A dedicated writer for more than fifty years, Edna Ferber was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on August 15, 1885. She celebrated America even as she exposed its shortcomings. Her published work includes twelve novels, twelve collections of short stories, two autobiographies, and nine plays—most in collaboration with other playwrights. Ferber’s novel So Big won a Pulitzer Prize in 1925, while the film Giant and the musical Show Boat, based on her novels, continue to entertain contemporary audiences. World famous in her time, Ferber was, for her readers at home, a beloved chronicler of American working people whose ethnic variety, linguistic idiosyncrasy, toughness, occasional sweetness, and resilience never ceased to fascinate her.
Edna Ferber’s enduring love of America and its workers—as well as the form that this passion gave to her life and work—rose, paradoxically, out of a childhood troubled by frequent moves from one state to another; by the business failures and the early blindness and death of her Hungarian-born father, Jacob Ferber; by the labor of her American-born mother, Julia (Neumann) Ferber, in several family stores; and by a period of seven years in which, Ferber remembered, there was never a day in which she was not called a “sheeny.” From age five to twelve, Ferber lived with her parents and older sister, Fannie, in Ottumwa, Iowa—a town so brutal toward Jews that she held it accountable until the end of her life for everything in her that was hostile toward the world. As Ferber carried lunch to her father every day, she had to run a gauntlet of anti-Semitic abuse from adult male loungers, perched on the iron railing at the corner of Main Street, who spat, called her names, and mocked her in Yiddish accents. Ferber’s parents suffered as well. Her father lost a lawsuit against an employee accused of theft when witnesses who had sworn to the truth of the accusation suddenly, in the courtroom, reversed their testimony.
Ferber herself described the effects of those seven years in various ways. She believed they were “astringent, strengthening years whose adversity” had toughened her. She understood that her terror of legal complications in the course of her writing career—as well as her profound love of justice—owed much to that early experience of injustice. Ferber’s sense of herself as a Jew and her adult responses to antisemitism were also shaped by the pain of those years. Like the five-year-old child who “didn’t run” but “glared” at her oppressors, Ferber confronted directly and caustically the antisemitic comments that occasionally marred her adult professional relationships. Her first autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure (1939), rings with contempt and rage against Hitler for making of Europe a world she could not recognize, in which it was no longer possible to love the human race.
Ferber believed that her identity as a Jew owed more to persecution and to her love of her family than to religious observance or historical tradition. She suspected that, as a child, her pride as a Jew might have reflected her pleasure in self-dramatization, in feeling herself “different and set apart,” in knowing herself to be superior to her persecutors. That sense of superiority stayed with her. As late as 1934, Ferber celebrated the absence of Jewish names among the “despoilers of America”—“paper mill millionaires” and others who had profited from the destruction of America’s forests and rivers. In time Ferber even developed a sense of collective Jewish identity that highlighted the positive compensatory effects of oppression. She believed that the Jew, left in peace, would have lost his “aggressiveness, his tenacity and neurotic ambition.” More important, oppression had yielded to Jews the priceless gift of “creative self-expression.” Jewishly uneducated, she knew nevertheless of “an old Chassidic book” that “says there are three ways in which a man expresses his deep sorrow: the man on the lowest level cries, the man on the second level is silent, but the man on the highest level knows how to turn his sorrow into song.” As a writer, Ferber cherished that knowledge all her life.
At first Ferber sought her own path toward “creative self-expression” in the theater. She called herself “stage-struck,” a passion nourished not only by her grandfather’s puppet plays, by her grandmother’s daily reenactments of encounters with tradesmen and neighbors, and by “playing show” with her sister, but also by the Ferber family’s frequent attendance at local performances in Ottumwa. Minstrel shows and shoddy traveling theater companies, as well as the earliest versions of what would become movies, dazzled the child. The adult recognized that they afforded “color, escape, in that dour unlovely town.” In time Ferber’s collaborations with George Kaufman and Jerome Kern on such plays as Dinner at Eight, The Royal Family, and Show Boat produced successes that gratified her lifelong love of theater.
