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Edna Ferber

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edna Ferber spent her childhood in Appleton and used it as the setting for her early stories “The Homely Heroine and A Bush League Hero.”

Ferber was a prolific novelist, her work the inspiration for numerous Broadway plays and Hollywood films. Among her best known works are “So Big “, Show Boat”, “Cimarron”, “Giant” and “Ice Palace”.


“The greatest American woman novelist of her day.”

Edna Ferber was born in Kalamazoo, Mich., Aug. 15, 1885, the daughter of a Hungarian-born Jewish storekeeper, Jacob Ferber, and his Milwaukee-born wife, Julia Neumann Ferber. In some sources, perhaps because of vanity, she claimed to have been born in 1887, but census documents show otherwise. She spent her early years in Chicago and Ottumwa, Iowa. At age 12, she moved to Appleton, Wis., where her father ran a general store called My Store. She expressed her writing talents early as “personal and local” editor of her high school newspaper, the Ryan Clarion. When she graduated from Ryan High, her senior essay so impressed the editor of the Appleton Daily Crescent that he offered her a job as a reporter at age 17, for the salary of $3.00 per week. Limited by family finances from pursuing her real dream — studying at Northwestern University’s School of Elocution for a career on stage — she took the job.

After being fired by the Crescent, she went on to write for the Milwaukee Journal, where she worked so hard that one day she collapsed in exhaustion. While home in Appleton recuperating from anemia, she wrote her first short story and her first novel. In 1910, Everybody’s Magazine published the short story, The Homely Heroine, set in Appleton. Her novel, Dawn O’Hara, the story of a newspaperwoman in Milwaukee, followed in 1911.

She gained national attention for her series of “Emma McChesney” stories, tales of a traveling underskirt saleswoman that were published in national magazines. She wrote 30 McChesney stories before refusing to do any more. A play based on the stories, “Our Mrs. McChesney,” was produced in 1915, starring Ethel Barrymore. With collaborator George S. Kaufman, Ferber wrote such acclaimed plays as “Dinner at Eight” and “The Royal Family.”

Ferber was a prolific and popular novelist. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1924 for So Big, the story of a woman raising a child on a truck farm outside of Chicago. Others of her best known books include Show Boat (1926), Cimarron (1929), Giant (1952) and Ice Palace (1958). Show Boat, about a girl’s life on a floating theater on the Mississippi River, was made into a classic Broadway musical, with three movie versions. Many of her other books and plays were adapted to film, notably “Cimarron,” which won the Academy Award as Best Picture in 1931, “Stage Door,” starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, and “Giant,” which was James Dean’s last film.

Ferber wrote two autobiographies — A Peculiar Treasure published in 1939 and A Kind of Magic in 1963.

She died of cancer at age 82 on April 16, 1968, at her Park Avenue, New York, home. In a lengthy obituary, the New York Times said, “Her books 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 1920s and ’30s did not hesitate to call her the greatest American woman novelist of her day.”

