1889 – 1968
Fannie Hurst was among the most popular and sought-after writers of the post–World War I era. In her heyday, Hurst was a contributor to the Saturday Evening Post, the Century magazine, and Cosmopolitan magazine, and was featured in annual editions of The Best American Short Story. Her novels and stories were translated into a dozen languages. Hurst commanded huge sums from the motion picture magnates who acquired the rights to her works, thirty of which have been made into movies. Back Street (1932, 1941, 1961), Imitation of Life (1934, 1959), and Humoresque (1920, 1946) are among the best known. Tagged with the sobriquet “highest-priced short-story writer in America,” Hurst was rumored to have received a million dollars for Great Laughter from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Born on October 18, 1889, in Hamilton, Ohio, and raised in comfortable circumstances in St. Louis, Missouri, Fannie Hurst was the only surviving child of Rose (Koppel) Hurst and Samuel Hurst, American-born Jews of German descent. The Hursts did not practice their religion and referred their daughter to the library when she inquired about her heritage. However, they were not entirely without race consciousness. They complained of prejudice, knew a little Yiddish, and enjoyed traditional foods. Hurst’s father deplored the absence of Jews in their community and threatened to send her to temple and Sunday school over the objections of his wife. Yet when Hurst’s younger sister, Edna, died of diphtheria at three years of age, it was her father who counseled Hurst to say the Lord’s Prayer before going to bed. Distraught over Edna’s death, Rose and Samuel Hurst indulged Fannie in countless ways, providing piano and dancing lessons, extravagant clothing, a brief stint at private school, and eventually a college education at Washington University.
Hurst’s mother frequently came into conflict with her husband, formerly a salesman from Memphis, Tennessee, who had risen to the position of president of a shoe manufacturing concern. Her derisive comments about her husband’s “leather bellies” (that is, cheap shoes) and parsimony often ended in humiliating public invectives against him. Rose Hurst was fiercely sensitive to slights and patronage from her husband’s rich relatives, whom she virtually barred from contact with Fannie. Consequently, Fannie Hurst was shut out of an exclusive literary club, the Pioneers, which would have afforded her highbrow Jewish contacts. Her mother preferred her own interfaith kaffeeklatsch where she was the reigning luminary, with her brilliant sense of humor. Rose complained volubly about her daughter’s solitary scribbling, which deprived her of help with the housework. But she wanted Fannie to have the best of everything and endowed her with a sense of self-worth and entitlement. Hurst claims to have loved her gay and temperamental mother ardently, only hinting at resentments.
Although she was less attached to her elegant and remote father, whose watchword was “knowledge is power,” Hurst derived a glimmering of refinement and culture from him. When Hurst’s first published story, “Ain’t Life Wonderful,” appeared in Reedy’s Mirror in 1908, she was a junior in college. Her father was ecstatic, but her mother was concerned that a brilliant daughter might prove unmarriageable. When Fannie fell in love with the Russian émigré pianist Jacques Danielson, whom she married in May 1915, she predicted that her parents would disapprove. To the Hursts, all Eastern European Jews were “kikes” (Anatomy 90). Their childless marriage ended with Danielson’s death in 1952.
Hurst sublimated the ethnic and class tensions of her home environment into a concern for African Americans, immigrants, and working people in general. When she dealt with Jewish subjects directly, such as the violin prodigy Paul Boray of “Humoresque” (1919), she concentrated on the trials of the upwardly mobile saddled with the baggage of traditional values. In Lummox (1923), the reader’s sympathies are with old lady Wallenstein, who keeps kosher in spite of her daughter-in-law, a “blonde shixsa” who calls her own husband a “Sheenie!” Yet the novel’s hero, a Scandinavian-Slav maid-of-all-work, undermines the affirmation of religious identity because it is an obstacle to peace and tolerance. In her autobiography, Hurst echoes the refrain that her heart belongs to the people. It took the rise of Hitler to force her to acknowledge antisemitism, and the creation of Israel to forge a sense of Jewishness. Hurst’s interest in the poor, sparked by a downturn in her family’s fortunes that occasioned a move from reputable Cates Avenue to a boardinghouse, emerged as a leading theme in her early writings.
