Before the Atkins, South Beach and Cabbage Soup diets was the Hollywood Eighteen Day Diet from the 1920s, which demanded fewer than 600 calories per day. One of its earliest practitioners was American novelist Fannie Hurst, who wrote extensively about her weight loss struggles in the early 20th century, when obesity began turning into a cultural stigma. As a Fellow at the Ransom Center last year, Julia Ehrhardt, associate professor of Honors and Women’s Studies at the University of Oklahoma, studied Hurst’s papers for her upcoming book about the literary history of dieting in the United States.
In 2007, I spent a fabulous two months in residence at the Harry Ransom Center, thanks to the generous long-term fellowship program, which allowed me to travel and live in Austin in close proximity to the Center. My research project concerns the relationships among body weight, dieting and American literature from the turn of the last century until 1939.
I first became interested in these issues when I read Fannie Hurst’s dieting memoir “No Food With My Meals” published in 1935. Although Hurst is best known today as the author of the bestsellers “Imitation of Life,” “Back Street” and “Lummox,” she was equally known in literary circles as an avid dieter. I applied for a Ransom Center fellowship knowing that the majority of Hurst’s personal papers and memoirs were housed there, and hoping that I might find materials relevant to my project in the archive.
On the very first day of my fellowship, I discovered a veritable treasure trove of weight-loss pamphlets, printed diets and calorie charts that filled an entire box in the Hurst collection. As I continued my research in the vast collection, I found letters Hurst composed to friends, relatives and editors about her struggles to lose weight and to maintain her svelte figure. I also learned from Hurst’s correspondence that several prominent members of the writer’s social circle — including Irvin Cobb, Blanche Knopf and Helena Rubenstein — regularly commiserated with her about dieting and gave her their sympathy as well as their own weight loss hints. My research in Hurst’s date books and diaries indicated that she was a die hard devotee of a popular 1920s fad diet known as the Hollywood Eighteen Day Diet, and I also found a fascinating folder of letters about Hurst’s concern about the cover image her publisher had selected for the hardcover version of “No Food With My Meals.”
The most important discovery I made at the Ransom Center were several draft versions of an autobiography Hurst composed in the early 1940s and intended to title “Self-Portrait.” In the approximately 350 pages of this manuscript, Hurst tells the painful story of growing up fat in an era when thinness emerged as an essential component of normative American identity, and describes the lack of self-confidence she felt as an overweight child and young woman. This manuscript and others attest that even when celebrating her many literary accomplishments, unless a coincident weight loss accompanied them, Hurst would berate herself for not achieving the artistic and personal goals she had set out to realize. Her personal papers thus demonstrate the immense power weight wielded over her self-perception and her identity as an author — a story that is sadly not a unique one during the era I am researching.
Photograph of Fannie Hurst provided by the Harry Ransom Center.