Edna Ferber

Edna Ferber

Edna Ferber, the daughter of Jacob Ferber, a Jewish storekeeper, and Julia Neumann Ferber, was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on 15th August, 1885. When she was a child the family moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, where she attended the local high school. Ferber briefly attended Lawrence University before becoming a journalist on the Appleton Daily Crescent and the Milwaukee Journal.

Ferber's first novel, Dawn O'Hara: The Girl Who Laughed, was published in 1911. This was followed by Buttered Side Down (1912), Roast Beef Medium The Business Adventures Of Emma McChesney (1913), Personality Plus (1914), Our Mrs. McChesney (1915), Fanny Herself (1917), Cheerful – By Request (1918), Half Portions (1919), The Girls (1921) and Gigolo (1922).

Robert E. Sherwood, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley all worked at Vanity Fair during the First World War. They began taking lunch together in the dining room at the Algonquin Hotel. Sherwood was six feet eight inches tall and Benchley was around six feet tall, Parker, who was five feet four inches, once commented that when she, Sherwood and Benchley walked down the street together, they looked like "a walking pipe organ." Ferber became friends with this small group and would sometimes have lunch with them in the hotel.

According to Harriet Hyman Alonso , the author of Robert E. Sherwood The Playwright in Peace and War (2007): "John Peter Toohey, a theater publicist, and Murdock Pemberton, a press agent, decided to throw a mock "welcome home from the war" celebration for the egotistical, sharp-tongued columnist Alexander Woollcott. The idea was really for theater journalists to roast Woollcott in revenge for his continual self-promotion and his refusal to boost the careers of potential rising stars on Broadway. On the designated day, the Algonquin dining room was festooned with banners. On each table was a program which misspelled Woollcott's name and poked fun at the fact that he and fellow writers Franklin Pierce Adams (F.P.A.) and Harold Ross had sat out the war in Paris as staff members of the army's weekly newspaper, the Stars and Stripes, which Bob had read in the trenches. But it is difficult to embarrass someone who thinks well of himself, and Woollcott beamed at all the attention he received. The guests enjoyed themselves so much that John Toohey suggested they meet again, and so the custom was born that a group of regulars would lunch together every day at the Algonquin Hotel."

Murdock Pemberton later recalled that he owner of the hotel, Frank Case, did what he could to encourage this gathering: "From then on we met there nearly every day, sitting in the south-west corner of the room. If more than four or six came, tables could be slid along to take care of the newcomers. we sat in that corner for a good many months... Frank Case, always astute, moved us over to a round table in the middle of the room and supplied free hors d'oeuvre.... The table grew mainly because we then had common interests. We were all of the theatre or allied trades." Case admitted that he moved them to a central spot at a round table in the Rose Room, so others could watch them enjoy each other's company.

The people who attended these lunches included Ferber, Robert E. Sherwood, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun, Harold Ross, Donald Ogden Stewart, Ruth Hale, Franklin Pierce Adams, Jane Grant, Neysa McMein, Alice Duer Miller, Charles MacArthur, Marc Connelly, George S. Kaufman, Beatrice Kaufman , Frank Crowninshield, Ben Hecht, John Peter Toohey, Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt and Ina Claire. This group eventually became known as the Algonquin Round Table.

Feber wrote about her membership of the group in her book, A Peculiar Treasure (1939): "The contention was that this gifted group engaged in a log-rolling; that they gave one another good notices, praise-filled reviews and the like. I can't imagine how any belief so erroneous ever was born. Far from boosting one another they actually were merciless if they disapproved. I never have encountered a more hard-bitten crew. But if they liked what you had done they did say so, publicly and wholeheartedly. Their standards were high, their vocabulary fluent, fresh, astringent and very, very tough. Theirs was a tonic influence, one on the other, and all on the world of American letters. The people they could not and would not stand were the bores, hypocrites, sentimentalists, and the socially pretentious. They were ruthless towards charlatans, towards the pompous and the mentally and artistically dishonest. Casual, incisive, they had a terrible integrity about their work and a boundless ambition."

