Ferber, Edna (1885–1968)
Ferber, Edna (1885–1968)
Pulitzer Prize-winning American author of Showboat, So Big, and Giant, whose novels examine American values and culture, especially their impact on women. Born on August 15, 1885, in Kalamazoo, Michigan; died on April 17, 1968, in New York City, of cancer; daughter of Jacob and Julia (Foster) Ferber; had one sister, Fanny; never married; no children.
After graduation from high school, became the first female reporter for a small Wisconsin newspaper and, later, the Milwaukee Journal; published her first short story (1910) and her first novel (1911); awarded the Pulitzer Prize for So Big (1925), published the previous year; remained one of America's most popular authors with works such as Show Boat (the basis for the groundbreaking musical of the same name), Cimarron, and Giant, in addition to a collection of short stories and nine plays (1920–60).
Dawn O'Hara, the Girl Who Laughed (Stokes, 1911); Fanny Herself (Stokes, 1917); The Girls (Doubleday, 1921); So Big (Doubleday, 1924); Show Boat (Doubleday, 1925); Cimarron (Doubleday, 1930); American Beauty (Doubleday, 1931); Come and Get It (Doubleday, 1935); (two novellas) Nobody's in Town (Doubleday, 1938); (autobiography) A Peculiar Treasure (Doubleday, 1939); Saratoga Trunk (Doubleday, 1941); Great Son (Doubleday, 1945); Giant (Doubleday, 1952); Ice Palace (Doubleday, 1958); (autobiography) A Kind of Magic (Doubleday, 1963); also wrote short stories and plays, including The Royal Family, Dinner at Eight, and Stage Door (all with George S. Kaufman).
Shortly after America's entry into World War II, playwright George S. Kaufman received a phone call from his frequent collaborator, Edna Ferber. Ferber wanted his suggestions as to what she might do to help the war effort, and Kaufman recommended that she merely wait until she was asked to contribute. Yes, but what should she do?, Ferber impatiently insisted. "Well, Edna," Kaufman ventured, "you could be a tank."
Kaufman may have been joking, but Ferber's dogged determination had already brought her a Pulitzer Prize for fiction 20 years earlier, as well as her position as one of the country's most popular and well-recompensed authors, known for her sweeping sagas dissecting Americans and their national culture. She was an early and vociferous exponent of women's rights, almost all of her female characters being strong, adventurous, and practical-minded while many of her male creations were frequently brought low by a swaggering, hollow machismo. Among her many friends, Ferber's quixotic temper, likely to flare at unexpected and inconvenient times, was much respected. "I walked on eggs with Edna because you never knew what was going to offend her at what moment, but I loved her," Dorothy Rodgers once said of her, and her husband Richard's, long friendship with Ferber. "She was worth all the trouble, you know, she really was. She was just a great woman."
Edna Ferber had been a fighter from the time of her childhood when, she once noted, she had been "too little and too ugly" to be shown any favoritism. The eldest daughter of immigrant parents, Ferber had lived a peripatetic childhood after her birth in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on August 15, 1885. (Although the generally reported year of her birth is 1887, her mother Julia Foster Ferber 's meticulously kept diary places it two years earlier.) Her father Jacob Ferber had emigrated from Hungary some years earlier with hopes of opening a dry goods store in America's Midwest, where many of his fellow Eastern European Jews had settled. Arriving in Kalamazoo, Jacob met and married Julia Foster and settled down to await the birth of what the couple expected to be a son, to be named Edward. With his wife and new daughter Edna, Jacob embarked on a search for the perfect location for his store, traveling from Kalamazoo to Iowa and on to Chicago before finally setting up shop in Appleton, Wisconsin, not far from Milwaukee. Along the way, another daughter, Fanny Ferber , was born.
