|Born||August 15, 1885|
Kalamazoo, Michigan, U.S.
|Died||April 16, 1968 (aged 82)|
New York City, U.S.
|Notable awards||Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1925)|
Edna Ferber (August 15, 1885 – April 16, 1968) was an American novelist, short story writer and playwright. Her novels include the Pulitzer Prize-winning So Big (1924), Show Boat (1926; made into the celebrated 1927 musical), Cimarron (1930; adapted into the 1931 film which won the Academy Award for Best Picture), Giant (1952; made into the 1956 film of the same name) and Ice Palace (1958), which also received a film adaptation in 1960.
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. She moved often due to her father's business failures, likely caused by his early blindness. After living in Chicago, Illinois, she moved to Ottumwa, Iowa with her parents and older sister, Fannie, where they resided for 7 years (age 5 to 12 for Ferber). In Ottumwa, Ferber and her family faced brutal anti-Semitism, including adult males verbally abusing, mocking and spitting on her every day when she brought lunch to her father, often mocking her in a Yiddish accent. At the age of 12, Ferber and her family moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, where she graduated from high school and briefly attended Lawrence University.
Initially going to study acting, Ferber abandoned these plans to help support her family at age 17. Forbidden to study elocution and on the spur of the moment, Ferber ended her higher education and dropped out of Lawrence, subsequently being hired at the Appleton Daily Crescent and eventually the Milwaukee Journal. She covered the 1920 Republican National Convention and 1920 Democratic National Convention for the United Press Association during her period as a reporter.
When Ferber was recovering from anemia, her first short stories were compiled and published along with her first novel, Dawn O'Hara, The Girl Who Laughed, in 1911.
In 1925, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her book So Big. Ferber initially believed her draft of what would become So Big lacked a plot, glorified failure, and had a subtle theme that could easily be overlooked. When she sent the book to her usual publisher, Doubleday, she was surprised to learn that he greatly enjoyed the novel. This was reflected by the several hundreds of thousands of copies of the novel sold to the public. Following the award, the novel was made into a silent film starring Colleen Moore that same year. A remake followed in 1932, starring Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent, with Bette Davis in a supporting role. A 1953 version of So Big starring Jane Wyman is the most popular version to modern audiences.
Riding the popularity of So Big, Ferber's next novel, Show Boat, was just as successful. Shortly after its release, composer Jerome Kern proposed turning it 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 and it premiered on Broadway in 1927, and has been revived 8 times.
Her 1952 novel, Giant, became the basis of the 1956 movie, starring Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Rock Hudson.
Ferber died at her home in New York City, of stomach cancer, at the age of 82. Ferber left her estate to her remaining female relatives, but gave the American government permission to spread her literary work to encourage and inspire future female authors.
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 even remarks, "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 (1932) and Stage Door (1936).
Ferber was known for being outspoken and having a quick wit. On one occasion, she led other Jewish guests in leaving a house party after learning the host was anti-Semitic. Once, after a man joked about how her suit made her resemble a man, she replied, "So does yours."
The quality of her work was so high that many reviewers believed a man to have written her narratives under a pseudonym of a woman.
Starting in 1922, Ferber began to visit Europe once or twice annually for thirteen or fourteen years. During this time and unlike most Americans, she became troubled by the rise of the Nazi Party and its spreading of the antisemitic prejudice she had faced in her childhood. She commented on this saying, "It was a fearful thing to see a continent – a civilization – crumbling before one's eyes. It was a rapid and seemingly inevitable process to which no one paid any particular attention." Her fears greatly influenced her work, which often featured themes of racial and cultural discrimination. Her 1938 autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure, originally included a spiteful dedication to Adolf Hitler which stated:
To Adolf Hitler, who has made me a better Jew and a more understanding human being, as he has of millions of other Jews, this book is dedicated in loathing and contempt.
While this was changed by the time of the book's publication, it still alluded to the Nazi threat. She frequently mentions Jewish success in her book, alluding to and wanting to show not just that Jewish success, but Jews being able to use that and prevail.
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).
In a poll carried out by the Saturday Review of Literature, asking American writers which presidential candidate they supported in the 1940 election, Ferber was among the writers who endorsed Franklin D. Roosevelt.
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, ethnic or otherwise.
Ferber's works often concerned small subsets of American culture, and sometimes took place in exotic locations she had visited but was not intimately familiar with, such as Texas or Alaska. She thus helped to highlight the diversity of American culture to those who did not have the opportunity to experience it. Some novels are set in places she had not visited.
Ferber wrote thirteen novels, two autobiographies, numerous short stories, and nine plays, many which were written in collaborations with other playwrights.