In 1909, following graduation, Hurst secured a job in a shoe factory. Once in New York City, she worked as a restaurant server, salesperson, and actor. In her spare time, she combed the city and Ellis Island picking up local color. Hurst, this prolific and determined writer, received thirty-four letters of rejection from the Saturday Evening Post before publishing “Power and Horse Power” in 1912. After breaking that barrier, success came swiftly, and Hurst never again knew a dry spell.
Fannie Hurst sensed that mass appeal somehow precluded artistic greatness—“If I did not write ‘down,’ I was myself down”—but Hurst’s fans continue to enjoy her purple prose and sentimentality. Best loved for the tearjerker Back Street (1931), Hurst favored her most self-consciously social novel, Lummox, which earned the praise of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Leon Trotsky. In fact, Trotsky entertained her with an impromptu recitation of the chapter “The Cathedral Under the Sea” when she visited him in the Soviet Union. Hurst’s best-seller Imitation of Life (1933) was well received in Harlem, though one critic, in an article in Opportunity magazine, pilloried the novel’s depiction of the loving mammy and tragic mulatto.
A prominent member of the Urban League, Hurst was friends with leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Zora Neale Hurston, whom she met in 1925. Hurston, who served as Hurst’s chauffeur, secretary, and confidante while studying anthropology at Barnard, classed Hurst with the “Negrotarians,” a mildly derisive term for whites dedicated to Negro uplift. Though Hurston was sincerely fond of her patron, she could not have liked Hurst’s penchant for dressing her up as an Asian princess and parading her around deluxe resorts. Hurst was well intentioned, and she should be commended for her eagerness to combat injustice through a popular medium. Unfortunately, her work often reinforced ethnic stereotypes.
Hurst played an active role in New Deal politics. She was perplexed by the cynicism of the more glamorous writers of the fabulous twenties and was confident that people would go on saving to put their children through college and striving to better themselves. As chair of the National Housing Commission (1936–1937) and Committee on Workman’s Compensation (1940), among many related activities, Hurst labored so that others might share in the American dream of which her own success was exemplary.
Hurst also firmly allied herself with Jewish causes. In the 1920s she was the keynote speaker in the campaign for the relief of Jews in Eastern Europe; in the 1940s she was active in raising funds for refugees from Nazi Germany; and in the 1950s she was a staunch promoter of the State of Israel.
Fannie Hurst died on February 23, 1968, in New York City.
For a complete bibliography of Hurst’s work, except for Fool Be Still (1964), and for her various activities, see Who’s Who of American Women (1969). Few of Hurst’s books have remained in print; in 2004, however, thirty of the short stories she wrote between 1912 and 1935 were published by the City University of New York’s Feminist Press as the collection The Stories of Fannie Hurst, edited by Susan Koppelman (Helen Rose Scheuer Jewish Women’s Series. New York: 2004), as was a new edition of Imitation of Life, edited by Daniel Itzkovitz (North Carolina: 2004).
AJYB 24:157, 70:521.
Douglas, Ann. Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (1995).
Flitterman-Lewis, Sandy. “Imitation(s) of Life: The Black Woman’s Double Determination as Troubling ‘Other.’” Literature and Psychology 34 (1988): 44–57.
Hurston, Zora Neale. “Two Women in Particular.” Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography (1984).
Koppelman, Susan. “The Educations of Fannie Hurst.” Women’s Studies International Forum 10 (1987): 503–516.
Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue (1989).
Obituaries. NYTimes, February 24, 1968, 1:3, and St. Louis Globe Democrat, February 25, 1968.
Uffen, Ellen Serlen. “Fannie Hurst.” American Women Writers. Vol. 2 (1982).
WWIAJ (1926, 1928, 1938).