Novelist and playwright Edna Ferber was born on Aug. 15, 1885 in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Her father Jacob Ferber was a Hungarian-Jewish shopkeeper and her mother Julia Neumann Ferber was from Milwaukee. As a child, Edna grew up in Chicago and Ottumwa, Iowa and moved to Appleton, Wisconsin at age 12. She graduated from Ryan High School in Appleton and so impressed the editor of the Apppleton Daily Crescent at age 17 old that he hired her as a reporter for a salary of $3 per week. Women newspaper reporters were extremely rare in 1902. Her dream was to study at Northwestern University's School of Education but her family's finances were then too limited for that goal. When her father Jacob died in 1909, Edna and her mother and sister moved to the South Side of Chicago. For the next thirteen years throughout World War I and until 1923, they lived in different apartments on Vincennes Avenue, in East View Park, and finally at the Windemere Hotel in Hyde Park.
Edna's years in Chicago were marked a period of prolific writing. She said the energy of the city and the unlimited cast of characters was a source of constant inspiration to write. Her early writing was almost always about her own experiences based on where she was living and what she knew about. Her first short story, The Homely Heroine, was published in 1910 by Everybody's Magazine. The story was set in Appleton. In 1911, her first novel was published. The novel, Dawn O'Hara, was again autobiographical in the sense that it was about a newspaper woman in Milwaukee. Her stories about a traveling woman underskirt salesman, Emma McChesney, were very popular in magazines before World War I. More than thirty of the stories were published. Her first collection of stories in 1912 was called Buttered Side Down. Her first play based on the series, Our Mrs. McChesney, was produced in 1915 starring the legendary actress Ethel Barrymore.
Her stories about the hardships of women in Chicago and Illinois were hugely popluar. Some of her heroines were lonely from travels on the road. One heroine in That Home Town Feeling just wants to observe life from the perspective of a newspaper stand at the corner of Clark and Randolph Streets to watch the diversity of Chicagoans pass by. In her short story called Blue Blood, Edna wrote about the stockyards. She often said that while a city, Chicago had the feel of a small town especially on the public beaches that were the great equalizers of the Chicago population. She wrote a lot about her inspriation from Chicago in her first autobiography called A Peculiar Treasure in 1939. Her second autobiography A Kind of Magic was published in 1963.
In 1924, Edna Ferber won the Pulitzer Prize for So Big, her novel about the life of hardship for a woman raising a child on a truck farm outside Chicago. A great many of her heroines were the working women of Chicago. Her novel, The Girls, was about three generations of Chicago women. Among her best known books made into plays and movies was Showboat (1926) which was produced on Broadway as a play and later a musical by Illinois-native showman Florenz Ziegfeld. One of the stars of Showboat both on stage and in the film version was singer and actress Helen Morgan, a native of Danville, Illinois. Other famous works by Edna Ferber were Cimarron (1929), Giant (1952), and Ice Palace (1958). In 1956, Giant was made into a movie starring Illinois-native Rock Hudson, a graduate of New Trier High School, and Elizabeth Taylor. It was also the last film in the very brief career of James Dean.
While she maintained strong ties to Chicago, Edna Ferber began to spend much more time in New York in the late 1920s and 1930s to write stage plays and musicals. Her Broadway successes included Show Boat (1927), Dinner at Eight (1932), Stage Door (1936), and the musical Saratoga (1959) which was also a book and movie as Saratoga Trunk. For a list of her works on Broadway, see Edna Ferber's page on the Internet Broadway Data Base. For a list of movies and TV shows based on the stories, novels, and plays by Edna Ferber, see here page on the Internet Movie Data Base. Edna Ferber died at the age of 82 on April 16, 1968 at her apartment on Park Avenue in New York. Her obituary in The New York Times stated that critics in the 1920s and 1930s did not hesitate to call her "the greatest American woman novelist of her day."