This Day in Jewish History / Not Profound, but Adored: ‘Greatest American Novelist’ Dies

Edna Ferber began in the printed press but found her métier in writing novels about people normally ignored

David Green
David B. Green
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Edna Ferber.
David Green
David B. Green

On April 16, 1968, the novelist and playwright Edna Ferber died, at her home in New York. Today Ferber may be best known for the popular films that were based on her books – “Show Boat” and “Giant” are just two examples – but in her day, millions waited for publication of her novels, which often focused on segments of society overlooked by most popular fiction.

As The New York Times noted, in a front-page obituary that was meant to be complimentary, “Her novels 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 nineteen-twenties and nineteen-thirties did not hesitate to call her the greatest American woman novelist of her day.”

Edna Ferber was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on August 15, 1885. Her father, Jacob Charles Ferber, was a Hungarian-born shopkeeper; her mother, the former Julia Neumann, had been born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Jewish-German parents who had immigrated to the U.S. in the 1840s.

When Edna was three, the family moved to Chicago, and a year later to the coal-mining town of Ottumwa, Iowa. Later in life, she recalled how not a day went by, during her seven years in Ottumwa, that someone didn’t call her a “Sheeny” – an insulting epithet for Jew.

In 1897, the Ferber family moved again, this time to Appleton, Wisconsin. When Edna graduated from Ryan High School there, not having the money to attend college, she took clips from articles she had written for the school paper, including one about her confirmation class at Temple Emanu-El, and landed a job at the first female reporter at the Appleton Daily Crescent.

From there, Ferber moved on to the Milwaukee Journal, where she “worked like a man” -- and suffered a nervous breakdown. It was while she was recovering that she began writing short stories and also her first novel, “Dawn O’Hara” (1911), about a Milwaukee newspaperwoman.

Ferber the fiction writer was on her way.

Outraged by Ben-Gurion

In 1917, she wrote her only novel with a Jewish theme, the semi-autobiographical “Fanny, Herself,” about Fanny Brandeis, a German-Jewish native of “Winnebago,” Wisconsin, who sets off to make her fortune in business.

Ferber was not religiously observant, but never made an attempt to hide her Jewish heritage. In fact, in her 1939 memoir, “A Peculiar Treasure,” she wrote that, “All my life I have been inordinately proud of being a Jew. But I have felt that I should definitely not brag about it.”

Ferber visited Israel in 1960, out of a personal desire to witness the “truly amazing and almost incredible and frequently exasperating aspects of this gigantic achievement,” as she wrote in a letter to The Times in January 1961. The occasion for that letter, however, was her need to respond to a statement made by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who had recently quoted the Talmud as saying, “whoever dwells outside of the land of Israel is considered to have no God.”

Ben-Gurion’s remark outraged Ferber, who called his words “the utterances of dictatorship.” Getting carried away, perhaps, she added, in her letter, that to American Jews who had donated money and effort to help found the State of Israel, “these Ben-Gurion statements must have come with an almost Hitler-like force.”

Ferber’s greatest literary successes included the novels “So Big,” for which she won a Pulitzer Prize, in 1924, “Show Boat” (1926), which was soon adapted for the stage and then screen, “Cimarron” (1929) and “Giant” (1952), whose film version starred James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor. She also wrote a number of stage plays, including several on which she collaborated with George S. Kaufman, including “Stage Door” (1926) and “Dinner at Eight” (1932).

Ferber never married, and speculation about the nature of her sexual identity remains speculation. In her first novel, “Dawn O’Hara,” she did have a character comment that, “Being an old maid was a great deal like death by drowning – a really delightful sensation when you ceased struggling.” But she was only 26 when she wrote that.

Edna Ferber died of stomach cancer on this day in 1968, at the age of 82.


James Dean and Edna Ferber