Edna Ferber

Edna Ferber (August 15, 1885[1] – 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 (1930; 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.

Edna Ferber
Edna Ferber in 1928
BornAugust 15, 1885
Kalamazoo, Michigan, United States
DiedApril 16, 1968 (age 82)
New York City, New York, United States
OccupationNovelist, playwright
NationalityUnited States
GenreDrama, romance

Life and career

Early years

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.[2] She moved often due to her father's business failures, likely caused by his early blindness and eventual death.[3] After living in Chicago, Illinois, she lived in Ottumwa, Iowa with her parents and older sister, Fannie, from age five to twelve. In Ottumwa, Ferber faced brutal anti-Semitism as just a child. The anti-Semitism she faced in her childhood only strengthened her pride in being Jewish,[4] and helped her develop the ability to caricature her insensitivity to criticism.[5] She recalled when adult males would verbally abuse her, mock her, and spit on her every day as she brought lunch to her dad.[6] At the age of 12 Ferber and her family moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, where she graduated from high school and briefly attended Lawrence University. When recovering from anemia,[7] Ferber's short stories were compiled and published before she began writing novels. The quality of her work was so high that many literary critics believed a man to have written her narratives under a pseudonym of a woman.[4] 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.

Ferber's workers often concerned small subsets of American culture, and took place in locations she was not intimately familiar with, like Texas or Alaska. By using places she hadn't visited in her novel and only describing them only through her research, she helped to highlight the diversity of American culture to those who did not have the opportunity to experience it.

[7]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 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 strongly enjoyed the novel. This was reflected by the several hundreds of thousands of copies of the novel sold to the public.[8]

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".

Before most other Americans in 1922, Ferber became troubled by the rise of the Nazi Party and its spreading of the antisemitic prejudice she had faced in her childhood. 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, claiming that her hatred for his actions was the inspiration for the book. While this was changed by the time of the book's publication, it still alluded to the Nazi threat.[9]

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).[10]

Personal life

Ferber never married, had no children, and is not known to have engaged in a romance or sexual relationship.[11] 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 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.[4] On a second occasion, after a man joked about how her suit made her resemble a man, she responded to the likes of "So does yours."[5]

Ferber died at her home in New York City, of stomach cancer,[12] 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.[4]


Art, entertainment, and media

  • Ferber was portrayed by the actress Lili Taylor in the film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994).[13]
  • 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.[14]
  • 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 a series of mystery novels by Ed Ifkovic and published by Poisoned Pen Press, including 'Downtown Strut: An Edna Ferber mystery, written in 2013 .
  • In 2013, Ferber was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.[15]


  • In her hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin, the Edna Ferber Elementary School was named after her.[16] Construction of the school was initially voted down in a 1971 referendum.[17]



Novellas and Short Story Collections

  • Buttered Side Down (1912)
  • Roast Beef, Medium (1913) Emma McChesney stories
  • Personality Plus (1914) Emma McChesney stories
  • Emma Mc Chesney and Co. (1915) Emma McChesney stories
  • Cheerful – By Request (1918)
  • Half Portions (1919)
  • Mother Knows Best (1927)
  • They Brought Their Women (1933)
  • Nobody's in Town: Two Short Novels (1938) Contains Nobody's in Town and Trees Die at the Top
  • One Basket: Thirty-One Short Stories (1947) Includes "No Room at the Inn: A Story of Christmas in the World Today"



  • 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

  • "Old Charleston: One of the Aristocratic Cities of America," published in 1927 in Harper's Bazaar
  • Ferber, Edna (May 30, 1925). "A three dimensional person". Profiles. The New Yorker. 1 (15): 9–10. William Allen White

Musical adaptations


  1. Boudreau, Richard (1986). The Literary Heritage of Wisconsin: Beginnings to 1925. Juniper Press. p. 412. Though she generally claimed 1887 as her birth year, an entry in her mother's diary reveals that Edna Ferber was born in 1885 in Kalamazoo, Michigan....
  2. "Edna Ferber | Jewish Women's Archive". jwa.org. Retrieved 2019-02-15.
  3. "Edna Ferber". www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org. Retrieved 2019-09-27.
  4. "Edna Ferber". www.nndb.com. Retrieved 2019-09-27.
  5. "Edna Ferber | Jewish Women's Archive". jwa.org. Retrieved 2019-02-15.
  6. "So Big". Tablet Magazine. 2007-05-02. Retrieved 2019-09-27.
  7. Smyth, J. E. (2010). Edna Ferber's Hollywood: American fictions of gender, race, and history (1st ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 9780292719842. OCLC 318870278.
  8. Shapiro, Ann R. (2002). "Edna Ferber, Jewish American Feminist". Shofar. 20 (2): 52–60.
  9. "About the Playwright: The Royal Family – The Kaufman-Ferber Partnership". Utah Shakespeare Festival. The Professional Theater at Southern Utah University. Retrieved February 8, 2017.
  10. 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.
  11. Great American Writers: Twentieth Century
  12. "Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle". Imdb.com. imdb.com. Retrieved 27 September 2015.
  13. 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.
  14. "Edna Ferber". Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. 2013. Retrieved 2017-10-08.
  15. Edna Ferber Elementary School homepage.
  16. "Ferber School Issue Raised Again". The Post-Crescent. October 2, 1973. p. 9. Retrieved December 18, 2015 via Newspapers.com.
  • 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.

Online editions

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