This Day in Jewish History / A Storyteller With a Conscience Is Born

Fannie Hurst got paid $70,000 to serialize one of her novels in Cosmopolitan and her death garnered a front-page story in The New York Times.

October 18, 1889, is the birthdate of Fannie Hurst. Although her name may not mean much to readers today, she was one of the most popular writers of her day, in a career as novelist and short-story author that spanned nearly six decades. In addition to her 18 novels, many of which became best-sellers, her worked spawned some 30 film adaptations.

Fannie Hurst was born in Hamilton, Ohio, the only surviving child of Samuel Hurst, a shoe manufacturer, and the former Rose Koppel, both of them American-born Jews of German descent. A younger sister died at the age of 3. Soon after Fannie’s birth, the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where she grew up and attended Washington University in St. Louis, graduating in 1909.

Fannie’s family was not religiously observant, and both of her parents shared an anxiety about being identified as Jews. For her mother, it extended to letting her daughter know that she was not to marry a “kike” – by which she apparently meant a Jew of Eastern European origin. Her father apparently threatened to send their daughter to Hebrew school, but there is no evidence that that happened.

After college, Hurst moved to New York, to fulfill her destiny as a writer. It was there, in 1915, that she became engaged to Jacques Danielson, a Jewish émigré pianist from Russia, whom she had met at a Michigan spa. When she told her parents that the two planned to wed, they mounted a campaign to discourage her from doing so. In the end, they did marry, but they continued to maintain separate apartments, and kept their union a secret from the public for five years.

To give an idea of how popular Fannie Hurst was: Not only was her death, in 1968, cause for a front-page story in The New York Times, but the very fact of her revelation of her marriage to Danielson, in 1920, yielded a page-one story in the same paper. There, she explained to a reporter that the two had decided to “sail into matrimony on a bark of their own designing.” She listed a number of resolutions that had accompanied their decision to wed, including the fact that she would retain her own name, rather than follow the “antediluvian” custom of taking his surname; their belief that “seven breakfasts a week opposite to one another might prove irksome” (she said they averaged two); and that they would make appointments when they wanted to meet.  The two remained married until Danielson’s death, in 1952, although they had no children.

A 'corny artist' becomes the highest-paid short-story writer

Hurst published her first story professionally, “Ain’t Life Wonderful,” in 1908, in the journal Reedy’s Mirror, when she was junior in college. After moving to New York, she supported herself with jobs as a waitress and a Macy’s salesgirl, and spent her free time wandering the city, in particular venue like the Lower East Side and Ellis Island, to soak up atmosphere for her writing. Her professional career took off after she published her first story in the Saturday Evening Post, in 1915. Suddenly magazines that had rejected her work began requesting the privilege to publish the same stories they had earlier turned down.

She was often said to be the highest-paid short-story writer in the country, although she herself said she thought this was unlikely. What is known is that Cosmopolitan magazine paid her $70,000 for the serial rights to her novel “Back Street,” which then went on to be adapted for the screen three separate times.

Hurst herself had few pretensions about the lasting literary value of her work, and late in her career, her own editor commented that she was “basically a corny artist,” before he went on to note that, “We all know people who write beautifully and can’t tell a story worth a damn. She is a really wonderful storyteller.”

Hurst’s ability to tell a story was accompanied by an interest in exploring – and a genuine concern for -- social issues that others were still reluctant to take on. (On her desk, she kept a folder marked “Negro matters.”) Although some saw her friendships with black artists as patronizing in nature, the fact is that she helped a number of African American writers, in particular Zora Neale Hurston. The two women were friends, but Hurst also employed Hurston, when she was a student, as her driver and secretary, and the latter at some point described Hurst with some irony as a “Negrotarian,” a white woman dedicated to bettering the black race. It was during a long drive to Canada, in 1931, when Hurst was on her way to meet with her lover, the Arctic explorer Vilhajmur Stefansson, and Hurston was at the wheel, that Fannie Hurst developed the idea for writing “Imitation of Life,” her melodramatic 1933 novel that deals with the unequal relationship of a white woman and the black woman she employs to help her raise her daughter, the concept of “passing for white,” scribes the unequal relationship between a wealthy white actress and the black woman. That book was adapted for the screen twice.

Fannie Hurst struggled with being overweight her entire life, and was constantly seeking the perfect diet, a them that served as the subject of a 1935 memoir, “No Food With My Meals.” As the host of a New York radio show, she dealt openly with the subject of homosexuality, inviting guests who were themselves gay to appear, as opposed to simply “experts” who would relate to the topic as a problem.

As a friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, she was an occasional guest at the White House. Once, in 1932, she was invited to stay with the Roosevelts in Washington, shortly after she had finished a particular diet. Arriving at the White House, she arranged with the president’s secretary to be admitted to his office, so she could present herself to FDR with her new figure. After Hurst did a turn for him, Roosevelt supposedly commented that, “The Hurst may have changed, but it’s the same old fanny.”

Hurst was an active campaigner for animal’s rights, for civil rights and for workers’ rights, and she raised money for Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Her philanthropy included large gifts to Hadassah, to the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, and to Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein medical school, which she aided with a donation of $350,000 for heart research, after the death of her husband. And although early in her life, she was critical of Zionism, she was said to have become a supporter of Israel in the 1950s.

Fannie Hurst died on February 23, 1968, at the age of 78.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons