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Edna Ferber
Ferber in 1928
Ferber in 1928
Born August 15, 1885 (1885-08-15)
Kalamazoo, Michigan, U.S.
Died April 16, 1968 (1968-04-17) (aged 82)
New York City, U.S.
Occupation Novelist, playwright
Genre Drama, romance
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. She helped adapt her short story "Old Man Minick", published in 1922, into a play (Minick) and it was thrice adapted to film, in 1925 as the silent film Welcome Home, in 1932 as The Expert, and in 1939 as No Place to Go.

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. The Ferbers had moved to Kalamazoo from Chicago, Illinois in order to open a dry goods store, and her older sister Fannie was born there three years earlier.

Ferber's father was not adept at business, and the family moved often during Ferber's childhood. From Kalamazoo, they returned to Chicago for a year, and then moved to Ottumwa, Iowa where they resided from 1890 to 1897 (ages 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 on days when she brought lunch to her father, often mocking her in a Yiddish accent.

According to Ferber, her years in Ottumwa "must be held accountable for anything in me that is hostile toward the world.". During this time, Ferber's father began to lose his eyesight, necessitating costly and ultimately unsuccessful treatments. At the age of 12, Ferber and her family moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, where she graduated from high school and later briefly attended Lawrence University.


After graduation, Ferber planned to study elocution, with vague thoughts of someday becoming an actor, but her family could not afford to send her to college. On the spur of the moment, she took a job as a cub reporter at the Appleton Daily Crescent and subsequently moved to the Milwaukee Journal. In early 1909 Ferber suffered a bout of anemia and returned to Appleton to recuperate. She never resumed her career as a reporter, although she subsequently covered the 1920 Republican National Convention and 1920 Democratic National Convention for the United Press Association.

While Ferber was recovering, she began writing and selling short stories to various magazines, and in 1911 she published her first novel, Dawn O'Hara, The Girl Who Laughed. In 1912, a collection of her short stories was published in a volume entitled Buttered Side Down.

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.

Edna Feber Plaque
Plaque located in Manhattan, at 65th Street & Central Park West, in the building in which Edna Ferber lived for six years


Ferber died at her home in New York City, of stomach cancer, at the age of 82. She left her estate to her sister and nieces.

Personal life

..... 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."

Importance of Jewish identity

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. 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.

Algonquin Round Table

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).

Political views

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.

Characteristics of works

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.


Art, entertainment, and media

  • Ferber was portrayed by the actress Lili Taylor in the film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994).
  • 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.
  • 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.


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

List of works

Ferber wrote thirteen novels, two autobiographies, numerous short stories, and nine plays, many which were written in collaborations with other playwrights.


  • Dawn O'Hara, The Girl Who Laughed (1911)
  • Fanny Herself (1917)
  • The Girls (1921)
  • So Big (1924) (won Pulitzer Prize)
  • Show Boat (1926, Grosset & Dunlap)
  • Cimarron (1930)
  • American Beauty (1931)
  • Come and Get It (1935)
  • Saratoga Trunk (1941)
  • Great Son (1945)
  • Giant (1952)
  • Ice Palace (1958)

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"


  • A Peculiar Treasure (1939)
  • A Kind of Magic (1963)


  • 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), adapted from her short story "Old Man Minick"
  • The Royal Family (1927) (play, with G. S. Kaufman)
  • Dinner at Eight (1932) (play, with G. S. Kaufman)
  • Stage Door (1936) (play, with G.S. Kaufman)
  • The Land Is Bright (1941) (play, with G. S. Kaufman)
  • Bravo (1949) (play, with G. S. Kaufman)


  • Saratoga Trunk (1945) (film, with Casey Robinson)

Musical adaptations

See also

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