Highlights of a Life
Fannie Hurst’s inauspicious beginnings pointed to a life of obstacles: she was born to an immigrant Bavarian-Jewish family with a domineering mother and an old-fashioned father. Although she got little encouragement from her parents to write, Hurst would eventually overcome her obstacles to become one of the most widely read women authors of the 20th century.
Hurst was born Oct. 18, 1889, during a visit to her maternal grandmother in Hamilton, Ohio, where her mother was also born. She grew up in St. Louis as an only child following the death of an older sister at age four. Hurst was born to Rose Koppel Hurst and Samuel Hurst, who immigrated to the United States in 1860. Her father was a successful shoe manufacturer who came to St. Louis from Mississippi. Her mother grew up on an Ohio farm. As a child, Fannie was a frequent visitor to her birthplace, where she spent her summer months. She called Hamilton her “summer palace.”
“Those summers in Hamilton were practically my first taste of nature close-up,” she said in her autobiography.
From age seven to eighteen, Hurst was precocious and popular in St. Louis public schools. In high school, she was nearly expelled for writing term papers for other students and accepting math answers in return.
It was in high school that Hurst began writing and submitting stories to popular national magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and to a St. Louis weekly called Reedy’s Mirror. Her first literary success came in 1910 with the publication of a story entitled “Ain’t Life Wonderful” by Reedy’s Mirror, while she was in college at Washington University.
Despite more than 30 rejections, her enthusiasm for writing never waned. Eventually, in 1912, The Post bought her short story “Power and Horse Power,” earning her $30. The Post then requested exclusive release of her future writings. During the years of the rejection slips, her work was not wholly unappreciated. She was continually praised for her excellent “character delineation.” During the frustrating early years of her career,
Hurst most frequently read Charles Dickens, Upton Sinclair, and Thomas Hardy, and Edgar Lee Masters to whom she was most attracted. Her reading of the newly published Spoon River Anthology became for her “a major literary experience,” and thereafter continued to recognize Masters’ influence on her writings.
Also while in college, Hurst wrote and acted in a play entitled Home, produced by the Keith Vaudeville Theatre in St. Louis. The play was a failure, but she received sufficient encouragement to begin dramatic lessons in New York after graduating.
She graduated from Washington with a B.A. degree in 1909, and then told her parents she was headed to Columbia University to pursue a graduate degree. Despite her parents’ objections, she left for New York City in 1910, but never attended Columbia.
Refusing financial assistance from her parents while living in New York, Hurst worked as a nursemaid, waitress, sales clerk and factory worker to study people. She also attended night court, poked around in tenement districts and landed bit roles in stage productions. Notably, she played a small part in David Belasco’s production of The Concert. Her first Broadway performance, in the hit play The Music Master, required only four lines – all the same. She was given the part because she was heavy enough to close an over-stuffed suitcase by sitting on it, but she accepted the job at $25 a week.
In New York, Hurst found no shortage of inspiration. For example, she often visited the Hans Christian Andersen statue in Central Park, where she regaled children with imaginative stories. Then, she secluded herself for six hours a day to write.
In 1915, Hurst secretly married Russian pianist Jacque Danielson, but did not announce it publicly until 1920. All the while, Hurst maintained her name and the couple maintained separate residences. The couple renewed their marriage contract every five years, if they both agreed.
With five collections of short stories and two novels under her belt, by 1925, Hurst and Booth Tarkington were the highest paid writers in the United States.
Of her novels, Hurst chose Lummox as her favorite. In her autobiography Hurst said of the novel: “Lummox symbolized my complete breakthrough, by what might be termed the short method, from the circumscribed world in which I had been reared into a new social consciousness.”
Her work continued to focus on raising social awareness. Although frequently criticized for her sentimental subjects and style, she was nevertheless recognized as a master of sympathetic and accessible prose. Still, her critics have been as vocal as her admirers. Critic Joan McGrath wrote, “In her heyday, she earned the more-or-less affectionate sobriquet ‘Queen of the Sob Sisters,’ but the only aspect of her work likely to inspire tears today would be its truly abysmal style and grammar.”
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Hurst was a frequent White House visitor. As a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, she became involved in the politics of the New Deal. She was appointed chair of the National Housing Commission in 1936-1937 and member of the Committee on Workmen’s Compensation in 1940-1941. She was also involved with the Friendly Visitors, a group of women who volunteered in a New York women’s prison. During World War II, she raised funds to help Jewish refugees escape from Nazi Germany.
In 1958, the same year her autobiography Anatomy of Me was published, Hurst took to television. On her own public affairs program, she interviewed public figures and expressed opinions on social issues. Hurst canceled the show after one year, saying that the amount of time used to produce the show “gave me a guilt feeling.”
She would publish just three more novels before her death. Hurst died at her apartment in the Des Aristes Hotel on W 67th St. in New York City on Feb. 23, 1968, at the age of 78 following a brief illness. Several days before her death, Hurst had delivered two novels to her publisher–one, Lonely Is Only a Word, the other untitled. She also left behind 16 years of weekly letters to her husband who had died in 1952.
Hurst’s books have since been translated into eighteen languages and reissued in a number of paperback editions. Her stories and novels were turned into nearly 30 movies between 1918 and 1961, and she endowed a Fanny Hurst Professorship was at Brandeis and Washington (St. Louis) universities.