1959 publicity still of Fannie Hurst and her pet Yorkie
In late August 1958, the novelist Fannie Hurst gave a brief speech in favor of gay rights that was later heralded as the “emotional highlight” of Mattachine Society’s fifth annual convention (“Mattachine Convention: Prognosis is Hopeful” 22). Nearing seventy years old at the time, Hurst was then best known for the popular fiction she published decades earlier as a young Greenwich Village based writer (more on this later). Comfortably established, Hurst continued to write prolifically throughout her long career and also hosted a talk show, Showcase
, airing in New York. In the late 1950s, Hurst benefitted from an additional surge of cultural relevancy, following the announcement that Lana Turner was set to star in the second of two Hollywood adaptations of the writer’s controversial 1933 bestseller Imitation of Life.
Hurst’s seemingly unlikely association with the homophile organization Mattachine Society can be traced back five months before her appearance at their August convention. In March of that year, Hurst was in the midst of researching male and female homosexuality for a series of upcoming Showcase episodes on the topic. The first of these two programs aired on Monday, March 10, and featured an all-male panel of experts, including one member of Mattachine. Fifteen minutes prior to the airtime of the second episode, the network pulled the plug and forced Hurst to host a makeshift panel on the topic of handwriting analysis instead. “After the high plateau we reached yesterday,” she explained to her audience, “the station feels we are a little premature” (Talbot 10).
Galvanized by the network’s censorship of her program, Hurst accepted an invitation to speak at Mattachine’s convention in New York City. Snippets of her thoughtful and impassioned speech, advocating for the continuation of “persistent and erosive action against prejudice” (Logan 28), permeated the nascent gay press. Hurst’s speech, however, has since merited little more than a minor footnote in the history of gay rights in the United States. In part, I think this is because of the cultural unintelligibility of Hurst’s stance in the face of the dominant narrative of a gay rights movement with the dated birth of 1969. What do we make of a visible and vocal ally whose lifetime spanned from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century? Was she anachronistically ahead of her time or is there a more complicated answer?
Leila J. Rupp’s ambitious and tremendously successful analysis of lesbianism in the history of the world, Sapphistories (2009), provides an important interpretative framework for approaching these questions. “From a long historical perspective,” Rupp argues, “the early twentieth century represents a more striking departure [than the gay and lesbian movements of the late 1960s], at least in some places around the globe” (Rupp 204). Rupp partially attributes this significant turn-of-the-century shift to the global influence that nineteenth century Western sexology had in defining same-sex desire in biological and psychological terms. She also points to the contemporaneous emergence of visible subcultures of men and women with same-sex desires, especially in pockets of urban centers like—notably for us— Greenwich Village.
Here, Fannie Hurst’s life history proves to be an interesting case study. Born into a comfortably middle class German-Jewish family in 1889, Hurst lived most of her young life in St. Louis and attended and graduated from Washington University in 1909. At the age of 25, Hurst moved to New York City under the auspices of attending an extension or graduate program at Columbia University. While there is no record of her ever actually attending any such program, what is well accounted for is Hurst’s sudden rise to prominence as a frequent contributor of fiction to popular magazines, eventually earning her the title of “world’s highest paid short-story writer” (Kroeger xiv).
In 1914, the successful and financially independent young author rented the first of a series of Greenwich Village apartments, immersing herself in the Village’s cultural milieu. Hurst’s biographer Brooke Kroeger notes that the writer’s Greenwich Village years had a lasting impact, expanding both her social circle and her social conscious. Among Hurst’s new friends was Marie Jenney Howe, a trained (but not practicing) Unitarian minister and feminist activist. Howe had recently founded a radical feminist organization for “unorthodox women” known as Heterodoxy, which met for biweekly luncheons at Polly Halliday’s on MacDougal Street. Hurst’s name was immediately added to this organization’s membership role, joining other feminist luminaries such as Alice Duer Miller, Crystal Eastman, and Charlotte “The Yellow Wallpaper” Perkins Gilman.
Jessie Tarbox Beals photo of Polly’s Restaurant ca. 1907
A founding principle of Heterodoxy, which has since proven quite troublesome to historians, is the organization’s formal prohibition against press and general lack of official documentation (e.g. meeting minutes or other records). In the revised edition of Radical Feminists of Heterodoxy (1986), Judith Schwarz argues the necessity of this rule given the public profiles of many of its members in an era in which portions of the press demonstrated both dubious ethics and open hostility towards progressive thought (Schwarz 18). The history of Heterodoxy, then, is constructed mostly via ephemeral evidence as well as the biographies and unpublished papers of its members. This archive of material draws a fascinating (but incomplete) picture of a racially integrated, ethnically diverse, and intergenerational group of women with numerous members who openly defied patriarchal heterosexual norms in a range of ways— including divorcing one or more of their husbands, retaining their last name’s after marriage, advocating for free love, or having long-term primary relationships with other women. Heterodoxy members Elizabeth Irwin and Katherine Susan Anthony, for example, lived as a couple on Bank Street for thirty years until Irwin’s death and raised several adopted children together. “The lesbians of Heterodoxy,” Schwartz writes, “were discussed in letters between other club members (although never called ‘lesbians’), and acknowledged in addressing Christmas cards to the couple. Good wishes were sent to the other partner whenever anyone wrote to her lover” (Schwartz 89).
It is reasonable to suggest that Hurst’s early exposure to Heterodoxy in specific and Greenwich Village in general favorably predisposed her towards homophile organizations which began to form decades later in the 1950s. Significantly, these organizations were founded in what was perhaps the most socially conservative and repressive decade of the century. As a commentator on the documentary Before Stonewall (1984) explains: “There was such a turn around in the country come shortly after the ’48 election and then in came Senator McCarthy. And all of a sudden the country slipped into the dark ages.” In Martin Duberman’s Stonewall (1993), the historian convincingly argues that the Cold War climate of the 1950s necessarily informed the nature and operations of organizations like Mattachine, which he characterizes as “an elaborate, hush-hush skeleton organization that in its hierarchical, cell-like structure reflected the order of the Freemasons” (Duberman 77). Duberman further speculates that the extreme contrast between the 1950s and 1960s in concert with the needs of a younger generation of activists to legitimate their own movement by rejecting the existing homophile movement heavily contributed to the perception that the Gay Liberation Movement magically appeared out of the blue in the late 1960s.
In keeping with both Rupp and Duberman’s arguments, then, Fannie Hurst’s life experiences trouble simplistic understandings of gay and lesbian history, first, through her knowledge of lesbian lives in the Village in the early twentieth century and, second, through her involvement with pre-Stonewall gay and lesbian activism. By refusing a progressivist model (i.e. a slow but continuous march towards equality) and destabilizing the important but incomplete origin myth that is the Stonewall Riots, Fannie Hurst’s life history is but one point of entry that helps us re-imagine a richer and more nuanced gay and lesbian history on a global, national, and local city based level. Combating cultural amnesia in the 1980s, the lesbian writer Joan Nestle reminded us that “we will be in trouble if we act as Lesbians of the eighties as if the twenties and fifties never existed” (Nestle 110). Amidst the increasing mainstream acceptance of gays and lesbians in our contemporary context, it is important that we heed Nestle’s warning by refusing to complacently accept the simple narratives that temptingly dangle before us. Perhaps more so than ever, a comprehensive historical vision remains our best tool to creatively approach a yet undetermined future.
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