Biography

Edna Ferber: Postcard Portrait after winning state oratory contest and graduating from Ryan High SchoolEdna Ferber (1885-1968)

"The greatest American woman novelist of her day."

Edna Ferber was born in Kalamazoo, Mich., Aug. 15, 1885, the daughter of a Hungarian-born Jewish storekeeper, Jacob Ferber, and his Milwaukee-born wife, Julia Neumann Ferber. In some sources, perhaps because of vanity, she claimed to have been born in 1887, but census documents show otherwise. She spent her early years in Chicago and Ottumwa, Iowa. At age 12, she moved to Appleton, Wis., where her father ran a general store called My Store. She expressed her writing talents early as "personal and local" editor of her high school newspaper, the Ryan Clarion. When she graduated from Ryan High, her senior essay so impressed the editor of the Appleton Daily Crescent that he offered her a job as a reporter at age 17, for the salary of $3.00 per week. Limited by family finances from pursuing her real dream -- studying at Northwestern University's School of Elocution for a career on stage -- she took the job.

After being fired by the Crescent, she went on to write for the Milwaukee Journal, where she worked so hard that one day she collapsed in exhaustion. While home in Appleton recuperating from anemia, she wrote her first short story and her first novel. In 1910, Everybody's Magazine published the short story, The Homely Heroine, set in Appleton. Her novel, Dawn O'Hara, the story of a newspaperwoman in Milwaukee, followed in 1911.

She gained national attention for her series of "Emma McChesney" stories, tales of a traveling underskirt saleswoman that were published in national magazines. She wrote 30 McChesney stories before refusing to do any more. A play based on the stories, "Our Mrs. McChesney," was produced in 1915, starring Ethel Barrymore. With collaborator George S. Kaufman, Ferber wrote such acclaimed plays as “Dinner at Eight” and “The Royal Family.”

Ferber was a prolific and popular novelist. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1924 for So Big, the story of a woman raising a child on a truck farm outside of Chicago. Others of her best known books include Show Boat (1926), Cimarron (1929), Giant (1952) and Ice Palace (1958). Show Boat, about a girl's life on a floating theater on the Mississippi River, was made into a classic Broadway musical, with three movie versions. Many of her other books and plays were adapted to film, notably “Cimarron,” which won the Academy Award as Best Picture in 1931, “Stage Door,” starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, and “Giant,” which was James Dean’s last film.

Ferber wrote two autobiographies -- A Peculiar Treasure published in 1939 and A Kind of Magic in 1963.

She died of cancer at age 82 on April 16, 1968, at her Park Avenue, New York, home. In a lengthy obituary, the New York Times said, "Her books were not profound, but they were vivid and had a sound sociological basis. She was among the best-read novelists in the nation, and critics of the 1920s and '30s did not hesitate to call her the greatest American woman novelist of her day."

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