It's been more than 100 years since the birth of Fawn McKay in Weber County. It’s pretty safe to say that there is no one left who witnessed the extremely intelligent Huntsville youngster who moved through college in her mid-teens and was teaching English at Weber College by age 19.
Even today, there’s precious little neutrality among Mormons over Fawn McKay, who later, as Fawn Brodie, published “No Man Knows My History,” a biography of the Mormon church founder Joseph Smith. The biography tagged Mormon’s most-revered latter-day leader as essentially a fraud. “No Man Knows My History” was the first biography of Smith that wasn’t either a hagiography or a cumbersome anti-Mormon hatchet job. The biography angered and stung Mormon leaders, and led to a formal excommunication of Brodie from the church, although she had ceased activity in it several years earlier.
Many decades later, Brodie’s biography of Smith remains highly regarded. In fact, it took 60 years for another biography of Smith, Richard Lyman Bushman’s “Rough Stone Rolling,” to supplant Brodie’s book as the finest account of Smith’s life. (Even today, I’m sure my previous sentence will invite controversy.)
Thanks to my friend Cal Grondahl, I had the opportunity to read “Fawn McKay Brodie: A Biographer’s Life,” by Newell G. Bringhurst. Published 18 years ago, it’s a relatively short work and can be read over a weekend. It’s a sympathetic, but not sycophantic, biography that was a very interesting read, particularly if one’s only knowledge of McKay Brodie is as the “heretic” who wrote “No Man Knows My History.” She accomplished much more.
Brodie grew up in the now-iconic McKay family home in Huntsville. Her father, Thomas McKay, was a brother of the Mormon apostle and prophet David O. McKay. Her mother Fawn Brimhall McKay, was the daughter of Brigham Young University president Richard W. Brimhall. As Bringhurst notes in his biography, Brodie grew up as part of LDS royalty but also in “genteel poverty.” Her father was not an assertive man, and allowed his brother David and four sisters to control the McKay family affairs, even as Thomas was dealing with a crushing family mortgage. An example cited by Bringhurst of the domination Fawn witnessed as a child was the refusal by the five strong siblings to allow Thomas and his large family to use more than two bedrooms or even install plumbing in the home. As a child, Fawn and the other family members used an outhouse (“Mrs. Grundy“) to relieve themselves. In winter, the house was so cold the kitchen was the preferred room.
Bringhurst describes a young teenage Fawn as a pious, believing Mormon who bore her testimony in church, taught Sunday school and was engaged to a returned missionary. Nevertheless, she abandoned Mormonism soon after moving to the University of Chicago for graduate work. By the time she married Bernard Brodie, a Jewish man who would go on to a prominent career in foreign policy and military strategy, Fawn, 20, was a hostile critic of Mormonism, expressing, Bringhurst writes, “‘great bitterness’ over the deceit of her childhood.”
Ironically, the only parent to attend Fawn and Bernard’s nuptials was Fawn’s mother. The groom’s parents had long split and their family ties were weak. On the bride’s side, emissaries were sent to dissuade her without success. Fawn’s romance with Bernard is accurately described as “whirlwind.” They were married six weeks after meeting. It’s not unreasonable to analyze the hastiness of the marriage as a defiant gesture on the bride’s part against her Mormon upbringing. Nevertheless, it was a successful, loving marriage that survived one instance on infidelity on Bernard’s part.
Fawn’s research leading to her biography of Joseph Smith correlated with her father’s rise into the elite ranks of the Mormon Church. Thomas E. McKay became an assistant to the 12 Apostles. Bringhurst relates that “in a painful, acrimonious encounter, David O. McKay forbade Brodie from doing further research in the Mormon Church Library-Archives.” McKay later relented and offered her the use, but his niece declined and never used the church library again for research.
One irony of Brodie’s Smith biography is that it also encountered fierce opposition from Reorganized LDS leaders, who had not at that time reconciled themselves to Joseph Smith’s polygamy. In fact, as Bringhurst relates, Fawn received empty threats of lawsuits from RLDS leaders. Reaction from LDS church leaders was initially subtle, but eventually included rebuttal pamphlets such as Hugh Nibley’s “No Ma’am, That’s Not History.”
