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Picture of Emily Hahn

January 14, 2004
Emily Hahn   (1905 - 1997)
"Nobody Said Not to Go"
by Steve King

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On this day in 1905 Emily ("Mickey") Hahn was born. With fifty-two books, a sixty-eight-year career at The New Yorker and a personal life of storybook proportions, it is hard to understand why Hahn is not better known. Perhaps it is also unnecessary: Hahn's years in the Far East are currently the focus of a British movie and a Canadian television documentary, and her 1970 Times and Places was reissued in 2001 (under the title No Hurry to Get Home). These New Yorker pieces certainly show that her strength, apart from her strength of character, is in travel-memoir: most of them make you feel as if there, or make you wish you had been, and in her company.

Hahn had two best sellers in the 40s, but by 1960, friend and mentor Rebecca West was already seeing neglect, and its cause: "Like you, I'd have a far higher reputation if I were male." Biographer Ken Cuthbertson (Nobody Said Not To Go, 1998) adds the range and style of Hahn's talent to the explanation: she spread herself over too many genres, and her "informal, highly personalized prose style" was before its time, "a precursor of the 'new journalism.'" Cuthbertson's title is a line which Hahn liked to use and live by. It is apt, if not entirely accurate. When she enrolled in mining engineering at the University of Wisconsin the discouragement couldn't have been clearer: "The female mind," explained her academic advisor, "is incapable of grasping mechanics or higher mathematics." Typically Hahn, she got the mining degree -- the first woman to do so at Wisconsin -- and hardly practiced the profession.

Similar nay-saying and head-shaking attended her cigar-smoking, her enjoyment of men and alcohol, her trip across the U.S. in a Model T with her girlfriend (both disguised as men), her journey to the Belgian Congo as a Red Cross worker, her time as the concubine of a Chinese poet in Shanghai, her addiction to opium, her affair and illegitimate child with the head of the British Secret Service in Hong Kong, her pioneer work in environmentalism and wildlife preservation, and the captivating candor with which she wrote about all of this "Though I had always wanted to be an opium addict," one of her collected New Yorker pieces begins, "I can't claim that as the reason I went to China."

Hahn's first book, Seductio ad Absurdum, was a satire on the way men played the courting game. The man with whom she eventually fell in love, the British officer-spy-academic Charles Boxer, certainly met her standards for intelligence and full-throttle living. And he too sparkled with wit and charm, if this first letter to Hahn at the end of WWII -- arriving to her after years of separation, silence, and rumors of his execution -- are any measure: "I am fit and well. Two years of Colonel Noma's Course for Backward Boys in Stanley and Canton jails [have] done me rather good. It is quite impossible to put down in writing all of the million things that I want to ask you...." First on the list of questions was a proposal of marriage, and as Hahn had made their love affair known to the world in China To Me -- one of the two best sellers -- their reunion after the war was played out in magazines and newspapers across America.

There is some rage for fame in all this, but Roger Angell's 1997 obituary article in The New Yorker warns that "this magazine's roving heroine, our Belle Geste," was not "another trenchcoated, thrill-seeking flibbertigibbet, a Carole Lombard. She was, in truth, something rare: a woman deeply, almost domestically, at home in the world. Driven by curiosity and energy, she went there and did that, and then wrote about it without fuss."

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