Daughter of Charles L. and Annie Moffett Webster; married Glenn F. McKinney, 1915; children: one daughter
Jean Webster was a grandniece of Mark Twain; her father was Twain's partner in his ill-fated publishing ventures. She attended the Lady Jane Grey School in Binghamton, New York, and graduated from Vassar College in 1901. She was a frequent contributor to college publications and literary editor of the yearbook. Webster's friend and roommate at Vassar, Adelaide Crapsey, was probably the inspiration for Patty in her books When Patty Went to College (1903) and Just Patty (1911). Webster became a freelance writer, lived in Greenwich Village, and traveled extensively touring the world in 1906-07. After her marriage in 1915 to a lawyer, she and her husband lived in New York City and the Berkshires. She died a day after the birth of her only child, a daughter.
When Patty Went to College collects sketches Webster began writing while still at Vassar. It depicts the escapades of Patty Wyatt and Priscilla Pond, seniors in a turn-of-the-century women's college where the students surreptitiously brew afternoon tea and evening cocoa on alcohol stoves in their rooms, receive gentleman callers in the parlor after a maid has carried up cards, dine in evening dress, evade obligatory chapel, and study Greek and ethics. A sequel, Just Patty, concerns the innocent adventures of Patty and Priscilla as seniors at a church boarding school.
The epistolary novel Daddy-Long-Legs (1912) presents a modern Cinderella, Jerusha Abbot ("Judy"), who leaves her lifelong home in a depressing orphanage to attend a women's college. She must report her progress to her nameless benefactor, whom she christens "Daddy-long-legs" and whom she marries four years later. Webster's dramatization became highly successful on Broadway, starring Ruth Chatterton, and appeared in several film versions, including a silent version with Mary Pickford. A 1915 reviewer criticized the drama on the ground that "the chief object of the play" was to provide "sentimentalism sentimentally interpreted, turnip smothered in sugar offered as an apple of life." The novel, however, largely avoids sentimentalism, and the brisk irreverence and piquancy of its humor have made it a perennial favorite with both adults and children.
Dear Enemy (1914), an epistolary sequel to Daddy-Long-Legs, follows Judy's college friend Sallie McBride as she arrives to reform the old-fashioned orphanage from which Judy had escaped and stays to fall in love with its dour Scotch doctor. Once again, a potentially sentimental story is saved from stickiness by the practical point of view and the lively prose of its narrator.
Both Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy remained in print for almost 70 years. Their strong stories and charming characters, together with Webster's real interest in reforms in the care of dependent children, will secure them an audience for many years to come.
The Wheat Princess (1905). Jerry, Junior (1907). The Four Pools Mystery (1908). Much Ado About Peter (1909). Asa (1914).
The papers of Jean Webster are collected in the Lockwood Library of Vassar College.
Simpson, A., Jean Webster, Storyteller (1984).
Junior Book of Authors (1951). NAW (1971). TCA.
NR (13 March 1915). NYT (9 Nov. 1914, 13 Dec. 1914, 12 June 1916). Vassar Quarterly (Nov. 1916).
—SUSAN SUTTON SMITH