With Fawn McKay Brodie, there was little neutrality among Mormons

Next year, it’ll be the 100th anniversary of 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. 

Almost seventy years 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.)

This past weekend, thanks to my friend Cal Grondahl, I had the opportunity to read “Fawn McKay Brodie: A Biographer’s Life,” by Newell G. Bringhurst. Published 15 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 George H. 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 healthy 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.

I hope next year there is considerable notice of her life and work, particularly in Weber County, her home.


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6 Responses to With Fawn McKay Brodie, there was little neutrality among Mormons

  1. sageseeker1 says:

    Excellent review of a book many of us didn’t know existed. Clearly, Fawn daringly displayed her intellectual curiosity, unflattering for a religious follower (and a doom for a woman).

  2. D. Michael Martindale says:

    This is interesting. I never knew much about her personal life, or how many heretics there were within her (and David O. McKay’s) family.

    I do think she was a little sloppy with her scholarship. Brodie had her bias–she wrote from the presupposition that Joseph Smith was a fraud.

    But comparing to Bushman, whose JS bio you consider to have superceded hers as the ultimate one, he also had his bias–he wrote from the presupposition that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. His was a subtle bias that a lot of people don’t notice, but it jumped out at me.

    I consider his bio to be superior, if for no other reason than it came much later. Much more data available. I do think Bushman attempted to be more balanced than Brodie did.

    • Doug Gibson says:

      I think Bushman, given his active status, had to relate what Smith claimed but he did explain his decision early in book. Brodie was clearly far more of a Brimhall than a McKay, and I think her perceptions of her mother’s perceived suffering, and her grandpa’s suicide, as well as resentments toward her father, influenced her writing.

    • Deseret JIM says:

      There’s no use in aligning Ms. [Brodie] with the white and dark “crazy crafts” of an [heretic], let alone “smearing” the family with the like’s of [Satan] in your put down, Mr. Martindale.
      Standing alone now despite the reputation that the LDS prophet had in carrying the “handle” of President [David "Oman" McKay].
      May you rest in peace Fawn Brodie. It appears “no man knows Weber Counties history”. For the time being.
      Give us have another 100 years for discovery.

  3. Roger says:

    Intriguing review of Bringhurst’s bio of Fawn Brodie. It is certainly true, even when one wants to make a break, one remains “tethered”, as you put it. Some resort to bile and bitterness, because the disappointment is so fierce; others keep one foot in and one foot out–the dissonance is less painful than the rejection. I remember reading Brodie’s bio of JS in one evening in the JRC (now HBL) Library at the Y. I then went bAck and filled three pages of handwritten questions for my Religion prof. He refused to respond. I wonder if that same reaction might be what Fawn’s initial questions generated.

  4. Jack Stickney says:

    Your hope that there will be any notice of Fawn Brodie’s centennial are misplaced in the context of a strong LDS community such as Huntsville. I did think your article was very informative however; and provided information of which I was previously unaware.

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