From Edna Ferber’s autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure:”The Bernhardian Pose at Two.” The reference is to the great actress Sarah Bernhardt. Photograph courtesy of The Post-Crescent
From Edna Ferber’s autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure: “Seven-and Stage-struck.” Photograph courtesy of The Post-Crescent
From Edna Ferber’s autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure: “The High School Graduate. The Dress Was Sensational.” Photograph courtesy of The Post-Crescent
Ferber, Edna Postcard – Portrait after winning state oratory contest and graduating from Ryan High School.
The editorial staff of the Ryan Clarion, Edna Ferber’s high school newspaper in Appleton. Ferber, in the front row, second from the right, served as “Personal and Local Editor.” The photo probably dates from 1903. Photograph courtesy of The Post-Crescent
In this photo from the late 1890s, Jacob Ferber (left), Edna’s father, stands in the doorway of My Store, his shop on 100 block of East College Avenue, the man on the right is Arthur Howe, a clerk. (A Peculiar Treasure, Ferber) by Julie Goldsmith Gilbert . Photograph courtesy of The Post-Crescent
Ferber, Edna Publicity photo
From Edna Ferber’s autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure: Top: “A More Impressive Equestrienne Off Than On the Horse.” Bottom: “Earning Breakfast at the Morris Ernst’s on Nantucket Island.” Photograph courtesy of The Post-Crescent
An undated photo of Edna Ferber. (maybe from 1920’s) Photograph courtesy of The Post-Crescent
“Adam’s Trained Seals at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions of 1912. Standing: William Allen White, Edna Ferber, Jay (Ding) Darling, Harry Webster. Seated: George Fitch, George Matthew Adams.” (Source: A Peculiar Treasure) Photograph courtesy of The Post-Crescent
This 1936 photo was used in Edna Ferber’s first autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure. Photograph courtesy of The Post-Crescent
Ferber, Edna Enjoying her garden 1940
Ferber, Edna In her workroom
Ferber, Edna & Mother Having tea in yard
Edna Ferber’s House Lived here 1901-1910, age 16-25. Home Remodeled several times
Edna Ferber at APL

References to Edna Ferber and her works can be found in the following books.

