Cover image for Fannie : the talent for success of writer Fannie Hurst
Fannie : the talent for success of writer Fannie Hurst
Kroeger, Brooke, 1949-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Times Books, [1999]

Physical Description:
xvi, 478 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
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Format :


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PS3515.U785 Z75 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
PS3515.U785 Z75 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In the first half of the twentieth century, Fannie Hurst was known as much for the startling particulars of her extraordinary life as for writing stories that penetrated the human heart. Hers is the story of a Jewish girl from the Middle West turned dynamic celebrity author, the kid down the street who spoke her dreams out loud and then managed to fulfill every one of them. Her name was constant newspaper fodder. It appeared in reviews of her twenty-six books; in reports of her travels, her lifestyle (including the marriage she curiously chose to hide from her friends as well as the public), her diet, and her provocative public statements; and in her obituary, which was front-page news, even in The New York Times. With stories and novels such as "Humoresque," Back Street, and Imitation of Life, Fannie Hurst reigned as the leading "sob sister" of American fiction in the 1920s and 1930s. Her name on the cover of a magazine was enough to sell out an issue. She wrote of immigrants and shopgirls, love, drama, and trauma, and in no time the title "World's Highest-Paid Short-Story Writer" attached itself to her name. Hollywood fattened her bank account, making her works into films thirty-one times in forty years. Fannie Hurst lent her prominence and pen to the day's significant socialist, liberal, humanitarian, and feminist causes. She became a forceful supporter for the rights of African Americans, and was an early friend and literary advocate of Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy West. As a pioneering crusader for women's advancement--she mounted the soapbox years before it was fashionable--she promoted economic self-sufficiency, equal opportunity, and Eleanor Roosevelt, whose frequent guest she was at the White House. Her life seems to have intersected with everyone of significance in her era, in science, the arts, the media, Hollywood, academia, and politics. In examining the life of this great, celebrated, and yet now nearly forgotten woman, Brooke Kroeger also explores the curious backslide in the progress of women in general from the Depression to the mid-1960s. This is a carefully drawn, extensively researched, and entertaining portrait of one of the most successful, glamorous, and forward-thinking women of the twentieth century.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Fannie Hurst (1889^-1968) was an extraordinarily popular short-story writer. The Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan competed for her tales of shopgirls and poor immigrant families, and her story collections, novels, and their movie versions (most famously Imitation of Life), were widely discussed. Attractive and intrepid, Hurst became a celebrity. Regularly quoted on such topics as race relations, feminism, and health, she was friends with the likes of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Zora Neale Hurston, then, after decades of fame, was abruptly forgotten. Kroeger, who resurrected reporter Nellie Bly in her first biography, reclaims Hurst, a born storyteller and maverick, in a radiant portrait that also incisively illuminates the mores of her turbulent times. The story begins in Hurst's hometown, St. Louis, where she attended Washington University. "Violently ambitious" and leery of marriage, Hurst moved to New York City, devoted herself to writing her daringly frank and earthy stories, and fashioned an unconventional and dazzlingly successful life. Even she admitted that she wasn't as literary a writer as, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald, but Hurst wrote with passion and empathy, and lived with verve, and it's good to have her among us again. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

All but forgotten now, Fannie Hurst had one of the most celebrated American literary careers from the 1920s to the 1950s. Born in 1885 to a middle-class Jewish family in St. Louis, Hurst began writing in college; by 1928 (after six volumes of stories and five bestselling novels), she was earning an extraordinary $4000 per story. Her fiction, which features working women, often from immigrant backgrounds, struck a chord with a mostly female readership; 32 films were made from her works, including repeated remakes of the enormously popular Imitation of Life and Back Street. A popular columnist, lecturer, journalist and spokesperson for liberal causes, Hurst made headlines with her "modern" marriage, in which she and her musician husband lived apart. After WWII, Hurst's reputation faded; her 1968 obit was front-page New York Times news, but she was already publishing history. Kroeger succinctly lays out the basics of Hurst's career, including her friendship with Zora Neale Hurston, her problematic race politics and complex feelings about her Jewish identity, her personal vanity about her age and her feminist convictions. Too often, though, the contradictions vital to understanding Hurst's life and career are noted but not explored. Kroeger's writing is often hackneyed ("Hurst's success kept coming, like popcorn kernels exploding in hot oil"), but also is, like her subject's own (often melodramatic) prose, compulsively readable. Hurst is an important figure in U.S. popular culture and this biography, despite its flaws, goes a long way toward explaining why. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Fannie Hurst (1885-1968) was one of the highest paid and most popular U.S. women fiction writers in the first half of the 20th century. A prolific and much-in-demand celebrity author, in her heyday she had short stories, novels, plays, and movie adaptations (Back Street and Imitation of Life) simultaneously before the public. Although her stories of the woes of shopgirls, maids, and cast-off mistresses were favorites with the public, most critics derided her overwrought style and sentimental plots. Her mass-appeal "tearjerkers" fell out of fashion, and after her death her writing faded rapidly into obscurity. Journalist Kroeger follows Hurst's career with the thoroughness of an investigative reporter and the uncritical zeal of a fanÄthe facts are well documented, but there is a minimum of analysis or criticism. Fannie will please readers interested in the maneuvers of this fledgling feminist and social reformer will also offering a starting point for those seeking insight into the cultural and social attitudes of the early part of this century. Recommended for public and academic libraries.ÄCarol Ann McAllister, Coll. of William & Mary Lib., Williamsburg, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Superbly researched and written, this biography documents Hurst's life from her early days in St. Louis to her death in New York in 1968. Few characters--and she was a character--in current history have enjoyed such an extensive variety of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues--literary figures, politicians, artists, musicians, scientists, and people from nearly all walks of life. Indeed, one could almost accuse Kroeger (NYU) of name dropping. Appearing first in mass-appeal magazines and eventually in anthologies and other collections, Hurst's stories reflected the eclectic nature of her interests. She worked in Hollywood-- first in the silent era, later in sound--and late in life she appeared on radio and television. A feminist before that term was popular, she championed the rights of all the disenfranchised. As a highly paid popular writer, Hurst had a remarkable talent for "speaking to the heart," as The New York Times reported when she died. Detailed and thorough, this biography describes Hurst's weaknesses and mistakes as well as her talents and triumphs. Documentation is excellent, the sources exhaustive. This reviewer's only criticism is that Kroeger includes too few lengthy examples of Hurst's writing to give the reader a real grasp of the charm and grace of her exposition. Appropriate for all readership levels. R. Halverson; Arizona State University



"What I lack is rhythm" The first known published work of Fannie Hurst appeared in her high school newspaper at Christmastime 1904, the month before she graduated. "An Episode," a nine-paragraph story, sketches a few moments in the life of a wealthy, powerful, but godless man alone with his conscience in a cathedral. Overcome by the haunting majesty of his surroundings, he watched his misdeeds pass before him. Pain and remorse engulfed him. He sat crouched alone on a pew until the last echoes of "Ave Maria" died away. Then he rose, and went out, and as he went he said, "I have knowledge, I have power--what I lack is rhythm." Then he threw back his head and laughed, long and loud and bitterly, and went off into the dusk. Fannie Hurst, the daughter of now quite comfortable, assimilated German Jews with deadening middle-class aspirations, wanted to be a writer. She liked to claim that the Saturday Evening Post mailed back her manuscripts as if by boomerang from the time she was fourteen. This did not deter her. Nor did her mother's dire prediction that she would end up "an old-maid schoolteacher like Tillie Strauss," the sad and lonely spinster daughter of one of her mother's friends. Fannie defied this well-meant but suffocating opposition and compromised only enough to go to college in St. Louis, her hometown. She entered Washington University in the fall of 1905, a month before she turned twenty. Fannie and her classmates watched much ground break. The handsome new Gothic-style "Quad" had been a site for the most defining seven months of the century for St. Louis, the "Universal Exposition," more commonly known as the 1904 World's Fair. The trees that lined the campus drives were only saplings in those days, reminding Fannie of "the knees of newborn calves." By her sophomore year the first girls' dormitory opened, and every city girl who could afford to do so took a room in McMillan Hall to get a better feel for college life. This did not stop the trips back to Mama, however. The sight of coeds toting overnight bags out the door of the new red-brick building was so common that some of the professors took to calling the campus Suitcase U. Although McMillan had space for 125 girls, only 16 moved in that first year, and together they became a tight little band. Every evening they joined in a kind of family party. Fannie usually provided the entertainment, amusing the group with parodies, anecdotes, and character sketches. She could concoct a spooky mystery yarn with no more inspiration than the sight of the same car parked at the edge of campus day after day. Fannie laid claim to the most exotic suite of rooms, in a little tower at the dormitory's very top. She dubbed it "the test tube," a name that stuck. So did Fannie's penchant for snaring the best and most unusual living spaces. Her vitality was legendary on campus; she never seemed to sleep. From the Quad, friends often saw the lights in the test-tube windows burn till daylight, the sole indication that she was making time to study. For Fannie, classwork always came a distant second to acting, writing, editing, sports, and, as McMillan's first president, even dorm life. Nevertheless she took pains to project the air of a serious scholar and desperately wanted the approval of the university's intellectual elite. With pretentious displays of verbiage, she dazzled friends and classmates, but her academic average was no better than a straight B-minus. Her A's in subjects that mattered to her, like composition and literature, did not quite balance out the C's. "More conspicuous than distinguished" was the way she later described her academic performance. Thinking back on those days years later, a dormmate remembered Fannie not as brilliant but as robust and vigorous, someone who "enjoyed living in every fiber of her being." Fannie showed no inclination for social activism in those years; that came later. Nor did she engage in any experimentation with the opposite sex. Nothing seems to have sated Fannie's need for attention--not her stage performances, not her student compositions, not the admiration of her friends or even a coveted nod from a professor who might occasionally acknowledge a flash of talent. She found herself "slashing around in all directions at once"--silently tormented, violently ambitious, jealous of the achievements of others. This anguish, which she deftly concealed, seemed to center on her inability to get any of her writing published professionally. As yearnings go this one was not so far-fetched. Fannie was among a number of students in this St. Louis litter to show precocious promise. Among the young women in her age-group, a few already had distinguished themselves in the greater St. Louis community. Zoë Akins, poet and future playwright, spent a term on the Washington University campus in Fannie's sophomore year. By that time Akins's work was appearing regularly in the Mirror, a local magazine of national literary repute owned and edited by the legendary William Marion Reedy. Sara Teasdale, another poet about Fannie's age, had her first book of verse published in 1907, when Fannie was a junior. Reedy had been publishing Teasdale's poems in the Mirror for a year. Especially irksome to Fannie was the publication in book form of Completion of Coleridge's Christabel by her classmate Edna Wahlert. Years later Fannie oddly remembered this work as her own unpublished effort as a child of sixteen in one telling, and eleven in another. Yet of all this local achievement, Cornelia Catlin Coulter stirred the most envy. Brilliant, austere, and scholarly, Coulter had little time for Fannie in their days at Washington U. After graduation she went straight to Bryn Mawr and earned a doctorate on the strength of a dissertation titled "Retraction in the Ambrosian and Palatine Recensions of Plautus; a Study of the Persa, Poenulus, Pseudolus, Stichus, and Trinummus." Next to Coulter, Fannie always felt diminished, "transparent . . . a cheap and garish thing." Excerpted from Fannie: The Talent for Success of Writer Fannie Hurst by Brooke Kroeger All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.