Webster, Jean (1876–1916)

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Webster, Jean (1876–1916)

American writer whose best-known work was Daddy-Long-Legs . Born Alice Jane Chandler Webster on July 24, 1876, in Fredonia, New York; died after giving birth to her only child on June 11, 1916, in New York; daughter of Charles Webster (a publisher) and Annie (Moffett) Webster; graduated from the Lady Jane Grey School in Binghamton, New York; Vassar College, B.A., 1901; married Glenn Ford McKinney (a lawyer), in 1915; children: Jean Webster McKinney (b. 1916).

Selected works:

When Patty Went to College (1903); The Wheat Princess (1905); Jerry, Junior (1907); The Four Pools Mystery (1908); Much Ado About Peter (1909); Just Patty (1911); Daddy-Long-Legs (1912); Dear Enemy (1914).

Born in New York State in 1876, Jean Webster was the daughter of Annie Moffett Webster , a niece of Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), and Charles Webster, who published Twain's Huckleberry Finn and the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Although she was christened Alice Jane, she began calling herself Jean while boarding at the Lady Jane Grey School in upstate New York. After boarding school, Webster attended Vassar

College, where she published short stories in the Vassar Miscellany and wrote a weekly column for the Poughkeepsie Sunday Courier to earn extra money. She also started an enduring friendship with fellow classmate Adelaide Crapsey , later a well-known poet. It is thought that Crapsey provided the inspiration for the stories Webster began writing about a college student named Patty, some of which were serialized while she was still at Vassar. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in English and economics in 1901, Webster continued freelance writing and traveled throughout Europe. When Patty Went to College, a collection of the Patty stories, was published in 1903. Her European travels became the basis for her next two books: The Wheat Princess (1905), which told of her winter stay in an Italian convent, and Jerry, Junior (1907).

Returning to the U.S., Webster settled in New York City's Greenwich Village and focused her attention on improving the deplorable conditions of orphanages. Her love of children sparked Webster to write what would become her most-loved book, Daddy-Long-Legs (1912), the story of a young woman raised in an orphanage who gets the opportunity to go to college with the sponsorship of an unknown, wealthy bachelor. Daddy-Long-Legs was first serialized in the popular women's magazine Ladies' Home Journal, and became a bestseller upon its publication in book form. Two years later, Webster adapted Daddy-Long-Legs into a play that provided Ruth Chatterton with her first smash role during its long run on Broadway. Daddy-Long-Legs later was filmed several times, first in 1919 with Mary Pickford ; again in 1931; as Curly Top with Shirley Temple (Black) in 1935; and as a musical (minus the hyphens in the title) with Fred Astaire, Leslie Caron , and Thelma Ritter in 1955. The popularity of Webster's book also led to a New York State Charities Aid Association movement to establish groups in colleges that would each pay for the education of one orphaned child.

A diligent worker, Webster mercilessly edited and rewrote her books to create intelligent, direct, and witty stories for all ages. Her last book Dear Enemy (1914), a sequel to Daddy-Long-Legs, also became a bestseller. In 1915, Webster married Glenn Ford McKinney, a lawyer, with whom she lived in New York City and the Berkshire Hills in Massachusetts. She gave birth to her only child, Jean Webster McKinney , the following year, and died a few hours later.


Edgerly, Lois Stiles, ed. Give Her This Day. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Ann M. Schwalboski , M.A., M.F.A., University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County

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Webster, Jean (1876–1916)

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