Hurst, Fannie (1889–1968)
Hurst, Fannie (1889–1968)
American novelist and short-story writer . Born in Hamilton, Ohio, on October 18, 1889; died in New York City on February 23, 1968; eldest of two daughters of Samuel Hurst (owner of a shoe factory) and Rose (Kopple) Hurst; graduated from Central High School, St. Louis; Washington University, St. Louis, B.A., 1909; married Jacques S. Danielson (a pianist), in 1915 (died 1952); no children.
(short stories) Just Around the Corner (1914), Every Soul Hath Its Song (1916), Gaslight Sonatas (1919), Humoresque (1919), The Vertical City (1922), Song of Life (1927), Procession (1929), We Are Ten (1937); (nonfiction) No Food with My Meals (1935), Anatomy of Me (1958); (novels) Star Dust (1921), Lummox (1923), Appassionata (1926), Mannequin (1926), A President is Born (1928), Five and Ten (1929), Back Street (1931), Imitation of Life (1933), Anitra's Dance (1934), Great Laughter (1936), Hands of Veronica (1937), Lonely Parade (1942), Hallelujah (1944), Any Woman (1950), The Man with One Head (1953), Family! (1959), God Must Be Sad (1961), Fool—Be Still (1964); (plays) Land of the Free (1917) and Back Pay (1921).
One of the most admired and eagerly awaited writers of the early and mid-20th century, Fannie Hurst is now remembered for her two bestselling novels, Back Street (1931) and Imitation of Life (1933), both of which were made into popular movies. A total of 32 films were adapted from Hurst's fiction, and she wrote the screenplays for several of them. Her literary output was substantial, including 9 volumes of short stories, 17 novels, 5 plays, a full-length autobiography and autobiographical memoir, and countless nonfiction articles on politics and assorted topics. Often dismissed by critics as sentimental (Harry Salpeter called her "the sob sister of American fiction"), she populated her tales with misfits as well as underdogs, including urban working women. Hurst was also a passionate social activist and an avowed feminist. When she wed Russian-born pianist Jacques Danielson in 1915 (the marriage was not announced until 1920), she retained her maiden name, her own residence, and her own social life, claiming that marriage "should not lessen my capacity for creative work or pull me down into a sedentary state of fatmindedness."
Fannie Hurst was born in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1889, and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, the eldest of two daughters in a middle-class German-Jewish family. Her younger sister Edna died of diphtheria in childhood. Hurst's literary career was foreshadowed by a deluge of teenage essays, stories, and verses, though her early interests also included athletics and dramatics. In 1910, after graduating from Washington University in St. Louis, Hurst left her comfortable home for New York, to do graduate work at Columbia University and pursue her writing career. Her "training for fiction," as she later referred to it, included living in the slums, working variously as a sales-woman, an actress, and a waitress, and traveling to Europe in steerage. Although her first story, "Ain't Life Wonderful," had been published while she was still in college, she subsequently encountered a series of rejections. Finally in 1912, she sold a story, "Power and Horse Power," to The Saturday Evening Post; the magazine also took an option on all her future work. In 1914, with the publication of Just Around the Corner, a collection of short stories, her career was well under way. She produced four volumes of short stories before venturing into novels.
Hurst wrote for an audience of women, and women, often the victims of social and economic discrimination, are the central characters of her best works, including the novels Lummox (1923), the story of an inarticulate servant-girl who barely survives in a callous society, Back Street (1931), about the mistress of a married man, and Imitation of Life (1933), which focuses on the lives of two mother-daughter pairs, one black and one white. The novel was alternately praised for its sympathetic portrayal of a entrepreneurial black woman and condemned for the character's stereotypical Aunt Jemima occupation.) In each of the novels, the women are victimized not only by societal influences, but by their own passivity, a trait Hurst deplored. Though her characters are often consumed with their need for a man, Hurst believed that women should create their own identities and find a place where they "can give the most service and get the most out of life."
Hurst spoke out for numerous social causes and was active in a number of organizations concerned with social welfare. A friend of Eleanor Roosevelt , she supported labor and New Deal policies. She chaired the Woman's National Housing Commission and the Committee on Workmen's Compensation. She was a member of the National Advisory Committee to the Works Progress Administration (1940–41) and served on the board of directors of the New York Urban League.
She was also active in Zionism and Jewish war relief and, upon her death in 1968, left half of her estate to Brandeis University, a postwar institution established mainly by Jews. In keeping with her feminist views, she worked with a number of organization designed to improve the lot of working women and in groups teaching birth control and human sexuality, including the American Planned Parenthood Federation and the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
Described as "a handsome, dark woman of the opulent type," Hurst, who claimed she slept only four or five hours a night, enjoyed a contented private life. Her husband, who was phobic about public appearances and never fulfilled his potential as a concert pianist, managed her finances and insured her a lifetime of financial security. She resided with a menagerie of animals and, in addition to writing six hours daily, kept a frantic schedule of meetings and speaking engagements. She often traveled alone and maintained a social life quite separate from her husband's, stating that her unconventional marriage kept "the dew on the rose." Indeed, the union endured until Jacques' death in 1952, after which Hurst wrote him a weekly letter, "chattily, not in grief and with no feeling that he knows about it in an afterlife," she noted in her 1958 autobiography Anatomy of Me. Reflecting further on her marriage, Hurst explained: "I had very little to bring to Jack in his musical world and actually he dwelt on the periphery of mine. But the alleged desirability of similar interests
did not apply to this perverse marriage of ours. It would seem that our sea of matrimony was full of treacherous archipelagoes. But we sailed it for wonderful years of blue waters, blue sky."
Although many critics of her day labeled Hurst sentimental and "soapy," and never regarded her as a serious writer, others praised her work as vital and sympathetic. No one denies her immense popularity; between 1914 and 1922, the announcement of a new Fannie Hurst story could sell out an issue of Cosmopolitan or The Saturday Evening Post. "She knew how to tell a story," writes Susan Koppelman in Belles Lettres. "She created characters who breathed; she captured the reality of a segment of the American population with a seriousness and sympathy that has never been surpassed. An important naturalist, she transferred the meticulous artistry of the 19th-century regionalists to the portrayal of first-generation American urban workers of the early 20th century. She was a great ironist, a great humorist, and as close to a great tragedian as we have seen in this century."
Hurst, Fannie. Anatomy of Me. NY: Doubleday, 1958.
Koppelman, Susan. "Fannie Hurst." Belles Lettres. Fall 1994.
Kunitz, Stanley, ed. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1955.
Mainiero, Lina, ed. American Women Writers From Colonial Times to the Present. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1980.
McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.
Sicherman, Barbara and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.
Kroeger, Brooke. Fannie: The Talent for Success of Writer Fannie Hurst. Times, 1999.
Back Street (89 min. film), starring Margaret Sullavan , Charles Boyer, directed by Robert Stevenson, Universal, 1941.
Back Street (107 min. film), starring Susan Hayward , John Gavin, and Vera Miles , directed by Ross Hunter, Universal, 1961.
Several of Fannie Hurst's notebooks and letters are located at Brandeis University; letters from 1913 to 1942 are held in The Berg Collection, in the New York Public Library.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts