Hurston and Hurst: Setting the Record Straight

November 10, 2011 


A big fan of Turner Movie Classics at some moment last month I became interested in Fannie Hurst learning she was the source of some my favorite movies Four Daughters, Humoresque, Backstreet and not the least of which Imitation of Life. A cursory internet search revealed that Zora Neale Hurston worked as Fannie Hurst’s maid while another article stated she was a friend and secretary. A student of the Harlem Renaissance and African American Literature my interest grew more intense in the Hurst/Hurston relationship and their interaction with Harlem Renaissance photographic chronicler Carl Van Vechten. Their interconnectedness will be fertile ground for literary scholars in years to come, but I had a more pressing question. Which was it, secretary, friend or maid? I suspected a bit of all three, and tilling the rich details of my research suspicions were confirmed.

Fannie Hurst was the first female to earn lucrative pay writing short stories at the beginning of the 20th century. Coveted magazines like McCalls and Cosmopolitan and publishers like Hearst newspapers fiercely competed for her stories the early subjects of which where tales of boarders, German-Russian-Jewish immigrants and the $12 a week shop girls probing their loves, dramas and traumas. Fannie Hurst had a rare talent for stories that tugged at the human heart earning her the reigning title as the leading “sob sister.” She was an avid supporter of the day’s popular socialist causes, liberal, humanitarian and feminist as well as a forceful supporter of the rights of African Americans.

The two authors first met on May 1, 1925 at Opportunity magazine’s first literary awards banquet sponsored by the National Urban League. As judges Eugene O’Neil and James Weldon Johnson were in attendance amongst 316 others representing New York’s literary who’s who. More than seven hundred entrants competed for the eight hundred dollars in prize money in the categories of best short story, poem, play, essay, and personal experience sketch. Langston Hughes took first prize for his collection of poems The Weary Blues. Zora Neale Hurston took two second prizes for her poem Spunk and her play Color Struck. Fannie Hurst presented Zora Neale Hurston the poetry award.

Their friendship began at the after party where Van Vechten, Fannie Hurst and author and feminist activist Annie Nathan Meyer the founder of Barnard College where all completely taken with Hurst’s captivating brilliance. Meyer secured Hurston’s admission to Barnard College enabling her to complete the degree started at Howard University. Hurst and Van Vechten served as patrons providing some support toward tuition and living expenses. Hurst hired Hurston as a secretary but Zora had horrible secretarial skills and was reduced to running errands. Hurston also from time to time found it necessary to moonlight as a maid.

Hurston served in some capacity as maid, driver, gofer and secretary. The women shared a life long friendship and on Hurston’s death Fannie wrote, “Zora had the gift of walking into hearts, she herself was a gift to both her race and the human race.”

So I was right, but now I have another nagging question. What influence if any did Hurston have on the writing of Imitation of Life?

Comments

2 Responses to “Hurston and Hurst: Setting the Record Straight”
  1. Elyce Strong Mann says:

    Thanks for this. I am doing research on the relationship between Hurston and Hurst now. It is fascinating, especially how Hurston affected the writing of Imitation of Life and Hurst affected the writing of Their eyes Were Watching God.

  2. Linda McCone says:

    I was going through some boxes and found an old raggedy copy of Back Street. Wondering if it had any value, I googled the title. What a surprise, especially when I saw Fannie Hurst had also penned Imitation of Life; one of my favorites. Thank you for Hurston and Hurst: Setting the Record Straight. I think I’ll keep the book for now. Now if I could only find an original copy of one of Zora Neale Hurston’s books.

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