Ferber had her first major success with her novel, So Big, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1924. Later that year Ferber began writing plays another member of the Algonquin Round Table, the former journalist, George S. Kaufman. The author of George S. Kaufman: An Intimate Portrait (1972) has argued: "In many ways she was very much like Kaufman: middle-western birthplace, same German-Jewish background, same training as a newspaper reporter, same discipline toward work. In other ways she was the direct opposite of Kaufman. She was small in physical stature, and a great believer in exercise. She had great personal courage, an overwhelming desire to travel, to seek new people, new places, new ideas. She did not have Kaufman's wit, but she did have the ability to write rich, deep love scenes."

Their first play together was Minnick . It opened at the Booth Theatre on 24th September, 1924 and ran for 141 performances. Alexander Woollcott said that the play "loosed vials of vitriol out of all proportion to the gentle little play's importance." Feber replied that she found the review "just that degree of malignant poisoning that I always find so stimulating in the works of Mr. Woollcott". This led to a long-running dispute between the two former friends. Woollcott's biographer, Samuel Hopkins Adams, claims that it started as "the inevitable bickerings which are bound to occur between two highly sensitized temperaments."

This was followed by Show Boat (1926). This was turned into a popular musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, that featured Paul Robeson. She also continued to write with Kaufman. Their next play, The Royal Family, was based on the lives of Ethel Barrymore, John Barrymore and Lionel Barrymore. It took eight months to write and after being cleared by the Barrymore family lawyers it opened at the Selwyn Theatre on 28th December, 1927. Produced by Jed Harris and directed by David Burton, it was a great success and ran for 345 performances.

They were unable to recapture this success and eventually broke up the writing partnership. Ferber later admitted that she was always afraid of George S. Kaufman and they had a difficult relationship. "When he needled you, it was like a cold knife that he stuck into your ribs. And he did it so fast, so quickly, you didn't even see it go in. You only felt the pain." Kaufman told his friends that he lived in mortal fear of Ferber. He disliked her temper and her love of quarrels.

Feber's next novel, Cimarron (1929), about the Oklahoma Land Rush, was later turned into the Academy Award winning film of the same name. Ferber held left-wing political views and campaigned for Heywood Broun when he stood as a candidate for the Socialist Party of America in 1930. She was also a member of the Progressive Citizens of America (PCA). Its members included Henry A. Wallace, Rexford Tugwell, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Arthur Miller, Dashiell Hammett, Hellen Keller, Thomas Mann, Aaron Copland, Claude Pepper, Eugene O'Neill, Glen H. Taylor, John Abt, Thornton Wilder, Carl Van Doren, Fredric March and Gene Kelly.

The playwright, Howard Teichmann, claims that Ferber's difficult relationship with Alexander Woollcott became worse after the events that took place on the opening night of The Dark Tower in 1933. "Woollcott, who knew how capricious opening-night audiences could be, decided not to have the usual crowd. Instead, he selected 250 of his personal friends to fill the better part of the orchestra floor at the Morosco Theatre. Two pairs of seats went to his old pal Edna Ferber. Escorted that night by the millionaire diplomat Stanton Griffis, Miss Ferber had as guests the Hollywood motion-picture star Gary Cooper and his wife. At curtain time Miss Ferber and party had not arrived at the theater, and the house lights went down on four choice but empty seats... Aleck waddled into the lobby only to find Ferber and her party standing there while Gary Cooper gave autographs to movie fans."

The actress Margalo Gillmore later recalled that after the play had finished they all met in her dressing room. "Woollcott, Ferber, Stanton Griffis, poor Beatrice Kaufman. Woollcott glared and glared and his eyes through those thick glasses he wore seemed as big as the ends of the old telephone receivers. Ice dripped everywhere." Teichmann added that Woollcott "who felt the greatest gift he could bestow was his own presence, gave his ultimatum" that he would "never go on the Griffis yacht again".

A few weeks later, Ferber, still upset by Woollcott's behaviour that night, referred to Woollcott as "That New Jersey Nero who thinks his pinafore is a toga." When he heard about the comment, Woollcott responded with the comment: "I don't see why anyone should call a dog a bitch when there's Edna Ferber around." Howard Teichmann claims that "they never spoke after that".

Other books by Ferber included American Beauty (1931), They Brought Their Women (1933) and Come and Get It (1935). Nobody's in Town (1938), A Peculiar Treasure (1939), The Land Is Bright (1941), Saratoga Trunk (1941), No Room at the Inn (1941), Great Son (1945), Giant (1952), Ice Palace (1958) and A Kind of Magic (1963).

