Fannie Hurst in 1932, portrait by Carl Van Vechten.
I first heard of Fannie Hurst through a Zora Neale Hurston television biography. She was mentioned briefly as someone who encouraged Hurston to write early on, when she was the highest paid writer in America.
A quick search revealed Fannie Hurst to be quite the character. Her first short story “Ain’t Life Wonderful” was published in Reedy’s Mirror in 1908, while she was still in college. She went on to write seventeen novels, nine volumes of short stories, and three plays. Her stories, many of which appeared in Saturday Evening Post, were adapted into 30 movies.
The list of interesting tidbits only begins there. Hurst was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1915, she secretly married pianist Jacques Danielson but lived separately from him, insisting on a woman’s right to maintain her own name and residence. A radio show that she hosted was one of the first to openly discuss homosexual issues and concerns. And yes, at one time, she was the highest paid writer in America. She’s rumored to have received $1 million for her novel Great Laughter from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayor, and went on to leave that amount to Brandeis and Washington Universities upon her death in 1968.
Yet today, her books are almost entirely out of print. How could an author once so popular be virtually unknown today? Shouldn’t a figure with Hurst’s radical political views be particularly of interest to a contemporary audience? A quick eBay search revealed no shortage of her books. I popped for four purple library hardbacks, which arrived a couple weeks later with a distinct musty odor.
I dove into Lummox from 1923. The novel follows Bertha, a Scandinavian immigrant who is a bit too big boned for her own good and who constantly gets in trouble through no fault of her own. It’s a gin soaked story set in the back alleys of New York, contrasting the lives of the working class with that of their upper class employers. Bertha becomes pregnant by one of her employers, and is forced to quit her job. All good so far, a slice of America that was washed away with furniture polish in the 1950s. Perhaps this is why Ms. Hurst was forgotten? Her stories dealt with subjects that the post war era would rather forget, like those forbidden movies from pre-code Hollywood.
Then, I stumbled over this metaphor: “To Bertha, who felt but could not say it, the lovely ellipisty of that head was like putting an egg whole in your mouth and then feeling it slowly come out.” Okay, kind of works. But then a few pages later the head-as-egg-in-mouth metaphor returns. And then it does again.
And then this:
The climb was rocky and the running back and forth, from the hampers in the van to the remote spot on the knoll, twisted her ankles and strained her back and once, scaling the top, she fell and barked her shin and passed sandwiches over gay shoulders with her eyelids stung with the heat of the held-back tears.
I’ve read that sentence–yes, it is all just one sentence–20 times, and still have no idea what’s going on. Yes, picnic. Sandwiches spilt, it seems. Tears, and happy shoulders.
I trudged on though, finally stopping at page 172. Admittedly this is a climactic moment where Bertha has tracked down her son, who she gave up for adoption a few years earlier. She is outside the large, stately house of his adopted family. And gets caught up in what I assume is a parade, very convenient to have a parade around when you need one:
She stood wedged, her elbows pinned to her hips. The window. She could not, could not look, but the tail of her eye kept tattling. There were heads and halves of bodies out of it. Flutterings. One head was very bright. It caught the light in pools, like the silver ball of the major domo. She fainted a little standing up there. Just let go, and the crowd sustained her of its denseness.
The pulse of the living wall that held her–it sang against her–it wakened her–she leaned out–the major domo was walking past. Roosevelt then, standing up in a motor car and flashing and bowing, with the light on his spectacles and his teeth and his cheek bones. There was a man who felt the little vibratory messages run in and flashed them out again, broadcast! He was like a magnet with them and the nap of the crowd rose up to his passing! Cheer! He stood as he rode, always smiling, and always with the light on his spectacles and his teeth and his cheek bones.
Smiling! Bowing! Bowing to the window! Bowing to the window! Her eyes would not lift, but the tail of her glance kept knowing. The Colonel bowing to the window. The Colonel and that very bright head that caught the light in pools.
The crowd began to loosen. A disintegrating snowbank. It was frightening to feel the support withdraw. The Colonel had passed. It was easier to move. She was going to look. She had found the strength to look. It was hard to breathe and to swing her heavy burning eyes just a little upward–there!
But the heads were withdrawn and someone was jerking down a shade. The window stared over at her blandly. A slap in the face.
I’m not sure whether to be thrilled that such writing can lead to riches–even my own terrible scribbles can be no worse–or dismayed with how arbitrary fortune is in the writing business. Fannie Hurst remains a fascinating figure though, and who knows, one day I may muster up the courage to come back to her purple books with my tattling eyes. Could look. Look!
More on Fannie Hurst:
Wikipedia | Jewish Virtual Library | Jewish Women’s Archives