  • American Autobiography, 1945-1980 : a bibliography.
    Madison, Wis. : University of Wisconsin Press, 1982. p.71.
    920.073 Ame  – Adult Reference Entries for A Kind of Magic and Peculiar Treasure.
  • Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature.
    New York: Harper Collins, 1991. p 331.
    810.9 Ben  – Adult Reference Entry is about 4 column inches long .
  • City of Appleton 1989 Historic Sites Inventory. Appleton, Wis. :
    City of Appleton, 1989. p. 37.
    977.539 Cit  – Wisconsin Collection Entry includes bxw photo of her childhood home at 216 E. North St., Appleton, WI as it appeared circa 1989. She wrote the book Dawn O’Hara here.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism.
    Detroit, Gale Research Co., 1973- . v. 18 p. 150.
    809.04 Con  – Adult Reference. Brief entry.
  • Continuity and Change, 1940-1965.
    Thompson, William Fletcher.
    (Series: The history of Wisconsin v. 6). Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1988. p. 14.
    977.5 His v.6 – Wisconsin Collection. Includes a couple of sentences saying Ferber selected Hurley, Wis., as setting for Come and Get it. It revived the town.
  • Encyclopedia of Wisconsin.
    New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Somerset Publishers, 1991, p. 139-140.
    977.5 Enc – Wisconsin Collection.
  • Encyclopedia of World Biography : 20th Century.
    Palatine, Ill. : Jack Heraty & Assoc., c1987. volume 4, p.80-82.
    920.02 MacG – Wisconsin Collection. Entry has biog. information with photo.
  • Famous Wisconsin women.
    Madison : Women’s Auxiliary, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, c197?, volume 4, p.4-8.
    920.72 Fam – Wisconsin Collection . Entry includes two photos.
  • Index to Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Prize.
    White, Ray Lewis.
    (Series: A Reference publication in literature). Boston, Mass. : G.K. Hall, c1988. p.33 , 97.
    813.082 Whi – Adult Reference.
  • The Journey Home : the literature of Wisconsin through four centuries.
    Madison, Wis. : North Country Press, c1989. Volume 2, p. 408-421.
    810.8 Jou – Wisconsin Collection. Brief biog. information and a selection from Come and Get it.
  • Land of the Fox, saga of Outagamie County.
    Outagamie County (Wis.) State Centennial Committee.
    [Appleton, Wis., 1949]. p. 223.
    977.539 Out  – Wisconsin Collection. Entry w/photo.
  • The Literary Heritage of Wisconsin.
    La Crosse, Wis. : Juniper Press, c1986- . v.1 Beginnings to 1925 p. 412-436.
    810.8 Lit – Wisconsin Collection. Entry includes a brief biographical sketch and selections from Buttered Side Down, Fanny Herself, and A Peculiar Treasure.
  • Notable American women: the modern period: a biographical dictionary
    Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980, p. 227-229.
    920.72 Not  – Adult Reference
  • Ryan Clarion.
    Appleton, Wis. : Appleton High School.
    371.8 App – Collection Oct 1903 v:1 p.7 story about Ferber receiving loving cup at graduationp.8 column explaining plans of class of 1903. “Ferber is acting as a reporter for the Appleton Crescent” May 1903 vi:8 Masthead shows Ferber was the editor of Personal and Local, p.3 article about declaratory contest she competed in Jan 1902 iv:4 has photo of editorial staff, including Ferber who was editor of Personal and Local
  • Something About the Author.
    Detroit: Gale Research, 1971- . Volume 7.
    920 Som –  Children’s Reference
  • The story of Wisconsin women.
    Kohler, Ruth Miriam De Young.
    [Kohler, Wisc.] Committee on Wisconsin Women for the 1948 Wisconsin Centennial [1948]. p. 77 -79.
    920.72 Koh – Wisconsin Collection.
  • Twentieth Century Authors.
    Ed by. Stanley Kunitz. N.Y., Wilson, 1942. p. 444-445.
    809.04 Kun – Adult Reference. Biographical information with photograph.
  • Twentieth Century Writing: a reader’s guide to contemporary literature.
    Ed. by Kenneth Ridley Richardson. London, New York [etc.] Newnes, 1969. p. 206.
    809.04 Ric – Adult Reference. Brief entry.
  • Who’s Who of American Women: a biographical dictionary of notable living American women.
    Chicago: Marquis-Who’s Who . p 370.
    920.7 Who – Adult Reference
  • Wisconsin Authors and Their Books, 1836-1975.
    Blackshear, Orrilla Thompson.
    Madison : Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction, 1976. p. 211-212. (Series: Bulletin – Wisconsin Dept. of Public Education).
    015.775 Bla – Wisconsin Collection. Entry is a bibliography of Ferber’s works.
  • Wisconsin Authors and Their Works.
    Ed. By Charles Ralph Rounds. Madison, The Parker educational company. [c1918]. p.144.
    810.8 Wis – Wisconsin Collection. A brief biog. sketch containing an error saying Ferber was born in Appleton, WI. Includes B&W photo of her as young woman seated, holding a book.
  • Wisconsin Biographical Dictionary: people of all times and all places who have been important to the history and life of the state.
    Wilmington, Del. : American Historical Publications, 1991. p.48-49.
    920 Wis – Wisconsin Collection
  • Wisconsin Lives of National Interest, Sketches of Some Prominent People Identified with the History of the Badger State.
    Crow, William L.
    Appleton, Wis., C.C. Nelson Publishing Company, 1937, p. 150-152.
    920 Cro –  Wisconsin Reference
  • The Wisconsin, river of a thousand isles
    Derleth, August William, 1909-1971.
    Madison, Wis. : University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, c1942. p. 275.
    977.5 Der – Wisconsin Collection. Derleth comments that some lumbering novels have been set in Wisconsin and cites Ferber’s Come and Get it.
  • Wisconsin : the story of the Badger State.
    Risjord, Norman K.
    Madison: Wisconsin Trails, c1995. p. 141.
    977.5 Ris – Wisconsin Collection. Quote from her autobiography speaking of Appleton, WI. Russell, Lou and John Russell. Wisconsin Lore and Legends. Menomonie, Wis. : Oak Point Press, c1982. p. 17.
    977.5 Rus – Wisconsin Collection. Entry is a reprint of a historical drawing with biog. info. that ran in syndicated newspapers around the state of WI.
  • Wisconsin; a story of progress.
    Raney, William Francis.
    New York, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1940. p.469.
    977.5 Ran –  Wisconsin Collection. Entry is brief.
  • Wisconsin in Story and Song: selections from the prose and poetry of the badger state writers.
    Ed. by Charles Ralph Rounds. Madison, Wis., Parker Educational Company, [c1916]. p. 163-171.
    810.8 Rou – Wisconsin Collection. Brief biographical sketch and an excerpt from Dawn O’Hara.
  • Wisconsin Women: a gifted heritage.
    S.l. : s.n.], c1982. p. 89-91.
    920.72 Wis – Wisconsin Collection
Ferber Bibliography
  1. 1910 – “The Homely Heroine in Everybody’s Magazine
  2. 1911 – Dawn O’Hara
  3. 1912 – Buttered Side Down (short stories)
  4. 1913 – Roast Beef, Medium
  5. 1914 – Personality Plus
  6. 1915 – Emma Mc Chesney and Co.
  7. 1917 – Fanny Herself
  8. 1918 – Cheerful – By Request
  9. 1919 – Half Portions
  10. 1921 – The Girls
  11. 1922 – Gigolo
  12. 1924 – So Big
  13. 1926 – Showboat
  14. 1927 – Mother Knows Best (stories)
  15. 1929 – Cimarron
  16. 1931 – American Beauty
  17. 1933 – They Brought Their Women
  18. 1935 – Come and Get It
  19. 1938 – Nobody’s in Town
  20. 1938 – Stage Door (play, with George S. Kaufman)
  21. 1939 – A Peculiar Treasure (autobiography)
  22. 1941 – Saratoga Trunk
  23. 1941 – No Room at the Inn
  24. 1941 – The Land Is Bright (with G. S. Kaufman)
  25. 1945 – Great Son
  26. 1949 – One Basket (short stories)
  27. 1949 – Bravo (with G. S. Kaufman)
  28. 1952 – Giant
  29. 1958 – Ice Palace
  30. 1963 – A Kind of Magic (autobiography)
Edna Ferber interviews Houdini

