the moneymakers. Kroeger traces Hurst’s meteoric rise in literary circles, from which she earned an amazing amount of money.
Even during the height of the Great Depression, Hurst received generous advances for her fiction. Still, she was penurious, like the year she earned $250,000 and paid her stenographer a measly $10 a week.
Hurst numbered among her acquaintances and friends famous musicians, intellectuals, artists, politicians. She was a frequent overnight White House guest of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Fannie became a lecturer and commentator on radio and television. She was compared with Mark Twain, Edna Ferber and O. Henry. Her short stories were included in the best anthologies.
Hurst’s personal life would have been grist for one of her own novels. When she told her parents she planned to marry musician Jacques Danielson, they were appalled. The family put so much pressure on her to reconsider that she married him secretly and kept that secret for more than five years.
She was sent to Russia by a publisher so she could comment on events there. What she saw in that country disillusioned her. Later, on returning from a trip to Germany just after Hitler’s rise to power, she told a newspaper reporter: “Beware of singing countries. They sang in Russia before the Revolution. They are singing in Germany now.”
Fannie Hurst was far ahead of her time in furthering women’s position in both the business world and the political arena. For this as well as for her stories, America owns her many thanks.