Today is Edna Ferber’s birthday. It’s funny, when you think about it, if you think about it. To the extent Ferber is talked about today, it’s as a member of the Algonquin Round Table. And yet, she was a best-selling author many times over. She won a Pulitzer in 1924 for So Big and saw that novel—along with Show Boat, Cimarron, and Giant—adapted for stage and screen. With George S. Kaufman, she collaborated on the plays The Royal Family, Dinner at Eight, and Stage Door—all subsequently made into films. In short, she was one of the more financially successful of that group of wits.
Writing in 1939’s A Peculiar Treasure, Ferber described the Round Table:
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.
One wonders how they dealt with Ferber’s popularity. Her work was gently progressive—she often pointed up the hypocrisy and prejudice of the societies she portrayed—and characterized by strong women: widows, spinsters, abandoned wives. But they were also lush, old-fashioned, even soapy—anyone who’s seen Giant can attest to that—middlebrow novels, with the sales figures to prove it. For all the grandiosity of titles and themes, they were often domestic, too; settings and meals are given their due. One of the best and strangest moments in any movie, to my mind, occurs before the dramatic denouement of Dinner at Eight. In an aside, the cook unmolds a lion-shaped aspic onto a platter, and exclaims, “Look at you, quivering with pride!” This, alone, should have guaranteed her the plaque affixed to her onetime apartment building at 65th Street and Central Park West.
Her collaboration with the more overtly jaded George S. Kaufman made for a good study in contrasts. In his biography of Kaufman, Howard Teichmann wrote, “[Ferber] 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.”
She could also be difficult. Kaufman claimed to fear her temper, her scenes, her sensitivity, while she wrote, “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.” Late in life, Kaufman wrote 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.” (In fact, they reconciled shortly before his death.)
Ferber also fell out, famously, with Alexander Woollcott. Following a series of petty, ego-wounding contretemps, she apparently described the critic as a “Jersey Nero who thinks his pinafore is a toga.” His response? “I don’t see why anyone should call a dog a bitch when there’s Edna Ferber around.”
Ferber never married—indeed, there is no record of a romantic relationship of any kind. She once said, “Being an old maid was a great deal like death by drowning—a really delightful sensation when you ceased struggling.”