In July 1904, Edna Ferber encountered Harry Houdini in a drugstore on College Avenue. Ferber, just 19 years old, was the first female reporter for the Appleton Crescent. She took the occasion to interview the famous entertainer, and her account of the meeting was published in the Crescent on July 23, 1904.  This is her article.





Back in Place of His Birth After Visiting Many Countries-Has Made

Reputation and Competence.

In Great Demand

Imagination pictures a Sampson, massive, towering with enormous hands and feet, a great shaggy head perhaps, and a voice that roars and bellows and shoulders and limbs like pillars of rock.  The reality is a medium sized, unassuming, pleasant faced, young fellow, with blue eyes that are very much inclined to twinkle.  This is Harry Houdini, or rather Ehrich Weiss, as he talks pleasantly and very interestingly dressed in the conventional light grey summer suit, oxfords, flowing tie and sailor hat.  One would never think him of the “profesh” unless maybe, his diamond shirt stud might speak.  But then, Armour wears diamond shirt studs  too.

Houdini, who left this noon for New York, arrived in Appleton, his birth place, Wednesday afternoon, accompanied by his brother Theodore, who travels with him and assists him in his performances.  He spent the time here looking up old friends and renewing old associations.  In August he will sail for Europe where he has a two years’ contract and will give no performances while in America.  He is resting here and one can see how he needs a period of quiet when one talks to him, for he is a quick nervous chap, inclined to jump when an unexpected noise is heard and to shut his eyes until they are almost closed; when speaking under excitement.

“My first performance?  Well I remember it well as if it had taken place yesterday.  I am earning now, from $900 to $2000 a week, but my first performance brought me slightly less than that.  It took place in an old field across the track in the Sixth Ward and I did a contortionist act, giving three performances, for which Jack Hoeffler, who was managing them, as now, paid me exactly 35 cents.  “Houdini threw back his head and chuckled reminiscently and thought of the $2000 per.

“What was your most difficult feat, the most difficult escape you ever made?” was asked.

“I think my escape from the Siberian Transport was my most difficult performance.  I was placed in the great vault usually assigned to political prisoners, and when the great door was shut, I had the hardest time of my life, perhaps, in releasing myself.  But nevertheless, it took me 18 minutes to walk out, and face the dazed officials.