Reading Bringhurst’s biography, I wondered if Fawn’s Joseph Smith biography was an effort to get Mormonism out of her system. If so, it was doomed to failure. To grow up in the Mormon faith is to be tethered to it for a lifetime. The bonds, good and bad, are too strong to completely sever. For the rest of her life, Brodie remained both a commentator of Mormonism-related issues and a McKay, visiting the family, and dealing with her parents’ painful aging process. Her father languished for years as a near invalid.
Her mother, Fawn Brimhall McKay, suffered from psychological problems late in her life, eventually committing suicide by fire. It was eerily similar to Fawn’s maternal grandfather, former BYU President George H. Brimhall, who elderly and pain-ridden, committed suicide by shooting himself. Perhaps these events, including earlier suicide attempts by her mother, prompted Fawn to seek psychoanalysis. As Bringhurst relates, the therapy was moderately successful, and helped Fawn deal with problems of sexual frigidity and depression, problems which had also afflicted her mother. In fact, as Bringhurst notes, Fawn believed her mother was a “secret heretic” who did not believe in her faith and suffered from what was expected of her as the wife of a prominent Mormon.
I have neglected Fawn’s other accomplishments. She was far more than just the author of a strong biography of Joseph Smith. As Bringhurst relates, she had a mostly successful, loving relationship with her husband Bernard. Both earned esteem and success in their diverse fields, and they raised three children. They lived on both coasts, eventually settling in Southern California, where, as Bringhurst notes, Fawn recalls being described as the “fleshpots of Egypt” when she was a child in Mormon Huntsville. Both Bernard and Fawn taught at UCLA.
Brodie’s interest in psychological therapy prompted her to write several more psychological biographies after “No Man Knows My History.” They covered the lives of Civil War and Reconstruction-era politician Thaddeus Stevens, the British explorer Sir Richard Burton, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson and President Richard Nixon. All were controversial and reviewed pro and con, but the most successful was the Jefferson work, one of the earliest to link him to a sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings. That book made Brodie famous.
Brodie was a plodding, conscientious researcher, taking several years to write her biographies, and willing to put her research aside if family matters, personal or extended, became pressing. If she had a flaw to her method it may have been a trend toward confirmation bias, the tendency to search for information that confirmed her initial opinion on a subject. Bringhurst relates an event in Fawn’s childhood in which she bet a sibling that cobwebs were the result of dust rather than spiders’ webs. After learning she was wrong, Fawn was so angry she refused to pay the bet.
Fawn Brodie was a confrontational liberal, who loved a good fight, whether in politics, environmentalism or religion. Much of Bringhurst’s research comes from her correspondence with two close friends, her uncle Dean Brimhall and her mentor Dale Morgan. Both were disaffected Mormons, and the accounts of their correspondence, and others,’ with Fawn’s candor, are fun to read.
Fawn loathed Ronald Reagan, the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon, and most things conservative. Her interest in completing a Nixon book before her death was prompted by her revulsion for what she saw as his lifetime proclivity for deceit. Ironically, her book on Nixon came out as he was enjoying a temporary season of positive re-appraisal.
Cancer was cruel to Bernard and Fawn Brodie. Bernard languished for a year before dying in 1978, contracting cancer just as he was hoping to enjoy his retirement. Fawn’s case was even crueler. In September of 1980, while nearing completion of her first book of a planned two-book series on Nixon, Fawn, a non-smoker, learned she had lung cancer. The 65-year-old was dead within four months, dying on Jan. 10, 1981. She finished her Nixon book a few days prior to Christmas, and entered the hospital.
On New Year’s Eve 1980, Fawn, in desperate pain from a cancer that had invaded her bones, asked her brother Thomas, from whom she was semi-estranged, for a priesthood blessing. He obliged. A few days later, Fawn, in her last public statement. clarified that her request was linked to a family sentiment of her father providing blessings. “Any exaggeration … that I was asking to be taken back into the [Mormon] church at that moment I strictly repudiate and would for all time.” That statement is accurate. Fawn Brodie was disgusted by organized religion, and was not a self-professed Christian. If there’s any debate as to her beliefs, they lay between agnostic or atheist. Bernard was an atheist.
The blessing request, however, underscored the strong cultural and familial pull Mormonism always had on Fawn McKay Brodie. Bringhurst writes, “But while Brodie may have hated Mormonism, she couldn’t shake it. It dogged her to the end of her life — as evident in the last meeting with her brother.”
