Brodie, Fawn McKay, 1915-1981Alternative names
Fawn McKay Brodie was born in Ogden, Utah, on September 15, 1915. Her family were active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with her grandfather serving as president of Brigham Young University and uncle David O. McKay as the ninth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Brodie attended Weber College in Ogden from 1930-1932 before finishing a B.A. in English Literature at the University of Utah in 1934. She returned to Weber College to teach English after receiving her degree. Brodie earned an M.A. from the University of Chicago in 1936, the same year she married Bernard Brodie. By this time she had all but given up her faith in the Mormon Church, and undertook a critical study of the history of theBook of Mormon. Brodie completed a critical biography of Joseph Smith in 1944. It was condemned by the Mormon Church and Brodie was excommunicated in 1946. Brodie is also known for several other biographies, including those of Thomas Jefferson, Thaddeus Stevens, Sir Richard Burton, and Richard Nixon. Brodie was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1980 and died on January 10, 1981.
From the description of Letters about "No man knows my history : the life of Joseph Smith," 1947. (Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens). WorldCat record id: 496814884
From the description of Letter, 1946. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 122553640
Fawn M. Brodie was born September 15, 1915, in Ogden, Utah, and raised on the family farm in Huntsville, a small town fifteen miles east of Ogden. Hers was, by her own account, an idyllic childhood. Her father, Thomas E. McKay, was a very devout Mormon, an assistant to the Twelve Apostles, and president of the European Mission. His brother was David O. McKay, who later became president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her mother, Fawn Brimhall McKay, was in her daughter's phrase a "quiet heretic." Fawn Brodie's maternal uncle, Dean Brimhall, was widely known as a free thinker and scholar. It was from her mother's family that Fawn Brodie took her course in life.
Fawn Brodie began her education in the Weber County School District. By the time she was eighteen, she had attended both Weber State College in Ogden and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and earned a B.A. in English literature from the latter. It was at the University of Utah she began to feel a quiet kind of liberation from the parochialism of the Mormon community. She later described this feeling as like taking off a hot coat in the summertime. By the time she entered the University of Chicago for graduate work in 1936, her break with the past was almost complete. It was there, while working in the cafeteria, that she met Bernard Brodie, a young Jewish student of political science. Despite the objections of both sets of parents, they were married on August 25, 1936. She received her M.A. in English literature on the same day.
In an effort to answer Bernard's questions on the Book of Mormon, Fawn Brodie began researching her own religious background in the university library where she worked. Her research convinced her that an objective biography of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, was needed and her preliminary work on a biography led to her being awarded the Alfred A. Knopf Fellowship in Biography in 1943.
In the meantime Bernard Brodie accepted a teaching position at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. It was here their first child, Richard, was born in 1942. For a short time during World War II, Bernard worked for the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, D.C., but in 1945 he began teaching political science at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. While at New Haven, Fawn Brodie completed work on No Man Knows my History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet . It was published in November 1945 and instantly aroused a storm of controversy that has not yet subsided. The book and its author were denounced in the highest circles of the L.D.S. Church, and even now few people who are familiar with the work are ambivalent about it. As a direct result of the book, Fawn Brodie was excommunicated from the L.D.S. Church in June of 1946.
These vicissitudes notwithstanding, the years at Yale were happy ones for the Brodies. They built a house in Bethany, a small town near New Haven, that was featured in Your House and Home magazine in 1950. It was here their other two children were born, Bruce in 1946 and Pamela in 1950. Bernard Brodie had meanwhile joined the RAND Corporation, and after less than a year in Washington, D.C., was transferred to corporate headquarters in Santa Monica, California. There the Brodies lived in a small bungalow while building their next home in Pacific Palisades. This was to be their home for the rest of their lives.
Once settled in their home, Fawn Brodie turned again to writing. Her second book, Thaddeus Stevens, Scourge of the South, was published in 1959. In that same year, Bernard was awarded a grant by the Carnegie Foundation. The grant, a Reflective Year Fellowship, allowed the family to spend a year in Paris. Out of this came Fawn and Bernard Brodie's first collaborative work, From Crossbow to H-Bomb .
In 1967 Fawn accepted a position as senior lecturer in history at the University of California, Los Angeles. In this same year, she finished her third book, The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton ; her work as a historian and biographer now began to be recognized. She was named a Fellow of the Utah State Historical Society, and other awards and honors soon followed. In 1974 her fourth book, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, was published. This book was second only to No Man Knows My History in terms of the controversy it produced. In her efforts to reveal Jefferson's "inner life," she presented detailed evidence of his long-term affair with a black slave, Sally Hemings. This roused the ire of the conservative "Jefferson establishment," which had long held such stories to be untrue.
Fawn Brodie began research on her fifth and final book, a biography of Richard Nixon, in 1976. Her husband, her publisher, and many of her friends tried to dissuade her from this project, but she persisted. This book was a radical change for her, as up to this point all of her biographies had been about men she greatly admired. Nixon, however, she detested. About this time, Bernard Brodie was diagnosed as having cancer of the lymph system, and Fawn Brodie was increasingly concerned with her husband's health. After a period of remission, the disease prevailed and Bernard died in November of 1978. Fawn Brodie was devastated by his death and entered a state of depression from which she never fully recovered. She was reluctant to continue work on the Nixon biography--in a letter from this period she wrote that Nixon's life just seemed an obscenity --but it had been Bernard's final wish that she finish the book.
Soon after her sixty-fifth birthday, in September of 1980, Fawn Brodie too was found to be suffering from terminal cancer. She was just finishing the Nixon biography, and now raced against her impending death to complete the manuscript. It was finished in December of 1980; the final editing was done by her sons, Richard and Bruce, and Bruce's wife Janet. Fawn Brodie did not live to see Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character in print, for she died on January 10, 1981.
From the guide to the Fawn McKay Brodie papers, 1932-1983, (J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)
- Mormon Church--History
- Women biographers--Correspondence
- Women authors, American
- Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences
- United States (as recorded)
- Utah (as recorded)