At age seventeen, however, Ferber abandoned her plans to become an actor to help support her family. They had left Ottumwa for Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1897. Forbidden to study elocution when she graduated from high school, Ferber stomped out of her house and into the office of the Appleton Daily Crescent, where the editor hired her as a reporter. Thus, in a moment of stormy reaction, Ferber ended her formal education and entered the profession that was to engage her for the rest of her life. Although she would come to know very well the drudgery and loneliness of a writer’s life, and although she sometimes worried that the “gift of writing” might be taken from her at any moment, she cultivated that gift by habitually transforming every detail of sensory and emotional experience into words. The sounds of hangers striking one another in a moving train, the musings of a lonely teenager feeling sorry for herself, the graceful movement of a young gardener as he turned from his work, all went into storage in her imagination, to be pulled out like the spangles and feathers of an antique costume from a trunk in the attic when her stories required them. In love with the work of reporting, she moved from the Appleton paper at age eighteen to a larger paper in Milwaukee, where she relished the company of other reporters and “worked like a man” to the point of breakdown at age twenty-two.
The lifelong habit of writing, grown partly out of the “sorrow” of Ottumwa and poverty, enriched Ferber immeasurably but developed in her, as well, a perspective that alienated her to some extent from engagement in ordinary life. After she came to New York in 1912, she enjoyed an extraordinarily wide circle of friends, among whom were Katharine Hepburn, Moss Hart, George Kaufman, Robert Sherwood, Louis and Mary Bromfield, and William Allen White. But as a reporter, she had learned early to look on life rather than participate in it. She could project herself into “any age, environment, condition, situation, character or emotion” that interested her. However, she also acquired the writer’s ability to feel a sensation and to analyze a feeling while having it—a “gift” that she believed was “deathly hard” on romance. Thus she lived a writer’s life, socializing and traveling with other writers, editors, producers, performers, and artists. She took as a companion her widowed mother, whose own unhappy marriage served, perhaps as powerfully as her jealous maternal protectiveness, to guard Ferber from matrimony.
After her breakdown, Ferber began to write and publish the short stories that would lead her to New York. Her most famous early character, the businesswoman Emma McChesney—whose fortunes even Teddy Roosevelt followed with relish—was succeeded in time by a multitude of personae whose misfortunes and triumphs showed America to itself. The habit of loving America and Americans, which distinguishes virtually all of Ferber’s work, originates—like her ability to observe without participating and her unfettered contempt for bigotry—in the seven painful years she lived in Ottumwa. On Saturday nights in those years, after the matinee, Ferber’s pleasure was to watch the crowds passing on Main Street. She liked to see them without being seen. As she watched, she realized that “the passer-by does not notice you or care about you; they, the people, are intent on getting somewhere, their faces are open to the reader; they betray themselves by their walk, their voices, their hands, clenched or inert; their feet, their clothes, their eyes.” In the watching child, reading people as they passed, the reportorial eye that would later describe essentials of human behavior peculiar to Texas (in Giant), Alaska (in Ice Palace), Oklahoma (in Cimarron), and the Mississippi River (in Show Boat) was developing.
