Fannie Hurst: Writer, Feminist, Civil Rights Advocate

Fannie Hurst by Joseph Margulies, 1929; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; © Estate of Joseph Margulies
Fannie Hurst by Joseph Margulies, 1929; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; © Estate of Joseph Margulies

“Who?” That is the typical one-word response when Fannie Hurst’s name is mentioned today. Yet from 1910 through the 1940s, she was one of the most prominent female celebrities in the United States and one of the country’s richest self-made women. Hurst owed her fame as well as her fortune to a prolific writing career. In addition to nineteen novels, she published some 300 short stories, the first in 1910. By the early 1920s, newspapers invariably followed the name “Fannie Hurst” with the tagline “Highest Paid Short Story Writer in the World.” Fashionable, glamorous, and controversial, Hurst attracted as much attention for her personal life as for her writing career. The National Portrait Gallery’s sensitively rendered charcoal drawing, made in January 1929 by Joseph Margulies at Hurst’s Greenwich Village apartment, was one of a steady stream of images of the author that appeared in newspapers and magazines during her heyday.

Hurst specialized in heart­rending tales of the struggles of working women and immigrants. Their sentimentality is often indicated by their titles, as with the short stories “Sob Sister” (1916) and “The Spangle that Could Be a Tear” (1923) and the novels Humoresque: A Laugh on Life with a Tear Behind It (1919) and Star-Dust: The Story of an American Girl (1921). Known as “women’s fiction,” Hurst’s phenomenally popular tales were dramatized in more than thirty Hollywood films and gained her the dubious distinction of “Queen of the Sob Sisters.” Although frequently criticized for sloppy writing and stereotyping, Hurst prided herself on the realistic details she brought to her work, which drew on her experiences in a variety of low-paying jobs—waitress, nursemaid, salesclerk, sweatshop worker—and her regular visits to night court, Ellis Island, and New York City’s slums.

Hurst was well-known for her passionate advocacy of feminist causes. She was member of Heterodoxy, a Greenwich Village club founded in 1912 as a forum for “unorthodox” women (including many bisexuals and lesbians) to debate cultural, political, and sexual reforms deemed radical at the time. In 1915 she secretly married the pianist Jacques Danielson but, to maintain her independence, kept the marriage secret for five years and continued to live separately from her husband throughout their thirty-seven-year marriage. Not surprisingly she was among the first to join the Lucy Stone League, a group founded in 1921 to fight for a woman’s right to keep her maiden name after marriage as a means of maintaining her independent identity.

Hurst’s celebrity gained attention for many other progressive social causes. She was a board member of the Urban League and an associate of several leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including Zora Neale Hurston. The two writers became lifelong friend after Hurst presented Hurston with an award at a 1925 literary banquet sponsored by the Urban League’s Opportunity Magazine. Hurst's passion for social justice also led to a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt and frequent invitations to visit the White House. Among many other civic leadership roles, she served as chair of the National Housing Commission (1936-37), was a member of the National Advisory Committee to the Works Progress Administration (1940-41), and a delegate to the World Health Organization (1952).

In 1958 Hurst began hosting Showcase, a television program that addressed contemporary social issues through interviews and panel discussions. One of the show’s most controversial innovations was its forthright discussion of homosexuality and the recurring appearance of lesbian and gay commentators. Frequent criticism and cancellations resulted in a short run, but Hurst did not shy away from supporting the gay community. She gave a speech in support of gay rights at the Mattachine Society’s fifth annual convention in New York in August 1958, eleven years before the Stonewall Riots galvanized a larger gay rights movement.

Although Fannie Hurst’s fiction has been dismissed as outdated and too obviously a product of its era, in many respects the author was light years ahead of her time.