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Preview of September issue: Edna Ferber at 125
August 26th, 2010
Her once-popular books appeared on high school reading lists and were made into Broadway musicals, Hollywood movies, and even remakes, starring such famous actors as Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Robeson, Rock Hudson, and James Dean.
On the 125th anniversary of her birth, however, she is nearly forgotten.
She is Edna Ferber, author of the novels “Cimarron,” “So Big,” “Saratoga Trunk,” “Giant,” “Show Boat,” “Ice Palace,” “American Beauty.”
She also was co-author (with George S. Kaufman) of the hit plays “Dinner at Eight” and “Stage Door,” member of the famous Algonquin Round Table of literati, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
Born Aug. 15, 1885, she was the child of a Milwaukee-born Jewish mother. Her grandparents had come to Milwaukee from Germany in the 1840’s. Edna’s father (also Jewish) was born in Hungary.
The family lived for a while in Chicago; Kalamazoo, Mich., (where both Edna and her older sister were born); and Ottumwa, Iowa. But Edna’s home during what she considered the happiest years of her youth was Appleton, Wis., which she renamed Winnebago in her loosely autobiographical 1917 novel “Fanny Herself.”
She graduated from high school in Appleton and worked as a reporter for the Appleton Daily Crescent before taking a job at the Milwaukee Journal. These marked the beginning of her career as a writer. In fact, she began writing her first novel while recovering from a health breakdown produced by the pressures of her Milwaukee Journal job.
The title character of Ferber’s one novel that treats Judaism, Fanny Brandeis, attributes her success in life to her Wisconsin girlhood. But Ferber, in her 1939 memoir, “A Peculiar Treasure,” attributed her own success to being Jewish.
“All my life I have been inordinately proud of being a Jew. But I have felt that I should definitely not brag about it. My Jewishness was, I thought, something to wear with becoming modesty, calling attention to it no more than to my two good physical points, which were a fine clear skin and an abundant head of vigorous curly hair. ...
“But I have felt that to be a Jew was, in some ways at least, to be especially privileged. Two thousand years of persecution have made the Jew quick to sympathy, quick-witted (he’d better be), tolerant, humanly understanding... It may be that being a Jew satisfied the frustrated actress in me. It may be I have dramatized myself as a Jew… [Jews have] acquired great adaptability, nervous energy, ambition to succeed, and a desire to be liked.”
Read the rest of this article in the magazine section of the September issue.