Ferber’s pleasure in the rich multiplicity of American character was also rooted partly in her early experience of Ottumwa. When her father’s illness drew her mother more and more deeply into the labor of supporting the family, Edna and her sister were cared for by a series of “hired girls”—farmgirl daughters of immigrant parents or new immigrants themselves. Such women, Ferber realized, “influenced the manners, morals and lives of millions of American-born children,” introducing them to Old World cooking and costume, folktale, and song. Unhindered by gender in her own ambitions and aware of ways in which her mother had surmounted the trials of her early life, Ferber had little patience with women who allowed themselves to be limited by the constraints of femininity. Like Jews, she believed, women developed special strengths because of their subjection to social limitations. Thus she often wrote about women whose energy and talent made them successful in business, like Fanny in Fanny Herself or Emma McChesney in Roast Beef, Medium. The “variety” and “fun” brought to Ferber’s early life by the hired girls of her childhood inspired an enduring interest in the “vigor and native tang” of working people’s talk. To her the conversation of a truck driver was always “more stimulating, saltier” than that of a man who “drove his own Cadillac.” As late as 1933, Ferber believed that working people still retained “a kind of primary American freshness and assertiveness,” and her stories attempted to do justice to them and their lives. She was one of them. She felt she understood them and America—“its naiveté, its strength, its childishness, its beauty, its reality.” Until she died on April 16, 1968, in New York City, Edna Ferber’s idea of “the ultimate in exciting luxury” still mimicked the early experience of the parade-watching child on Main Street in Ottumwa. She loved to lie back among pillows in an air-conditioned train compartment, “watching the United States of America slide by.” This unabashed love of America seems dated now, for it speaks of a simpler time than our own. Ferber’s stories and novels, films, and plays continue to make accessible that moment of our collective national experience.
SELECTED WORKS BY EDNA FERBER
Edna Ferber (August 15, 1885 – April 16, 1968) was an American novelist, short story writer and playwright. Her novels included the Pulitzer Prize-winning So Big (1924), Show Boat (1926; made into the celebrated 1927 musical), Cimarron (1929; made into the 1931 film which won the Academy Award for Best Picture), Giant (1952; made into the 1956 Hollywood movie) and Ice Palace (1958), filmed in 1960.
Life and career
Ferber was born August 15, 1885, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to a Hungarian-born Jewish storekeeper, Jacob Charles Ferber, and his Milwaukee, Wisconsin-born wife, Julia (Neumann) Ferber, who was of German Jewish descent. After living in Chicago, Illinois, and Ottumwa, Iowa, at the age of 12 Ferber and her family moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, where she graduated from high school and briefly attended Lawrence University. She took newspaper jobs at the Appleton Daily Crescent and the Milwaukee Journal before publishing her first novel. She covered the 1920 Republican National Convention and 1920 Democratic National Convention for the United Press Association.
Ferber's novels generally featured strong female protagonists, along with a rich and diverse collection of supporting characters. She usually highlighted at least one strong secondary character who faced discrimination ethnically or for other reasons; through this technique, Ferber demonstrated her belief that people are people and that the not-so-pretty people have the best character.
Several theatrical and film productions have been based on her works, including Show Boat, Giant, Ice Palace, Saratoga Trunk, Cimarron (which won an Oscar) and the 1960 remake. Three of these works – Show Boat, Saratoga Trunk, and Giant – have been developed into musicals.
When composer Jerome Kern proposed turning the very serious Show Boat into a musical, Ferber was shocked, thinking it would be transformed into a typical light entertainment of the 1920s. It was not until Kern explained that he and Oscar Hammerstein II wanted to create a different type of musical that Ferber granted him the rights. Saratoga, based on Saratoga Trunk, was written at a much later date, after serious plots had become acceptable in stage musicals.
In 1925, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her book So Big, which was made into a silent film starring Colleen Moore that same year. An early talkie movie remake followed, in 1932, starring Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent, with Bette Davis in a supporting role. A 1953 remake of So Big starring Jane Wyman in the Stanwyck role is the version most often seen today.
Ferber was a member of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of wits who met for lunch every day at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. Ferber and another member of the Round Table, Alexander Woollcott, were long-time enemies, their antipathy lasting until Woollcott's death in 1943, although Howard Teichmann states in his biography of Woollcott that their feud was due to a misunderstanding. According to Teichmann, Ferber once described Woollcott as "a New Jersey Nero who has mistaken his pinafore for a toga".
Ferber collaborated with Round Table member George S. Kaufman on several plays presented on Broadway: Minick (1924), The Royal Family (1927), Dinner At Eight (1932), The Land Is Bright (1941), Stage Door (1936), and Bravo! (1948).