Although the dry goods store provided a steady income for the Ferbers, Jacob's poor health forced Julia and her eldest daughter to help out financially as best they could. Julia became increasingly involved in running the store, while Edna found a job as the Appleton Daily Crescent's first female news reporter after her graduation from high school. The two women's struggles—Julia's, to save the store from collapse as Jacob's health deteriorated; Edna's, to try and turn her talent for writing into a career that would support her family—forged a lasting bond between the two older women and drove a wedge between Edna and her younger sister Fanny, allowed to remain at home and look after her invalid father. At the time of Julia's death in 1949, Edna noted that her mother "married a man she did not love, a decent, dull, rather handsome man, because her mother said she must. Her life … was a tragic thing. How she emerged from it fun-loving and high-spirited, I cannot imagine." But Ferber could, indeed, imagine. She used her pen to decry the conditions under which American women lived and to free herself from her mother's plight.
With her father's death in September of 1909, money became even more of a problem. Julia tried to keep the dry goods store afloat while Edna managed to find a higher-paying job at the Milwaukee Journal, living away from Julia for the first time in her life. The pressure to produce an income proved considerable, although it would become the catalyst that launched Ferber's long and productive career. One morning in 1910, she collapsed in a faint on her way to work and was forced to quit her job and return to Appleton to recover. During her convalescence, she managed to publish her first short story in Everybody's Magazine, for which she was paid precisely $50.60. This was followed by the first in a series of stories featuring "Mrs. McChesney." Ferber drew on her own precarious experience to
create Emma McChesney, a woman forced by a painful divorce to support herself and her young son by becoming a traveling salesperson hawking women's underwear. Published between 1911 and 1915 in American Magazine and Cosmopolitan, the Mrs. McChesney stories were wildly popular and were America's first introduction to the name Ferber. Even Theodore Roosevelt was a fan, although he once wrote to Ferber begging that for propriety's sake, Emma McChesney be allowed to re-marry and revert to being a housewife—a suggestion Edna rejected out of hand. "The idea that anyone ever questioned the propriety of a woman's going into business … will be obsolete as millstones," she predicted. The series eventually formed the basis for Ferber's first work for the stage, Our Mrs. McChesney, which she co-wrote with George Hobart and which opened on Broadway in 1905, starring Ethel Barrymore in the title role. Ferber soon became a national symbol for the "modern woman," a role she would incorporate into her future novels.
She told the story of America.
Encouraged by the sale of her first Mrs. McChesney story, Edna sent the manuscript of a novel to New York literary agent Flora May Holly . Dawn O'Hara: The Girl Who Laughed appeared in 1911, followed by two more over the next ten years—The Girls and Fanny Herself, an autobiographical novel about a Jewish girl growing up in Wisconsin. All the while, Ferber kept up her journalistic work, traveling to the 1912 Democratic Convention in Kansas City to report the nomination of Teddy Roosevelt. There, she met William Allen White, a well-respected newspaper publisher and man of letters. The two struck up a close friendship that would prove invaluable in the coming years.
By the time Our Mrs. McChesney opened on Broadway, Ferber had made enough money from her writing to take her mother on the first of many tours of Europe in 1914, from which they returned just as war broke out in August of that year. By the end of World War I, Ferber had published her first collection of short stories and was living in New York, at the stately Majestic Hotel on Central Park West. She wrote for all the leading magazines of the day and plunged enthusiastically into the city's heady social and literary life. "Sometimes I wish I was back on the Appleton, Wisconsin, Daily Crescent," she wrote to Julia, now living in Chicago; then added quickly, "No, I don't, either." Among her acquaintances was the drama editor for The New York Times, George S. Kaufman, who suggested that one of her short stories, Old Man Minick, might form the basis for a play. Minick, the first collaboration in a partnership that would stretch over the next 20 years, opened in 1924 to lukewarm reviews. "There is no love interest, no sex, not even rough language," complained the drama critic for The Herald Examiner. "It is as natural as a pain in the back." Although it may not have been an auspicious beginning, Minick would prove the exception to a string of popular plays co-written by Ferber and Kaufman, among them Dinner at Eight, Stage Door, and The Royal Family, all of which eventually were made into films. Through Kaufman, Ferber met drama critic Alexander Woolcott, to whom she wrote a pleading note in 1921 asking, "Could I maybe lunch at the Round Table once?" Although Ferber's association with the Algonquin Round Table was not a long one, she formed some of her most rewarding friendships among this fluid group of wits and cynical arbiters of New York's artistic life, learning to trade sharp-edged ripostes with the best of them. Noel Coward, once noting Edna's severely cut, double-breasted jacket, cattily remarked, "Why, Edna, you almost look like a man." To which Edna famously replied, "Why, Noel, so do you!"
