Hahn, Emily (1905–1997)
Hahn, Emily (1905–1997)
American writer and traveler whose unconventional adventures were chronicled in over 50 books and nearly 200 articles. Name variations: Mickey Hahn. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, on January 14, 1905; died in New York City on February 18, 1997; daughter of Isaac Newton Hahn and Hannah (Schoen) Hahn; had four sisters and a brother; married Charles Boxer; children: Carola Boxer Vecchio (b. 1941); Amanda Boxer.
Seductio Ad Absurdum: The Principles and Practices of Seduction—A Beginner's Handbook (1930); Beginner's Luck (1931); Congo Solo (1933); The Soong Sisters (1941); Mr. Pan (1942); Diamond: The Spectacular Story of Earth's Rarest Treasure and Man's Greatest Greed (1956); (juvenile) Around the World with Nellie Bly (1959); China Only Yesterday (1963); Animal Gardens (1967, published as Zoos in England, 1968); Times and Places (Crowell, 1970); On the Side of the Apes (1971); Once Upon a Pedestal: An Informal History of Women's Lib (1974); Look Who's Talking! (1978); The Islands: America's Imperial Adventures in the Philippines (1981); Eve and the Apes (1988); and autobiography China to Me.
Born in America's heartland at the beginning of the 20th century, Emily Hahn grew up in a large German-Jewish family that prized intellectual independence. Her father Isaac Newton Hahn was a self-made businessman who had once been attracted to Methodism but chose atheism. The highly assimilated Hahn family even celebrated Christmas. At the same time, Isaac was stubborn in his opposition to all organized religions, going so far as to read passages from the Bible to his children in order to point out its inconsistencies. All of the Hahn children were encouraged by their parents to write and think critically. Emily's mother Hannah Schoen Hahn was a militant suffragist who wore bloomers while riding a bicycle and could be quite demanding of Emily and her four sisters (two siblings had died in infancy). Called "Mickey" by her mother (a nickname that stuck), Emily became an independent young woman, unafraid of taking risks and defying conventions. In 1924, despite the poor roads of the day, she and her sister Dorothy drove their Model T Ford from Wisconsin to California, 2,400 miles. Years later, the Hahns noted that the adventure transformed Emily, making her a lifelong thrill-seeker.
Emily Hahn decided to study engineering at the University of Wisconsin, despite the fact that women had traditionally been barred from applying for a degree in this field. University administrators attempted to keep Emily from enrolling in what had until then been an all-male program, but she was able to bring the matter before the Wisconsin legislature and, in due course, graduated as the first woman at the University of Wisconsin with a degree in mining engineering. Hahn's first job with Deko Oil, a mining company in St. Louis, introduced her to the monotony of office routine. "The last thing in the world I wanted was a future," she later recalled. "I merely wanted to live, without aiming for anything." When a low-paying job as a Fred Harvey tour guide in New Mexico turned up, Hahn jumped at the opportunity.
Although she had been inspired by Charles Lindbergh's successful transatlantic flight to embark on a life of adventure, Hahn settled down briefly in 1929 by accepting a teaching post in geology at Hunter College in New York City. Soon after arriving in New York, she met Harold Ross, editor of The New Yorker, and before long she had become a regular contributor; her first article was based on letters she had written her brother-in-law during her cross-country trip by Model T. Over the next 68 years, the great majority of her 181 articles would initially appear in The New Yorker. In 1930, Hahn was sufficiently confident to publish her first book, Seductio Ad Absurdum, a tongue-in-cheek guide to "the principles and practices of seduction."
As determined as ever to explore the world, she sailed from London for equatorial Africa on Christmas Day, 1930. Her destination was a remote Red Cross clinic in a Pygmy region of the Belgian Congo (now Republic of Congo) run by an American, Patrick Putnam. As a solo white woman in Africa in the early 1930s, Hahn was a rarity and regarded by most as odd, mad, or perhaps a prostitute. To reach her destination, Hahn traveled up the Congo River on the steamboat Micheline, trying to adapt to the climate as well as the mosquitoes, tsetse flies and other biting insects. The heat and humidity were oppressive, even after dark, and she would recall being "so hot that I thought I would rather die than lie there any longer, but even my desire for death was languid and unpassionate. It's the first time in my life that I grew slippery with perspiration just lying in bed." As the Micheline steamed upstream, the Congolese jungle, mysterious and lush, hugged the river on both sides, fully measuring up to Hahn's childhood reading about a Dark Continent.