Ferber never married, had no children, and is not known to have engaged in a romance or sexual relationship. In her early novel Dawn O'Hara, the title character's aunt is said to have remarked, "Being an old maid was a great deal like death by drowning – a really delightful sensation when you ceased struggling." Ferber did take a maternal interest in the career of her niece Janet Fox, an actress who performed in the original Broadway casts of Ferber's plays Dinner at Eight and Stage Door.
Ferber died at her home in New York City, of stomach cancer, at the age of 82.
Art, entertainment, and media
- Ferber was portrayed by the actress Lili Taylor in the film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994).
- In 2008, The Library of America selected Ferber's article "Miss Ferber Views 'Vultures' at Trial" for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American True Crime.
- On July 29, 2002, in her hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin, the U.S. Postal Service issued an 83¢ Distinguished Americans series postage stamp honoring her. Artist Mark Summers, well known for his scratchboard technique, created this portrait for the stamp referencing a black-and-white photograph of Ferber taken in 1927.
- A fictionalized version of Edna Ferber appears briefly as a character in Philipp Meyer's novel The Son (2013).
- An additional fictionalized version of Edna Ferber, with her as the protagonist, appears in Downtown Strut: An Edna Ferber mystery. It was written in 2013 by Ed Ifkovic and published by Poisoned Pen Press .
- In 2013, Ferber was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.
- In her hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin, the Edna Ferber Elementary School was named after her. Construction of the school was initially voted down in a 1971 referendum.
This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.
- Our Mrs. McChesney (1915) (play, with George V. Hobart)
- $1200 a Year: A Comedy in Three Acts (1920) (play, with Newman Levy)
- Minick: A Play (1924) (play, with G. S. Kaufman)
- Stage Door (1926) (play, with G.S. Kaufman)
- The Royal Family (1927) (play, with G. S. Kaufman)
- Dinner at Eight (1932) (play, with G. S. Kaufman)
- The Land Is Bright (1941) (play, with G. S. Kaufman)
- Bravo (1949) (play, with G. S. Kaufman)
Essays and reporting
- Ferber, Edna (May 30, 1925). "A three dimensional person". Profiles. The New Yorker. 1 (15): 9–10. William Allen White
- Ferber, Edna (1960). A Peculiar Treasure. New York: Doubleday.
- Gilbert, Julie Goldsmith (2000). Edna Ferber and Her Circle, A Biography. New York: Hal Leonard Corporation.
- ^Boudreau, Richard (1986). The Literary Heritage of Wisconsin: Beginnings to 1925. Juniper Press. p. 412.
- ^"About the Playwright: The Royal Family – The Kaufman-Ferber Partnership". Utah Shakespeare Festival. The Professional Theater at Southern Utah University. Retrieved February 8, 2017.
- ^Ferber has been rumored to be a lesbian in several undocumented sources. Professor John Unsworth makes an unsupported claim in John Sutherland (2007) Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction Oxford University Press: 53. Haggerty and Zimmerman imply she was gay because of her visits to Provincetown in the early 20th century (Haggerty and Zimmerman (2000), Lesbian Histories and Cultures: An Encyclopedia, Taylor and Francis, p. 610). Porter (Porter, Darwin (2004) Katherine the Great, Blood Moon Productions, Ltd, p. 204) comments in passing that Ferber was a lesbian, but offers no support. Burrough (Burrough, Brian (2010) The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes, Penguin) also remarks in passing that Ferber was gay, citing the biography written by Julie Goldsmith Gilbert (Ferber's great niece, see bibliography). Gilbert, however, makes no mention of lesbian relationships.
- ^Great American Writers: Twentieth Century
- ^"Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle". Imdb.com. imdb.com. Retrieved 27 September 2015.
- ^The Postal Store (2008). "Distinguished Americans Series: Edna Ferber". United States Postal Service. Archived from the original on 2008-05-07. Retrieved 2008-08-09.
- ^"Edna Ferber". Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. 2013. Retrieved 2017-10-08.
- ^Edna Ferber Elementary School homepage.
- ^"Ferber School Issue Raised Again". The Post-Crescent. October 2, 1973. p. 9. Retrieved December 18, 2015 – via Newspapers.com.