Just about half a century ago, in February 1968, the New York Times printed a front-page obituary of one of the most popular writers of the twentieth century—Fannie Hurst. Today her name means almost nothing to an average American reader. Her books have disappeared from most public libraries and bookstores, although films based them are easy to find in film study classes and on YouTube. Who was this woman who loomed so large for half a century and then fell so far?
Fannie Hurst was born on October 18, 1889, in Hamilton, Ohio. Her only sibling, a sister, died soon after Fannie’s birth. Her parents were an immigrant couple from Germany. Fannie grew up in St. Louis, attended public schools there and graduated from Washington University at the age of 24. During her last year in college, she wrote the book and lyrics for a production of a comic opera. After her graduation, she began submitting stories to magazines, but had a difficult time getting them accepted. Her parents wanted her to stay in St. Louis and find a suitable husband, but Fannie was determined to build a career. Finally, after two years, she persuaded her parents to allow her to move to New York City and find out whether she could succeed as a writer.
Fannie fit easily into life in New York. She wandered around the city to visit different neighborhoods and took jobs as a salesgirl and as a waitress in a Childs restaurant to study city life. She also visited night court sessions to learn more about criminal activity and punishment in the city. But always, she wrote. In 1912, she sold a story to the Saturday Evening Post and after that her sales to magazines increased. The Post asked her to write exclusively for them and she soon became a well-known author. In 1921, her first novel, Star Dust, the Story of an American Girl appeared. It was not long before her career took off. Within a few years she was one of the best paid writers in the country.
Fanny was an energetic and diligent worker who was never at a loss for devising new twists for her stories. She was also a good businesswoman who had no qualms about demanding high paying contracts with magazine editors so that she could plan on writing a number of stories for publication as a series. In New York, she quickly made new friends with whom she shared social life as well as market information. Perhaps equally important in her success, she was a healthy, disciplined worker who fulfilled her obligations and never developed the bad habits that prevented many other writers from fulfilling their promises. She did not drink alcohol nor get involved in passionate love affairs. Despite family obligations—her parents demanded many visits and frequent letters—she did not let depression or annoyance interfere with her writing schedule. Editors could count on her.
The public too could count on her to come up with plots that offered endless variations on the familiar themes of family life and love affairs. Her audience was primarily women, who struggled with the endless issues of maintaining satisfactory lives in a fast-changing world. No doubt she introduced many American women to neighborhoods they had never seen and the kinds of people they had never met. She didn’t spare words in describing the settings for her stories and novels. The first sentence of her novel Humoresque uses 53 words to set the stage for the neighborhood where her characters live:
On either side of the Bowery, which cuts through like a drain to catch its sewage, Every Man’s Land, a reeking march of humanity and humidity, steams with the excrement of seventeen languages, flung in patois from tenement windows, fire escapes, curbs, stoops, and cellars whose walls are terrible and spongy with fungi.
Few of her readers would have ever seen such an inner-city neighborhood, but Fannie spread it out before them so readers in small town Idaho could visualize the lives of immigrant New Yorkers and sympathize with their troubles. Some critics and reviewers complained about the wordy details Fannie provides, but readers loved them and her books sold widely.
As Fannie’s work became more popular, her social life expanded. She became more interested in women’s rights and other causes and was an early member of the Lucy Stone League, a group dedicated to allowing married women to keep their own name rather than adopting their husband’s name. Her own marriage demonstrated her determination not to become labelled as “wife of…”.
In New York, Fannie met and fell in love with a Russian émigré, the musician, Jacques S. Danielson, but when she took him to meet her parents in St. Louis, they objected strenuously to the marriage. They looked forward to having a daughter conventionally married to an American from the Jewish community in which they lived rather than a foreigner. Instead of openly defying her parents, Fannie and Jacques had a quiet wedding in New Jersey and stayed in their separate apartments in New York. For five years they told no one about the marriage and carried on their usual social lives. When a reporter found a record of the marriage and wrote a story about it, the news caused a sensation. Nonetheless, Fannie and Jacques continued their separate social lives although they eventually moved in together. Their marriage lasted until Jacques’s death in 1952. Fannie mourned him for the rest of her life.
By the late 1920s, Fannie was a well-known public figure and one of the most popular and well-paid writers in the country. When the movie industry started during the early 1920s, it was natural for producers to turn to her stories for material to be filmed and made available in the new format. The movies made it possible for Fannie’s readers to see the settings in which her stories took place without reading Fannie’s lengthy prose and so it opened up a new audience. Her fame and popularity with both viewers and readers continued throughout the development of the movies. She was fortunate in her timing because her stories could be filmed more than once as movie technology changed from silent films to talkies and eventually to technicolor films.
During the 1930s, Fannie’s high energy life continued and it was not restricted to writing and publishing. She became more involved in social issues, especially as her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt grew. She was invited to the White House for lunches and events and she supported the first lady in her campaigns to establish racial equality and to increase support for women’s causes.
During her long and busy life, Fannie maintained the discipline that kept her writing and publishing short stories and novels. She became a host on several radio and TV stations, although her popularity in these media never reached the heights of fame that her writing did. Gradually, during the postwar years, Fannie’s earning power diminished. Nonetheless, she remained prosperous and led an active life until, after a short illness, she died of cancer on February 23, 1968.
A recent biography by Brooke Kroeger, Fannie: The Talent for Success of Writer Frances Hurst (2022) tells the full story of Fannie Hurst, an unforgettable woman whose achievements should not be forgotten even by people who no longer read her books. She left an indelible mark on the culture of twentieth century America.