A New Yorker writer with a penchant for pet monkeys and a past as an opium addict, hard-partying expat, foreign correspondent, mining engineer, and confidante of Madame Chiang Kai-shek grew up in St. Louis? So much for stereotypes. Emily “Mickey” Hahn’s father was a dry goods salesman. He had proposed to their mother while strolling through Forest Park. They raised six kids on Fountain Avenue between Grand and Kingshighway.
Born in 1905, Mickey first made the newspapers by daring to wear knickers to high school. She would later recall her childhood as “unfashionably happy.” When she sailed off to Africa, the ship reminded her of the steamboats she had watched on the Mississippi. When she lived in New York, she became friends with W.C. Handy, and he sang her a new verse he had written for “St. Louis Blues.”
If you stay in St. Louis, you write your own blues. Growing up someplace landlocked and conservative shapes and contains you, anchoring everyday life in stability, congeniality, other unsexy virtues. I live across the river now, a negligible distance compared to my youth’s fleeting dreams of Boston, New York, or what the hell, Bhutan—but I use St. Louis as the excuse for my lack of ambition and adventure.
So maybe I should be glad no one has heard of Mickey Hahn, whose life negates my excuse.
She loathed being predictable, so whenever a decision had to be made, she chose the most uncertain path. In the early 1920s, she was the first woman to major in mining engineering at the University of Wisconsin, mainly because a professor had told her, “The female mind is incapable of grasping mechanics or higher mathematics or any of the fundamentals of mining.” She earned her degree and landed a job at McBride in St. Louis. But she was already bored when she learned of Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic. “If he makes it, I’ll quit my job,” she vowed—and he did, and she did. Having proved she could master the training, she forsook engineering and became a Harvey Girl rail guide out West, riding horses in the desert. Then she moved to New York and lived a literary life, filled with writing, parties, and the occasional drunken gossip with Dorothy Parker in the ladies’ loo.
When all that palled, Hahn went off with a St. Louis friend to volunteer in what was then the Belgian Congo. Spurning colonialist quarters, she lived among the Ba’Aka for more than two years. This was far less comfortable, but she was a good sport—and she craved attention. Early on, she had shown up at dinner parties with a capuchin monkey on her shoulder; in Africa, she made pets out of a baboon and several gibbons. She was—is this obvious yet?—impulsive. In China, she wove elaborate stories for her own amusement, dropping hints of espionage. The Brits kept a file on her—but scrawled across the top was a directive to “Disregard Miss Hahn’s entire story.”
Seduced by a handsome Chinese poet and publisher, intellectual and playboy, she smoked opium with him and wound up addicted. She shrugged, admitted that she had made a mess of herself, and went through detox. Mickey Hahn was shameless. And she was not what I have come to think of as “St. Louis nice.”
“I use people,” she admitted. “I use myself, which means that I use everything I find in my brain…including the people who surround me and impinge on my awareness. Sometimes I am asked, ‘Do you think it’s nice of you?’ and I reply honestly, ‘I don’t know. It isn’t a question in my mind of being nice or not nice. I can’t help it any more than I can help breathing.’” Her blithe conclusion? “People who mind should stay away from writers.”
When she fell in love with Charles Boxer, he was the head of Britain’s military intelligence bureau in China. And he was married. No matter; she dove into a passionate affair and had a baby with him, wanting a child to “steady” herself. When Ernest Hemingway (then married to St. Louis-born Martha Gelhorn) learned that Hahn was pregnant, he offered to say the baby was his, so she could avoid the scandal of adultery. She smiled and said no thanks: “Charles wouldn’t like that.” Instead of hiding, she and Boxer decided to give a box of chocolates or cigars to the first person brave enough to ask outright if she was pregnant.
Soon after the baby’s birth, fighting broke out, and Boxer was captured as a prisoner of war. Hahn lied to the Chinese authorities so she could stay in the country and wait for him. When he was finally released, reporters asked what he would do first, and he said he intended “to make an honest woman out of Mickey Hahn.”
They stayed married for more than half a century—but mainly because Hahn carved out space by living much of the time in New York while her husband lived in Britain. She wanted the freedom, and no doubt he appreciated the calm. When he read the bits about him in her memoir, China to Me, he laughed and said, “I never realized before just how elephantine your memory is. I have been staggered to find myself confronted in print by fatuous remarks I have made at some drunken party and I thought you were under the influence. Next time I go out with you, Mickey, I shall take along a rag or a muzzle and ask someone to stuff it into my mouth between drinks.”
Hahn seized freedom in her writing, too—and paid for it afterward. Everyone does, but in her time, women paid a higher price than men did. She wrote fifty-two books, among them the story of the Soong sisters, one married to Chiang Kai-shek, one to a future Minister of Finance, and one to Sun Yat-sen. As a freelancer, Hahn survived four legendary New Yorker editors: Harold Ross, William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, and Tina Brown. “She was one of America’s most irrepressible and prolific female writers,” notes her biographer, Keith Cuthbertson, “yet today Emily Hahn is largely unknown and her writings are seldom read.” Today The New Yorker calls her “a forgotten American literary treasure.”
“I made a decision to avoid being typecast,” she once explained, not caring that the variety of her books stymied the marketers. When she wanted to write about angels, demons, and ghosts, she did so. She tackled the art of seduction, a history of Ireland, humankind’s love affairs with diamonds and with gold, interracial marriage, bohemianism, women’s issues, animal communication, and the lives of Leonardo da Vinci, D.H. Lawrence, and Nellie Bly. She shocked the critics with a novel about interracial marriage. No one knew quite how to pigeonhole Mickey Hahn.
Late in life, on a return trip to St. Louis, she visited the house where she grew up. “My hand on the doorknob remembered the door,” she said wonderingly. She had not expected to feel nostalgic. But even adventurers need to start out safe.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.