August 15, 1885 – Edna Ferber:
“A closed mind is a dying mind.”
I have enjoyed a long crazy obsession for The Algonquin Round Table, a celebrated group of New York City writers, critics, actors and wits. Members of “The Vicious Circle,” as they dubbed themselves, met for lunch each day at the Algonquin Hotel from 1919 through 1929. The group would engage in wisecracks, wordplay and witticisms that would then appear in the newspaper columns of Round Table members, and then they would be celebrated by the public. Later in life, some of its members disparaged their own group, yet its reputation has endured. I have always been fascinated by them. I have books about the group and biographies and memoirs about/by the members including:
Franklin Pierce Adams (1881 – 1960), Newspaper columnist
Robert Benchley (1889 – 1945), humorist, Academy Award winner, New Yorker writer and actor
Heywood Broun (1888 – 1939), newspaper columnist, editor, and sportswriter
Marc Connelly (1890 – 1980), playwright, director, producer, performer, lyricist and Pulitzer Prize winner
Dorothy Parker (1893 – 1967), wit, critic, poet, short- story writer, screenwriter, twice Oscar nominee, Gay Icon
George S. Kaufman (1889 –June 1961), playwright, director, producer, critic, Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner
Harold Ross (1892 – 1951), editor of The New Yorker
Robert E. Sherwood (1896 – 1955), author, playwright, screenwriter
Alexander Woollcott (1887 – 1943), critic, radio personality, journalist, homosexual, actor
Tallulah Bankhead (1902 – 1968), husky voiced actor, outrageous personality, devastating wit
Harpo Marx (1888 – 1964), actor, mime, musician, comic, Marxist
and Edna Ferber
Ferber’s novels always feature strong female protagonists. A Jew, she usually highlighted at least one strong secondary character that faced discrimination because of their race, religion or for other queer reasons. Ferber held a firm belief that all people should be held as equal, and possibly, the least attractive among us may have the best character.
Many theatrical and film productions have been made based on her novels: Show Boat (1926), Giant (1952) , Ice Palace (1958), Saratoga Trunk (1941), Cimarron (1929). Three of these works: Show Boat, Saratoga Trunk and Giant, have been made into stage musicals. When composer Jerome Kern proposed turning the very serious Show Boat into a musical, Ferber was shocked, thinking it would be transformed into the sort of breezy light musical entertainment typical 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.
In 1925, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel- So Big, which, by coincidence, is the title of a chapter in my own memoir, Jockstraps &Vicodin (a possible Pulitzer for me?).
There was a silent film made of So Big (1927) and an early talkie movie remake was done in 1932, this one starring Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, and featuring Bette Davis in a supporting role. Another remake of So Big starred Jane Wyman in the Stanwyck role in 1953. This is the version most often seen today.
Given the novel’s striking juxtaposition between working-class men and women working their asses off in order not to starve, while tycoons make millions without raising a finger, one might conclude that Ferber saw the coming stock market crash of 1929, that she understood, more clearly than most of her contemporaries, how unfair the system had become, and how unsustainable. But So Big was big enough already, and even now, 90 years after its publication, it is only growing bigger.
Other notable novels published in 1924: The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy, The Tattooed Countess by Carl Van Vechten, The Old Maid by Edith Wharton, The Glory Hole by Stewart Edward White. So Big by Ferber was the Number One Bestseller.
Before most other Americans, Ferber became troubled by the rise of Nazism and its spreading 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 memoir A Peculiar Treasure included a spiteful dedication to little Adolf Hitler claiming that her hatred for him was the inspiration for the book.
Ferber was a big ol’ golf playing, softball team member, dating her former-girlfriend’s therapist, Indigo Girls loving lesbian. One of her “Old Maid” characters says:
“Being an old maid was a great deal like death by drowning, a really delightful sensation when you ceased struggling.”
Ferber had little patience with women who allowed themselves to be limited by the constraints of femininity. Like Jews, she believed, women developed special strengths because of their subjection and social limitations. She wrote about women whose energy and talent made them successful in business. She believed that working people retained “a kind of primary American freshness and assertiveness”, and her stories attempted to do justice to their lives. She felt she understood America: “its naiveté, its strength, its childishness, its beauty, its reality”. Until she died in 1968, at her apartment on Fifth Avenue, Ferber’s unabashed love of America speaks of a simpler time than our own.
Ferber was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan and began her career as a reporter in Wisconsin. She covered the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1912 and then moved to New York City, because that is where the action was.
Ferber wrote directly for the stage and screen also. Among my favorites: Stage Door, Dinner At Eight, and especially her parody of the Barrymore acting dynasty, The Royal Family, all hits on stage and screen. Ferber was portrayed by the perfectly cast Lili Taylor in the delightful Alan Rudolph film Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle (1994).