Ferber never married. She once wrote: "Life can't defeat a writer who is in love with writing, for life itself is a writer's lover until death." On another occasion she remarked: "Being an old maid is like death by drowning, a really delightful sensation after you cease to struggle." It is claimed that she had always been in love with George S. Kaufman. However, they often had disagreements when they were together. In 1960 he wrote to her. "I am an old man and not well. I have had two or three strokes already and I cannot afford another argument with you to finish my life. So I simply wish to end our friendship." After waiting a sensible amount of time, she telephoned him and they agreed to see each other again. He died in 1961.

Edna Ferber died on 16th April, 1968.

Primary Sources

(1) Edna Ferber, A Peculiar Treasure (1939)

Outsiders took a kind of resentful dislike to the group. They called them the Algonquin crowd. I was astonished to find myself included in this designation. The contention was that this gifted group engaged in a log-rolling; that they gave one another good notices, praise-filled reviews and the like. I can't imagine how any belief so erroneous ever was born. Far from boosting one another they actually were merciless if they disapproved. I never have encountered a more hard-bitten crew. But if they liked what you had done they did say so, publicly and wholeheartedly. Their standards were high, their vocabulary fluent, fresh, astringent and very, very tough. Theirs was a tonic influence, one on the other, and all on the world of American letters. The people they could not and would not stand were the bores, hypocrites, sentimentalists, and the socially pretentious. They were ruthless towards charlatans, towards the pompous and the mentally and artistically dishonest. Casual, incisive, they had a terrible integrity about their work and a boundless ambition.

(2) Samuel Hopkins Adams, Alexander Woolcott: His Life and His World (1946)

For mingled poison and tragedy the breach between Aleck and Edna Ferber must be reckoned the most serious of his catastrophes in this field. There had been the inevitable bickerings which are bound to occur between two highly sensitized temperaments, but their mutual liking survived at least one severe test when the critic, writing of the production of Minnick, the dramatization of the Ferber novelette, "loosed vials of vitriol out of all proportion to the gentle little play's importance."

(3) Howard Teichmann, Smart Aleck, The Wit, World and Life of Alexander Woollcott (1976)

The opening nights on Broadway, some plays rise to the occasion, others fall. The Dark Tower, the Woollcott-Kaufman collaboration, belongs to the latter category. Woollcott, who knew how capricious opening-night audiences could be, decided not to have the usual crowd. Instead, he selected 250 of his personal friends to fill the better part of the orchestra floor at the Morosco Theatre. Two pairs of seats went to his old pal Edna Ferber. Escorted that night by the millionaire diplomat Stanton Griffis, Miss Ferber had as guests the Hollywood motion-picture star Gary Cooper and his wife. At curtain time Miss Ferber and party had not arrived at the theater, and the house lights went down on four choice but empty seats.

Woollcott barely had time to become enraged. Shortly after the curtain went up, the leading man, Basil Sydney, was about to make his entrance. The cue had been thrown by the proper actor and Mr. Sydney did indeed attempt to get onto the stage. His means of entrance was a door and that door suddenly stuck.

Mr. Sydney tried valiantly to open it, but the door would not budge. Without Mr. Sydney on the set, the rest of the cast simply stood around, stammered, coughed, and attempted to ad-lib. The audience, sensing something was amiss, grew restless. George Kaufman was seen running into the night.

Not as nimble of foot as Kaufman, Aleck waddled into the lobby only to find Ferber and her party standing there while Gary Cooper gave autographs to movie fans.

"Into your seats! Into your seats!" he hissed. Then, when they looked at him, he roared, "One of my autographs is worth ten of his!"

There are many explanations of the feud between Aleck and Edna Ferber. None has the ring of truth. The truth is, no playwright can ever forgive anyone for arriving late for his opening night. Nothing else mattered, not even the fact that Stanton Griffis gave a dinner party that ran a bit long, that Edna Ferber, given her choice, would never in her life have been late for a play, that Gary Cooper felt professionally bound to sign his name on the small books or pieces of paper thrust before him. Aleck herded and shooed the Ferber party into the theater and sent them toward their seats just as a stagehand managed to free the door for Basil Sydney's entrance. This brought unexpected and unwanted laughter and applause from the audience. Mr. Cooper, thinking the applause was for him, modestly nodded his head from side to side as he sat down.

Woollcott was apoplectic.