Fannie Hurst was born on October 18, 1889, in Hamilton, Ohio, to Samuel and Rose (Koppel), well-to-do German-Jews. The Hurst family moved shortly thereafter to St. Louis, Missouri, where Ms. Hurst grew up and attended Washington University. Upon completing her A.B. degree in 1909, Fannie Hurst overrode parental objections and moved to New York City to pursue graduate studies and a writing career.
Professional success eluded Fannie Hurst for many years, as publishers repeatedly rejected her work. Literary success finally came in 1915, when her regular contributions to the Saturday Evening Post caught readers’ attention and thrust her into the public limelight. By the mid-1920s Fannie Hurst was among the best-regarded, best-selling, and highest-paid authors in the United States, a standing she maintained for a couple of decades. Although the literary appeal of her sentimental and florid novels has not stood the test of time, her most enduring artistic legacy arguably remains the better-known film versions of her story “Humoresque” and the novels "Imitation of Life and Back Street." Altogether, from 1912 to 1964 she wrote 18 novels, three volumes of essays, and hundreds of short stories.
Outspoken and idealistic, Fannie Hurst employed her fame and wealth to the benefit of vanguard philanthropic and social concerns. She funded, endorsed, and acted as spokesperson for multiple causes, chief among them race relations, women’s rights, public health, and the humane treatment of animals. Fannie Hurst was active in a number of national commissions, including one on housing (1936-37) and another on workers’ compensation (1940).
Fannie Hurst led an active social life with a distinguished roster of friends and acquaintances—such as the Roosevelts and Fiorello La Guardia—that reflected the literary, social activism, and personal realms of her life. Ms. Hurst also had a close relationship with Zora Neale Hurston, whom she mentored early on in the distinguished African-American author’s career.
Fannie Hurst secretly wed pianist Jacques Danielson in 1915, but the marriage was eventually disclosed to the public. The married couple kept a separate living arrangement, which became the subject of public scrutiny and controversy. Ms. Hurst maintained that separate housing helped her and Danielson keep a fresh and congenial spousal relationship. Fannie Hurst had a life-long embattled relationship with food, weight, and female body image—subjects that retain relevance today and of which she poignantly yet humorously wrote about in her personal account, "No Food With My Meals" (1935).
Fannie Hurst endowed creative writing professorships at Brandeis University (Waltham, MA) and Washington University (St. Louis, MO). She passed away in 1968.