A year after Minick began its brief Broadway run, Ferber's name became a household word when it was announced she had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel So Big. Her story of the Wisconsin farm widow-turned-schoolteacher Selina and her troublesome son Dirk, with its strong sense of place and a heroine who seemed to embody America's primal strength in an era of flappers and bathtub gin, had been suggested to the Pulitzer selection committee by none other than William Allen White. White had recognized Ferber's talent from their first meeting in Kansas City 15 years earlier and had spoken warmly of her work to several friends close to the Pulitzer committee. But even as the accolades were pouring in, Edna was preparing the book that would do even more for her stature than the Pulitzer.
During the tedious and sometimes difficult rehearsals for Minick, the show's producer had jokingly suggested that the company give up and run away to join a show boat. "What's a show boat?," Edna inquired. She spent much of the next year finding out, tracking down one Charles Hunter on the coast of North Carolina. Hunter was one of the last surviving captains of the stately old Mississippi paddle-wheelers that brought entertainment to the river towns during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hunter's show boat, "The James Adams Floating Palace Theater," was still docked not far from his home. "He knew show boats from stem to stern, from pilot's house to cook's galley," Ferber once recalled. "I got out my yellow pad and hoped he'd never stop talking." Hunter talked for a year and a half, providing Edna with the richly researched background for her novel Show Boat, published in 1925. Much of Hunter's personality found its way into Ferber's own Cap'n Andy; and Hunter's story of a famous white show boat performer married to an African-American woman gave life to the poignant relationship between Edna's fictional Steve and the mulatto Julie, shocking to readers living at a time when interracial marriages were illegal in many states. The book was Ferber's first commercially successful novel and the basis for the 1927 Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein operetta that redefined American musical theater. It was one of the few adaptations of her works of which Ferber wholeheartedly approved. She called it "the most beautiful and important light opera music that has ever been written in America." Audiences ever since have agreed; the show has enjoyed numerous major stage revivals and three film treatments over the last 70 years.
The year 1927, it seemed, was Ferber's. Just one night after Show Boat first set sail on Broadway, her latest collaboration with George S. Kaufman, The Royal Family, opened to great acclaim. The show was a thinly veiled sendup of the nation's most famous acting family, the Barrymores. Edna had been smitten with Ethel Barrymore ever since her Mrs. McChesney days and
was distressed when the great lady sued to close the show. Critics were glad the attempt was unsuccessful. "The play is one of the most enjoyable of the season," enthused the Times' Brooks Atkinson. "Nothing could make for a completer [sic] exploitation of its theme than this collaboration of a fiction writer … and a satirist." Ferber, now the toast of New York and pursued by editors, agents and Hollywood moguls, merely settled down to write her next novel, 1929's Cimarron. It was another piece of meticulously researched Americana, dealing this time with the settling of the Oklahoma Territory in the late 19th century. As usual, Edna intended the plight of the women in her story to be its focus, and was disdainful of both film versions of the story—RKO's 1931 adaptation (that year's Oscar winner for Best Picture) and MGM's 1960 release—for missing the real significance of the work. "Cimarron has been written with a hard and ruthless purpose," she took pains to remind her public. "It contains paragraphs and even chapters of satire and, I am afraid, bitterness, but I doubt more than a dozen people ever knew this."
Satire was the aim of her next project with Kaufman, 1932's Dinner at Eight, a sly attack on high society manners and morals (filmed by George Cukor in 1933), while their 1936 play Stage Door skewered the show business world. (Stage Door was filmed in 1937 and starred Katharine Hepburn , Lucille Ball , Eve Arden , Ann Miller , and Ginger Rogers .) By 1939, Ferber had published Come and Get It, a novel about the lumber industry in Wisconsin (filmed in 1936 with Frances Farmer ); was researching a new novel set in New Orleans; and had published her first autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure. The financial security she had so sorely lacked in her younger days was now so solid that, in the midst of the Depression, she was able to build an imposing, two-story stone house near Westport, Connecticut, which she called Treasure Hill. All that was lacking, friends observed, was a husband and a family.