Brodie’s influence as a biographer, except for the Joseph Smith book, has faded. Psychobiographies are fascinating to read, but they do retain a pop atmosphere to them. I recommend her books though, particularly the Smith and Burton biographies. Fawn Brodie had the ability to look at a subject’s life and find questions to ask them that other biographers’ either wouldn’t think of asking or wouldn’t dare to ask. That she provided often-controversial answers to some of her questions adds to the interest.
-- Doug Gibson This review was originally published at StandardBlogs.
Utah Sen. Reed Smoot, R-Utah, was an apostle and U.S. senator. Too bad that too few of us recall the fierce, almost four-year U.S. Senate battle that resulted before Smoot was fully accepted as a senator. He served until 1933.
The Monica Lewinsky testimony had nothing on the Smoot hearings. The Mormon Church, with its alleged rampant secret polygamy, anti-government rhetoric, “lecherous” old leaders in white beards, captured the attention of a gossipy nation and crusading publicity-seeking pols. As Mormon historian Michael Harold Paulos points out in several essays, hundreds of political cartoons were published — most on the front page — during the tenure of the Smoot hearings. The then-anti-Mormon Salt Lake Tribune published more than 300 Smoot-related cartoons. Church President Joseph F. Smith, future president Heber J. Grant, and pols of that era, including U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, found themselves caricatured as part of the hearings’ commentary — most often with savage wit.
To provide an example of the barbed hearings, here’s an excerpt of testimony between LDS Prophet Joseph F. Smith, who admitted to fathering children with his wives after the first LDS Manifesto on polygamy, from Paulos’ The Journal of Mormon History article, “Under the Gun at the Smoot Hearings: Joseph F. Smith’s Testimony”:
(Senate questioner) “Do you consider it an abandonment of your family to maintain relations with your wives except that of occupying their beds?”
(President Smith) “I do not wish to be impertinent, but I should like the gentleman to ask any woman, who is a wife, that question.”
The prophet had some wit, as that rejoinder shows. He also drew praise for candor, although it was a selective candor. As Paulos points out, Smith frequently obfuscated and avoided issues. He was a turn-of-the-century Alan Greenspan, often confusing senators. Smith shocked many Utahns when he stated under oath: “I have never pretended to nor do I profess to have received revelations.” That untrue statement may be a result of Smith’s long tenure in the LDS Church, fraught with longstanding distrust of federal authority.
Cartoons included references to Sisyphus pushing Mormonism up a hill, a tattooed Smoot covered with LDS liabilities on his body, and a Tribune cartoon that mocked Smith for his lack of candor on revelation. As Paulos explains, the era was a golden time of political cartooning, with most cartoons on page 1A, rather than the editorial pages. Readers can see several of the cartoons in the December 2006 Sunstone magazine, “Political Cartooning and the Reed Smoot Hearings,” authored by Paulos.
It seemed unlikely for a long while that Smoot would be accepted as a senator, but history records that after the long hearings, he passed Senate muster fairly easily. He owed that win primarily to President Roosevelt, who bucked popular sentiment and backed Smoot, whom the president genuinely liked.
Another factor helping Smoot was that the original charges against him being a senator were lodged by anti-Mormons in Utah, who added one significant false charge — that Smoot was a polygamist. He was not; nor was he a strict LDS theologian. In fact, Smoot was chosen as an apostle and future senator due to his lack of interest in theology compared to politics and public service. In his speech to the U.S. Senate, which Paulos includes in an essay, Smoot is persuasive in both defending Mormonism and promising to separate his politics from his religion. Paulos suggests that current LDS politicians who seek political office should emulate Smoot’s frankness. That seems to be a critique of Mitt Romney’s “religion in the public arena” speech in 2008, one that failed to sway many voters wary of Mormonism.
In 1904, LDS President Smith issued a second Manifesto against polygamy. It eventually led to the excommunications of apostles John W. Taylor and Matthias Cowley, who flaunted their polygamous lifestyles. Paulos opines that the Smoot hearings and the Second Manifesto were beginning steps toward the modernization and eventual secular power of today’s LDS Church.
The Smoot hearings cartoons are priceless, provocative mementos of LDS history. Paulos, and colleague Ken Cannon, have privately published a professionally bound, 90-page book on the Smoot hearings. One hundred copies were printed and the small publication was presented at a past Mormon History Association gathering. Many libraries have copies of the publication.
-- Doug Gibson
This article was previously published at StandardBlogs.