On March 3, 1931, Hahn arrived at her destination, the remote settlement of Penge located 200 miles northeast of Stanleyville on the Aruwimi, a tributary of the mighty Congo River. She and her party arrived at Penge after several hours' paddling in a pirogue (a native canoe fashioned from a hollowed-out tree trunk), where she was greeted by Patrick Putnam. Settling into a routine, Hahn befriended Putnam's chimpanzee Chimpo. For the remainder of her life, Emily would be fascinated by primates.
As Putnam's assistant, she acquired medical skills including the ability to give injections, wrap bandages, take blood, and remove "jiggers"—chigoes or small fleas that burrow painfully under a victim's toenails, where they then lay their eggs. She learned Swahili, first mastering basic medical terminology and swear words. Hahn's immense curiosity was never disappointed while she lived in Penge, and her diary and notes would appear in print as Congo Solo in the summer of 1933. In August 1931, while she was still in Africa, her first novel was published. Entitled Beginner's Luck, it tells the story of three young Americans who run away to Mexico after becoming disillusioned while living in an artist's commune in Santa Fe.
In Penge, Hahn worked, observed, and wrote. She was at first shocked by, but soon came to accept, the fact that Patrick Putnam had three native women as his wives. He would often punish "the natives" harshly, arguing that in Penge the law of the jungle prevailed and "the strong should dominate the weak." Quite suddenly, after 20 months, Hahn no longer felt comfortable living in the village. The immediate cause of her growing sense of unease was Putnam's chaining of one of his wives to a tree, her punishment for having been unfaithful to him. Exhibiting her "usual sublime self-confidence," Hahn set off with her pet baboon Angélique, as
well as a Pygmy guide, a cook, and a dozen porters carrying luggage and food. After a grueling and dangerous trek from Penge to Lake Kivu that would cover about 800 miles, her party arrived at a mining camp. She was able to depart Africa in excellent health and spirits and ready for more adventures.
Her experiences in the Congo turned Hahn into a confirmed world traveler and cosmopolitan writer. "I had long given up the struggle against being a writer," she said. "There is really nothing else to be, if you like traveling." The opportunity for new excitement presented itself in 1935, when Emily and her sister Helen Hahn visited Shanghai. Although her books, including her novel Affair, had probed youthful alienation and the question of abortion, and had mostly received good and even enthusiastic reviews, Emily had yet to publish a bestseller. Restless as always, Hahn was taken with China, even though that nation now found itself locked in a war with an aggressive Japanese Empire.
Settling in Shanghai as the permanent China correspondent of The New Yorker, Hahn soon scandalized the European community in that cosmopolitan city by becoming the lover of Sinmay Zau, a married Chinese poet and artist. Through Zau, she was able to meet some of China's leading intellectuals and political luminaries including Communist revolutionary leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, men who would change the course of Chinese, and world, history. On a more personal level, living in China changed Hahn's perspectives when she discovered that after a year or so of frequenting opium dens she had become addicted to the drug (she found a cure through hypnosis). "I was young and I thought it was romantic to smoke opium," she told The Washington Post. "I was quite determined. It took me a year or so to become addicted, but I kept at it." Hahn further scandalized the expatriate community in China when she fell in love with Major Charles Boxer, a married man who was in charge of British Army Intelligence in Hong Kong. A few weeks before Pearl Harbor, Hahn gave birth to a daughter, Carola Boxer (Vecchio) , fathered by Boxer. When Boxer was wounded during the Japanese attack on Hong Kong in December 1941, becoming a prisoner of war, Emily was on her own. She convinced Japanese occupation officials that she was Eurasian, thus enabling her to remain free and bring needed food and medicines to Boxer and other starving prisoners.
In September 1943, Hahn made a difficult choice by accepting an offer of repatriation for herself and her infant daughter as part of a prisoner swap negotiated between the Allies and the Japanese, though it meant leaving Boxer behind to an uncertain fate. Along with 1,400 American and Canadian repatriates, Emily and Carola set sail on the ship Teia Maru. Major Charles Boxer survived imprisonment, and with the end of the war he and Hahn married, soon adding another daughter, Amanda Boxer , to their family. Boxer went on to become a distinguished historian of the Portuguese colonial empire. Although their marriage endured, it was by no means a conventional one. While he remained in England, living at their house named Ringshall End, at Little Gaddesden in Hertfordshire, she settled down to life in New York, where she continued to contribute articles to The New Yorker and freelanced as a book author. Their successful relationship was based on "an intimacy built around absence" as well as the tax laws that limited her sojourns to the United Kingdom to no more than 91 days a year.