Ferber had once described herself as "a stagestruck Jewish nun," and Dorothy Rodgers suggested that Edna's single state was because "she probably couldn't find anyone smart enough." But Ferber, in more serious moments, claimed she enjoyed the company of men more than women. "[Men] act more directly, they have not been obliged for centuries, as women have, to dissemble, to resort to subterfuge," she said. "I find their company more stimulating, more challenging, no matter how old or young." Nonetheless, Ferber never publicly acknowledged more than an admiring friendship with any man, although her sister Fanny claimed that an editor for American Magazine once proposed during Edna's early career. Ferber does mention Bert Boyden in A Peculiar Treasure, but gives no hint of a romantic attachment in her laudatory few sentences about Boyden's sensitivity to others and skills as an editor. Boyden died shortly after World War I. There has also been speculation about Ferber's relationship with William Allen White, 20 years her senior and the father of two children, but there is no evidence that anything other than a deep respect for each other's intellectual gifts passed between them. In her writings, Edna remained ambivalent, even somewhat awestruck, about the married state. "I'm glad I never married," she wrote near the end of her life. "But I should have married. Marriage is a real experience in life no one should miss. If you are born, and can stand it; live, and can stand it; die, and can stand it, one should be able to marry and stand it." But she never did, sharply telling anyone who inquired that she was not the least bit lonely. "The people in my books are my friends," she claimed. "They never let me down."
World War II was ravaging Europe by the time Ferber's New Orleans saga, Saratoga Trunk, was published in the early 1940s. Despite the insecurity of her telephone call to Kaufman, Edna found plenty to do to help the war effort, from writing war-bond speeches for actors to touring Europe as a reporter for national magazines. At the war's end, she personally sponsored the immigration of four German-Jewish children whose parents had perished in concentration camps, supporting all four financially for much of her life. Although not a practicing Jew, the depth of Ferber's feelings is revealed by an unused dedication to her first autobiography found among her papers: "To Adolph Hitler, who has made of me a better Jew and a more understanding and tolerant human being … this book is dedicated with loathing and contempt." She did not endear herself to America's Jewish community, however, with her criticism of the new Israeli state that had been established in 1948. It was, she said, "arrogant, uninformed, self-complacent, regarding the world outside itself as definitely second best," and she pointed as proof to a statement by Israel's first president, David Ben-Gurion, that any Jew who lived outside of Israel was not truly Jewish. She was particularly troubled, too, by the sentiment expressed by a character in Leon Uris' Exodus who notes how wonderful it is to be in a country where everyone is of the same extraction. Ferber reveled in America's ethnic variety and found the lack of it in many European countries she had visited stultifying. "It is like eating one of those steam-table meals in which every dish tastes like every other dish," she wrote, "or one in which every dish has its own flavor—piquant or sweet or bland." It was precisely this fascination with America's immigrant heritage that informed her last two collaborations with George S. Kaufman, The Land Is Bright and Bravo!
In 1952, Ferber published the book that would do for her later career what Show Boat had done for her earlier years. Giant was the result of five lengthy visits to Texas, starting in 1939, sparked by a national fascination with the fortunes being made and lost during the oil boom of the 1930s and '40s. Ferber had at first felt that Texas history was a man's subject ("Let Michener write it," she was heard to say), but by the late 1940s she found it irresistible. Texans, on the other hand, found Giant libelous. It was, said one reviewer, "a vicious attack on the beauty and chivalry of our state," while the review in The Dallas Morning News bellowed that "Ferber Goes Both Native and Berserk: Parody, Not Portrait, of Texas Life!" Even critics who had been more kindly disposed to Edna in the past felt that her sprawling, earthy and boisterous novel dealt more in stereotypes than in actual characters. Ferber's own comment that "The State of Texas is as big as the Texans minds are small" did not help matters. As with Show Boat, the book's legacy survives thanks to another medium, in this case George Stevens' 1956 film starring James Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor . (It was Dean's last screen appearance. He was killed in a car crash as production was being completed.) For the first time, Ferber participated directly in the film as a financing partner and pronounced herself satisfied with Stevens' work. No doubt Stevens was, too, for he was awarded an Oscar for Best Director.
