The freelance writer and critic Rene Saller was one of my favorite patrons when I worked at the Carpenter Branch Library on South Grand. Rene was always a reliable source for interesting books and films, and it was a pleasure to discuss mutual enthusiasms with her. Now, Rene has introduced me to Emily Hahn (1905-1997), a pioneering St. Louis-born writer and all-around fascinating woman, whose cosmopolitan life Rene outlines below.
Here at Central Library we have a great selection of Hahn’s books available for checkout, from memoirs (China to Me) to works of history and reportage (The Tiger House Party: The Last Days of the Maharajas) to droll advice guides (Spousery, which comes in a his-and-hers edition). I am quite disappointed to report that Love Conquers Nothing: A Glandular History of Civilization was withdrawn at some point.
Rene has kindly allowed me to reprint her review of Hahn’s memoir, No Hurry to Get Home, which is also available from Central under its previous title, Times and Places.
The fact that Emily Hahn doesn’t have a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame depresses me almost as much as the knowledge that hardly anyone knows who she is anymore. She was not only a superb writer, among the best of the New Yorker’s golden era; she was a fascinating human being and an admirable person.
In one of this collection’s most amusing and fascinating essays, she describes her years in China as an opium addict and then the bizarre and mysterious cure that she underwent, which involved hypnosis and psychoanalysis, although she was under the influence of barbiturates during the analysis and was never told what it was she discussed with the doctor, despite having asked him more than once.
Other essay topics include her experiences as the first female geological engineer (something she undertook only because she was told by a college administrator that women were not permitted to do it); her childhood and adolescence in St. Louis, which at the time she considered, like the family in Meet Me in St. Louis, to be the greatest city in the world; her almost unbelievable travels in the Belgian Congo–sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of a European polygamist and his contentious African wives–when she was in her early 20s; having a baby in China during World War II, where the father of her child (to whom, I believe, she was not yet married) was a British spy imprisoned in a brutal Japanese POW camp; and sundry hilarious experiences with pet gibbons and back-alley Eurasian dentists.
She never identifies herself as a feminist, but it seems evident that her entire life was a demonstration of feminism in its purest form. She insisted on having the freedom to live the way bohemian men have always lived, and somehow she succeeded.
I loved this collection and plan to read more of her many, many books in the future. Some are out of print, but I found this one used online (in very good condition, at a bargain price), and I checked out another (a history of American bohemianism, which I didn’t have time to finish, sadly, but plan to return to one day) from the St. Louis Public Library. Her style is so engaging, droll, and lucid that I’m pretty sure I would enjoy anything she wrote, no matter what the topic, although her life is the most fascinating subject imaginable.
— Rene Saller