Although she was at times regarded by the public as little more than an exhibitionist (one of her more controversial publications was her 1944 article in the Chicago Sun entitled "I was the concubine of a Chinese!"), Emily Hahn was in reality a hardworking researcher and writer. Although her prose could at times be superficial, her books were knowledgeable and insightful. Adept at living by her wits in Africa and China, she helped to inform an American public curious about the larger world.
Her books on China—there would be ten in all, including two children's books and two cookbooks (these by a woman who was rarely found in a kitchen)—served to introduce readers to a great civilization that remained largely mysterious and even at times ominous to even educated men and women. With The Soong Sisters (1941), Hahn produced an entertaining bestseller, an informative composite biography of the three sisters—Song Ailing, Song Qingling (seeThe Song Sisters), and Song Meiling —who had married three of the most important men in China in the first half of the 20th century, H.H. Kung, Sun Yat-sen, and Chiang Kai-shek. In Hahn's Mr. Pan (1942), the turbulent intellectual and political life of Shanghai in the late 1930s is revealed through conversations between the author and "Pan Heh-ven," a thinly disguised version of her Chinese lover of those days, Sinmay Zau. In China Only Yesterday (1963), she presented a critical picture of white Europeans' arrogance in their dealings with China in the 19th and early 20th century, while also pointing out that the Chinese contributed to mutual misunderstandings with their ignorance of the outside world and xenophobia.
Enjoying good health to the end of her long life, Emily Hahn worked as a New Yorker correspondent, turning out entertaining pieces on various subjects. She was one of a handful of writers who worked for the first four editors of the magazine, Harold Ross, William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, and Tina Brown . A master of many literary genres, Hahn published 54 books ranging from novels (five in all), histories (of love, bohemianism in America, and the Philippines), biographies (including studies of Fanny Burney and Mabel Dodge Luhan ), and children's books (11 in all, including Around the World with Nellie Bly, 1959).
In the last decades of her life, Hahn became increasingly interested in zoology. Long fascinated by apes, she kept pet gibbons during her years in Shanghai and Hong Kong and often visited zoos and primate research facilities. Her fascination produced a number of books, including Animal Gardens (1967, published as Zoos in its 1968 British edition) and On the Side of the Apes (a 1971 volume on primate research). Her 1978 Look Who's Talking! presented new discoveries in animal communication, followed a decade later by Eve and the Apes, which told of remarkable women who owned or worked with apes, including Belle Benchley, Penny Patterson , and Augusta Hoyt , all of whom were on the scene long before Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey .
Emily Hahn remained active to the end, publishing a poem, "Wind Blowing," in The New Yorker only a few weeks before her death in New York City on February 18, 1997. The deepest motivations of Hahn's long and productive life were perhaps best described in her first travel book, Congo Solo, where she spoke of the "old euphoria of the traveler … that keen expectation of something happening soon, something fascinating." "My younger daughter once rebuked me for not being the kind of mother one reads about," Hahn told an interviewer. "I asked her what kind that was, and she said, the kind who sits home and bakes cakes. I told her to go and find anybody who sits at home and bakes cakes."
Alsop, Joseph W., and Adam Platt. "I've Seen the Best of It": A Memoir. NY: Norton, 1992.
Angell, Roger. "Ms. Ulysses," in The New Yorker. Vol. 73, no. 3. March 10, 1997, pp. 52, 54–55.
Cuthbertson, Ken. Nobody Said Not to Go: The Life, Loves, and Adventures of Emily Hahn. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1998.
"Emily Hahn," in The Times [London]. February 25, 1997, p. 19.
Foskett, Maggie. "A Scandal in Rio," in The New Yorker. Vol. 73, no. 7. April 7, 1997, p. 10.
Hahn, Emily. China Only Yesterday, 1850–1950: A Century of Change. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963.
——. China to Me: A Partial Autobiography. Reprint ed. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1988.
——. Congo Solo: Misadventures Two Degrees North. NY: Bobbs-Merrill, 1933.
——. The Emily Hahn Reader. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.
——. Eve and the Apes. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988.
——. The Soong Sisters. Reprint ed. NY: Greenwood Press, 1970.
——. Times and Places. NY: Crowell, 1970.
Rose, Phyllis, ed. The Norton Book of Women's Lives. NY: W.W. Norton, 1993.
Sherman, Geraldine. "Remember me… ?," in Ottawa Citizen. March 7, 1999, p. C16.
Smith, Dinitia. "Emily Hahn, Chronicler of Her Own Exploits, Dies at 92," in The New York Times. February 19, 1997, p. B7.
John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia