Fannie Hurst, Author of Imitation of Life
By Nava Atlas | On July 14, 2018 | Updated August 19, 2022 | Comments (0)
Fannie Hurst (October 19, 1885 – February 23, 1968) was a prolific American novelist and short-story writer. Though largely forgotten today, her work was hugely popular in her heyday, roughly from the 1920s through the early 1950s.
Her best-known work is the 1933 novel Imitation of Life, which was adapted twice into feature films.
Fannie’s books and short stories featured romantic and sentimental themes, into which were woven social issues that mattered to her. Her writing made her fabulously wealthy and she was acknowledged as one of the highest-paid American writers, male or female.
Early life and career
Fannie was born and raised in Hamilton, Ohio. Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Bavaria. Her financially comfortable parents provided her with many opportunities and encouraged her talents. Becoming a writer was her ambition from childhood. “Nothing really mattered to me except writing,” she once recalled.
She studied at Washington University in St. Louis. After graduating in 1909, she held many odd jobs including shoe factory worker, waitress, salesperson, and actress.
She married a Russian emigre named Jacques Danielson who died young. Their marriage was mostly a secret. The kind of relationship they had was coined as a phrase: “a Fannie Hurst marriage” was a marital arrangement in which the partners maintained independent lives, including separate residences.
At the start of her writing career, she contributed to magazines including the Saturday Evening Post, Century, and Cosmopolitan.
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Backstreet and Imitation of Life
Back Street (1931) is one of her two best-remembered novels among the many that she wrote. The story of a woman who devotes her life to being the mistress of a married man, it was twice adapted into a film, first in 1941, then again in 1961.
Imitation of Life (1933) was in keeping with the public debate about race and women’s roles. It’s the story of Bea Pullman, a white single mother, and her African-American maid, Delilah Johnston, also a single mother.
Together, Bea and Delilah raise their daughters and eventually become business partners. Bea’s business sense and Delilah’s southern recipes combine to form an empire. The book and the two film versions were beloved as well as controversial.
These and some of Fannie’s novels and short stories were translated into numerous language. Her concern for the social issues woven through her stories and books spanned class, race, gender, and religious identification.
Today, most of her works are out of print and difficult to obtain, with the possible exception of Imitation of Life. It’s possible that despite their laudable themes, the kind of sentimental, tearjerking style she favored doesn’t resonate with modern readers.
From the 1999 biography Fannie by Brooke Kroeger, her career is encapsulated: “She wrote of immigrants and shop girls, 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.”
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Famous friends and social activism
Fannie Hurst’s literary connections expanded during the Harlem Renaissance. She herself was Jewish (Jews weren’t exactly considered white at the time), but associated with black authors like Zora Neale Hurston.
Zora first served as Fannie’s secretary and driver, and later, the two women became good friends. Fannie was also a patron to Zora, which was helpful to her. Zora was always stretched financially.
Fannie’s reputation declined through the 1950s and 1960s, and she didn’t publish nearly as much as she had earlier. Like her, Zora was virtually forgotten by the time she died, but of the two, it was Zora whose reputation was revived. Now she is revered as a literary icon, while Fannie has not been as lucky.
Fannie was a reformer (or what we call an activist today), advocating and raising money for the relief of Jews in Eastern Europe, and refugees from Nazi Germany. She served on the boards of the Committee on Workman’s Compensation (1940) and the National Housing Commission (1936 – 1937).
She was a delegate to the U.N. World Health Organization and was involved in the causes of antivivisection (opposed to operating on live animals for research), workmen’s compensation, among others.
Later years and legacy of Fannie Hurst
Fannie Hurst died in February of 1968 after a brief illness at the age of 78. She was still living in one of the spoils of her lucrative career, a triplex apartment overlooking Central Park in New York City.
At the height of her career, she produced numerous novels and short stories, and also wrote plays and essays. She was known for her personal sense of style, too. Her raven hair and ivory skin gave her a distinctive look. She always added a calla lily with whatever ensemble she dressed in; it became a trademark of sorts.
Having no heirs, she left half of her estate to her alma mater, Washington University, and the other half to Brandeis University. These institutions used the money to endow English department professorships.
Though she was still writing until the end, her stamina and reputation had waned. Unfairly, some of her work was called “trash,” and some critics even conjectured that her work influenced novelists like Jacqueline Susann and Jackie Collins.
Renewed interest in Fannie Hurst has focused on her Jewish background and social consciousness. In the 1990s, her life and work again started to gain serious critical attention.
A full-scale biography by Brooke Kroeger was published in 1999, and in 2004, a collection of her stories was published by the Feminist Press to “propel a long overdue revival and reassessment of Hurst’s work,” praising her “depth, intelligence, and artistry as a writer.”
More about Fannie Hurst
On this site
- Fannie Hurst & Zora Neale Hurston — a Literary Friendship
- Conscious Quotes by Fannie Hurst
- What goes through your mind when you’re feeling blocked?
Short Story Collections
- Just Around the Corner (1914)
- Every Soul Hath Its Song (1916)
- Gaslight Sonatas (1918)
- Humoresque: A Laugh on Life with a Tear Behind It (1919)
- The Vertical City (1922)
- Song of Life (1927)
- Procession (1929)
- We are Ten (1937)
- Star-Dust: The Story of an American Girl(1921)
- Lummox (1923)
- Appassionata (1926)
- A President is Born (1928)
- Five and Ten (1929)
- Back Street (1931)
- Imitation of Life (1933)
- Anitra’s Dance (1934)
- Great Laughter (1936)
- Lonely Parade (1942)
- Hallelujah (1944)
- The Hands of Veronica (1947)
- Anywoman (1950)
- God Must Be Sad (1961)
- Fool, Be Still (1964)
Biographies and Autobiographies
- Fannie: The Talent for Success of Writer Fannie Hurst by Brooke Kroeger
- Anatomy of Me: A Wonderer in Search of Herself by Fannie Hurst
- Jewish Women’s Archive
- The ‘Anatomy’ of Fannie Hurst
- Reader discussion of Fannie Hurst’s books on Goodreads
Film adaptations (selected)
- Back Street (1941)
- Back Street (1961)
- Imitation of Life (1934)
- Imitation of Life (1959)