Ferber was already completing work on her next novel as Giant opened in movie theaters. She had been working for five years on Ice Palace, about America's purchase of Alaska
from the Russians and the territory's subsequent, tumultuous history. The book, published in 1958, was not a critical success. "Miss Ferber seems definitely more interested in the facts that her research has turned up than in the perfunctory structure she has thrown together to hang them on," wrote one critic. "Her story is too repetitious and disorderly to win a prize in the world of literature," agreed Times literary reviewer Charles Poore. "But I shouldn't be surprised at all to hear that it had helped measurably to win statehood for Alaska." Ferber always claimed later that she had not written the book with statehood in mind, but it seems hardly a coincidence that Alaska was admitted to the Union as the 49th state the same year that Ice Palace was published.
Although now in her 70s, Ferber refused to slow her pace. She began research on a new novel about Native Americans, inspired by the first of many months-long visits to a health spa in Arizona during which she met and talked with Hopis and Navajos. When not in Arizona, she gave elegant dinner parties at her Park Avenue apartment in New York (she had sold Treasure Hill in 1949) and attended the theater. She lectured her friends about the importance of proper diet and exercise, allowed herself one cigarette a month (which she did not inhale), only took an occasional sherry before dinner, and made sure she enjoyed eight hours of sleep a night. She had long suffered from an agonizing facial tic ("The Face," as she called it) which she refused to cure with surgery that would have left one side of her face paralyzed, and was delighted when the affliction seemed to cure itself and disappear in the mid-1960s, although glaucoma and cataracts remained troublesome. She seemed particularly voluble and bright at the opening of a 1966 revival of Dinner at Eight. Few beside herself knew by then that she was dying of an incurable cancer that had been diagnosed earlier that year. She stopped work on her Native American novel only when she was no longer able to travel or concentrate on her voluminous notes and was confined to her bed. Even so, it was reported that she counted aloud to keep her mind active as she lay on her deathbed. On April 17, 1968, Edna Ferber died at the age of 83.
The eulogies at her memorial service all called to mind Kaufman's image of her relentless advance on whatever topic or issue was at hand. Random House publisher Bennett Cerf remembered her as a "gallant, dauntless, irrepressible champion of causes she believed in. When she went on the warpath, tomahawk in hand," he said, "sovereign states like Texas and Oklahoma crumbled and arrogant adversaries…were reduced to a quivering glob of Jello." But for Edna Ferber, writing was something much more profound than a soapbox for her personal views. "I should love to think," she once wrote, "that when I am dead, the chronicles of my own country written by me, because I so wanted to write them, will be descendants, however puny and short-lived." Neither adjective is appropriate to describe her work, which remains as strong and vital as the beloved country that inspired it.
Atkinson, Brooks. Broadway. NY: Macmillan, 1970.
Ferber, Edna. A Kind Of Magic. London: Victor Gollancz, 1963.
——. A Peculiar Treasure. NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1939.
Gilbert, Julie Goldsmith. Ferber. NY: Doubleday, 1978.
Cimarron (131 min. film), starring Richard Dix, Irene Dunne , RKO, 1931.
Come and Get It (99 min. film), starring Frances Farmer, Edward Arnold, and Joel McCrea, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, 1936.
Dinner at Eight (113 min. film), starring Marie Dressler , John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow , Lionel Barrymore, Billie Burke , Madge Evans , May Robson , produced by David O. Selznick, directed by George Cukor, screenplay by Frances Marion , Herman J. Mankiewicz, and Donald Ogden Stewart, MGM, 1933.
Giant (201 min. film), starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Mercedes McCambridge , Jane Withers , Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo, Carroll Baker , directed and produced by George Stevens, Warner Bros., 1956.
Ice Palace (143 min. film), starring Richard Burton, Robert Ryan, Martha Hyer , Warner Bros., 1960.
Show Boat (110 min. film), starring Irene Dunne, Helen Morgan, Allan Jones, Hattie McDaniel , produced by Carl Laemmle, Universal, 1936.
Norman Powers , writer/producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York