Born 14 January 1905, St. Louis, Missouri; died 18 February 1997
Daughter of Isaac N. and Hannah Hahn; married Charles R.Boxer, 1945
As a child, Emily Hahn developed an adventurous spirit and an independent mind. Scorning custom and convention, she became the first woman to enroll in and earn a degree from the University of Wisconsin's College of Engineering. She also studied mineralogy at Columbia University, New York City, and anthropology at Oxford, England. Later, many Americans would be scandalized when Hahn openly introduced her lovers to her readers.
Her first book, Seductio ad Absurdum: The Principles and Practices of Seduction; a Beginner's Handbook (1928), had a mixed reception. Some critics did not find her rules and regulations very interesting or very subtle and others were astonished by the gossipy episodes, but most readers found the book delightfully entertaining. Having begun her writing career, Hahn took on a wide variety of projects, including documentary reports, histories, novels, biographies, children's books, a guide book, a cookbook, and several autobiographical works.
In 1930 Hahn began a two-year stay, the first of several, in Africa. She lived with a tribe of Pygmies in the Ituri Forest of the Belgian Congo, where she worked with a doctor at a medical mission. Congo Solo (1933) was based on her diary. Although her vocabulary and expression often seem too rough, her informal and amusing style proved appealing to many readers. Also based on her first African experience, With Naked Foot (1934) is a story of an African woman and her various white "masters." In it Hahn sought to interpret the native viewpoint with sympathetic understanding; the scenes and the characters seem both realistic and picturesque. Africa to Me: Person to Person (1964), based on a later trip when she visited Jomo Kenyatta and Tom Mboya, addresses the problems accompanying Africa's emergent nationalism.
In 1935 Hahn set off on a world tour. She was to remain in China for nine years, settling in Hong Kong and beginning a career as the New Yorker 's China Coast correspondent. Her experiences amidst war and revolution had dramatic effects on her literary career, as well as on her personal life.
The Soong Sisters (1941) is about Ch'ing-ling, Mei-ling, and Ai-ling (Madame Sun Yat-sen, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, and Madame Kung, wife of China's financial wizard), with whom Hahn became intimate while in China. It tells of their father's association with America, of his involvement with Sun Yat-sen, and of the key roles played by the family in the Chinese revolution. Intended as an entertaining narrative, the book also reveals her strong sympathy for the family's controversial political activities.
Hahn's support of Chiang Kai-shek is unmistakable in China to Me (1944, reissued in 1988), a "partial autobiography" in which she recounts the dramatic political events as well as the trivial daily incidents that filled her days in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Chungking. Although she undoubtedly tried to be objective in the biography Chiang Kai-shek (1955), her admiration for her subject resulted in a very defensive account of the corruption in his government and his lack of inspirational leadership. She admits he could be stubborn and narrowminded, but she describes him primarily as a Christian crusader and gallant ally—consistent, faithful to his principles, and brave.
Hahn continued to write on diverse topics. Animal Gardens (1967, reissued 1990) is a history of zoos from the pre-Christian era in China and Egypt to the construction of the Milwaukee Zoo. Breath of God (1971) examines world folklore. Once Upon a Pedestal (1974) is an account of prominent women in art and literature from colonial times to the present. In Lorenzo: D. H. Lawrence and the Women Who Loved Him (1975), she depicts the writer as a neurotic, self-centered genius, to whom a great number of women were eager to dedicate themselves. Like so many of Hahn's earlier books, it is intriguing, gossipy, readable, and entertaining. In the charming and informative treatise, Look Who's Talking (1978), Hahn examines ways in which animals communicate with each other and with humans.
Beginners' Luck (1931). Affair (1935). Mr. Pan (1942). Hong Kong Holiday (1946). Picture Story of China (1946). Raffles of Singapore: A Biography (1946). Miss Jill (1947). England to Me (1949). Purple Passage: A Novel about a Lady Both Famous and Fantastic (1950). A Degree of Prudery (1950). Francie (1951). Love Conquers Nothing: A Glandular History of Civilization (1952). Francie Again (1953). James Brooke of Sarawak: A Biography of Sir James Brooke (1953). Mary, Queen of Scots (1953). Meet the British (1953). The First Book of India (1955). Diamond (1956). Francie Comes Home (1956). Leonardo da Vinci (1956). Kissing Cousins (1958). Aboab: First Rabbi of the Americas (1960). Around the World with Nelli Bly (1960). June Finds a Way (1960). Tiger House Party (1960). China Only Yesterday, 1850-1950: A Century of Change (1963). Indo (1963). Romantic Rebels: An Informal History of Bohemianism in America (1967). The Cooking of China (1968, reprinted 1981). Zoos (1968). Time and Places (1970). Fractured Emerald: Ireland (1971). On the Side of the Apes (1971). Mabel: A Biography of Mabel Dodge Luhan (1977). Love of Gold (1980). The Islands: America's Imperial Adventure in the Philippines (1981). Eve and the Apes (1988, 1989).
Cuthbertson, K. Nobody Said Not to Go: The Life, Loves, and Adventures of Emily Hahn (1998).
Authors of Books for Young People (2nd edition, 1971). CA (1967). CB (July 1942). NCAB. TCAS.
—PATRICIA LANGHALS NEILS