Written by Rachael Martin

Voices

Why you should give a shit about… Emily Hahn

New Yorker writer, concubine, opium addict and “bad girl”. Rachael Martin looks at the extraordinary life of Emily “Mickey” Hahn.

Emily “Mickey” Hahn. Photo from the Emily Hahn Estate.

Emily Hahn, American journalist and author, lived a life that reads like every bad girl’s great adventure. Born in 1905, Emily, or “Mickey” as her suffragette mother named her (after cartoon character of the day Mickey Dooley), was sassy, smart and tackled life head on.  

Hahn loved reading, and she loved writing. Originally enrolled on the general arts programme at the University of Wisconsin, she then changed to mining engineering. The first woman to join the course, she was told it wasn’t possible for a woman to become a mining engineer. She got her degree in 1926.

Before she graduated, Hahn journeyed across the US in a model T-Ford, dressed as a man, with her friend Dorothy Rape. While she was in New York in the late 1920s doing a graduate course in geology, she sent her brother-in-law letters. He sent them to the New Yorker. The editor, Harold Ross, eventually published Lovely Lady, a sketch of a lunch between two shallow society women, one of whom was Leslie Nast, wife of publisher Condé Nast. He told Hahn, “Young woman, you can be cattier than anyone I know, except maybe Rebecca West. Keep it up!” It was the beginning of a lifelong relationship and she would continue to write for the New Yorker until she died at the age of 92.

“Boxer criticised Hahn’s housekeeping; she replied: ‘Then let’s spend money on nothing else except books.'”

Hahn wrote her first book Seductio ad Absurdum: The Principles and Practices of Seduction, a satire on the art of seduction, in 1930 and used some of the money to go off and travel solo in the Belgian Congo. She’d been invited there by Patrick Putnam, the anthropologist but Hahn didn’t need any encouragement. She was ready for the adventure.

At that time, nice white young unmarried women didn’t go off to the Belgian Congo alone, and if they did try to enter, it was assumed they were prostitutes. Hahn got in anyway, worked for the Red Cross, lived with a Pygmy tribe and travelled across East Africa. During this time she became fascinated with primates, and later wrote about it. Her last book Eve and the Apes spoke about nine women who had raised infant apes.

In 1935 Hahn went off to Shanghai to work as the New Yorker’s China correspondent, where she became concubine to a Chinese poet and an opium addict. She said famously: “Though I had always wanted to be an opium addict, I can’t claim that as the reason I went to China.”

She first met the Chinese poet Zau Sinmay at a party organized by American salon hostess Bernardine Szold-Fritz. And promptly caused a scandal by going home in his car that night. He was a playboy, one of the protagonists of Shanghai’s literary circle, and wrote decadent poetry. He introduced her to circles she would never have had access to otherwise, and it gave her insight into an entire world. She went around the opium dens with him. This was 1930s Shanghai, opium was rife and the city was notorious and wicked.

During this time, Hahn also met Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai and wrote a book The Soong Sisters, about Eling, Chingling and Mayling Soong, two of whom were their wives. Hahn spoke of her Shanghai years as a happy period.

“She was a feminist before the word had entered the public conscience.”

When Hahn met Major Charles R Boxer, a British intelligence officer, he was married to a woman deemed as the most beautiful in Hong Kong and she was still involved with her poet. Nevertheless, they began an affair. Hahn told him she wanted a baby, “a steadying influence,” and he duly obliged. Carola Militia Boxer was born in October 1941. Hahn wrote about it all, opium, love and China, in her 1944 bestseller China to Me.

Hahn and Carola were expatriated to the US in 1943, Boxer later when the war ended. They married and went to live on his estate in Dorset. He criticised her housekeeping; she replied: “Then let’s spend money on nothing else except books.” Boxer lived in England and Hahn lived mostly in the US as a tax exile.

Hahn never stopped writing. She wrote about her life, her travels, biographies, a Chinese cookery book, fiction and children’s books. She was a feminist before the word had entered the public conscience, and writer friend of Rebecca West and Dorothy Parker. Her book Once Upon a Pedestal: An Informal History of Women’s Lib argued that the more women stayed on a pedestal, the more boring they became. Pedestals are out, she said (you get the impression that for Hahn they were never in anyway).

She lived her life according to her own catchphrase. “Nobody said not to go.” And Hahn went.

Want to know who else you should give a shit about? Click here

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Written by Rachael Martin

Rachael moved to Italy 20 years ago, and can still be found living north of Milan, enthusing about food and places, and eyeing up the Abarths. She’s bilingual, writing in English and Italian, and also goes off to Spain every summer. Three places, three languages, certainly two identities, with cultural insights and awareness that live in her suitcase wherever she goes.