“I think that in a year I may retire.  I cannot take my money with me when I die and I wish to enjoy it, with my family, while I live.  I should prefer living in Germany to any other country, though I am an American, and am loyal to my country.  I like the German people and customs.  Why don’t I go then?  Why it is too far away from my mother, who lives in New York City with a couple of my young brothers.”

And right there you have the whole charm of Ehrich Weiss.  It is worth all the sermons in the world to hear him speak of his mother.  All his plans, all his successes, he weaves about that mother of his.  The fortune he has made within the past ten years, he does not speak of as benefiting himself,  “My mother can have everything that she wants,” he says.  Of his father, Rabbi Weiss, who died, he speaks just as affectionately and reverently and in these days of rush and hurry and often disrespect for old age, it is pleasant to hear such filial words.

Houdini’s parents formerly resided here and three of the five brothers were born in Appleton.  The father was at one time the Jewish rabbi here, before the Temple was built.  The meetings used to be held above one of the stores on College Avenue, between Oneida and Morrison streets, and this morning Houdini made visit to the familiar place and the little office which used to be his father’s and “where I used to get my spankings,” he said.

“Where do you receive the best treatment?  What people are the most cordial?”

“Oh, the world is alike.  When they are pleased they laugh and are pleasant and when they think they are being cheated and are displeased then they scowl and jeer and hiss.  They do this, you know, whether they are French, German, Russian or English, for after all they are all human beings and governed by the same impulses.  I make the most money, I think, in Russia and Paris, for the people of those countries are so willing to be amused, so eager to see something new and out of the ordinary.”

“Now, don’t you exaggerate just a little bit when you are giving your performances?  Don’t you make is a trifle worse that it looks?  And is it a feat of strength, or a trick that you resort to?”  All these were put inquisitively to the young man.

“Well, I fail to see how any exaggeration would help me,” replied Houdini good naturedly, “the chain and bolts and bars and handcuffs are of iron and steel, and I shouldn’t care to exaggerate those.  My secret?  Well certainly it is a trick of my own.  No house or bank would be safe from prying hands if I revealed it to the world.  I should be doing a great wrong to give it up, for nothing would be safe.  Why when I was in England I was offered an enormous sum of money if I would consent to establish a school of burglary there.  Noted thieves and bank robbers came to me with the request.”

The reporter was allowed to feel his forearm, which is amazing, as massive and hard as a granite pillar.  His neck too, is large and corded.

Houdini carries with him an enormous book, wonderfully interesting to look at, containing hundreds of newspaper clippings from papers all over Europe, from England, Scotland, France, Prussia, Austria, Russia, everywhere, with cartoons, pictures, cuts, telegrams, challenges, bills and interviews.  They go to show the furore the man created in foreign countries and one clipping Houdini proudly exhibits is that taken from the London Times, the most conservative paper in the world, which never gives a professional a voluntary notice and which gave Houdini half a column in flattering comment.

Houdini not only breaks chains and handcuffs, he writes, writes entertainingly and well.  The New York Mirror, for which he is traveling correspondent while in Europe, prints whole pages of his letters, which are very chatty and readable.  He is well paid for this work.  Houdini was married when but a little over 19 years of age, and his wife, for whom he had a great affection, is staying now with his mother in New York.  Mrs. Weiss accompanies her husband everywhere in his foreign travels, and assists him in his performances.  Though only 30 years of age, Ehrich Weiss has made his own fortune and from a poor fatherless boy has grown to wealth and ease, both of which he shares with his mother and brothers.

Other Websites

Edna Ferber: Writing Under Difficulties
From Wisconsin Authors and Their Works by Charles Rounds (via the Wisconsin Electronic Reader)

Edna Ferber and the James Adams Floating Theatre
An article from the Historic Bath website describing Ferber’s inspiration for Show Boat

Ice Palace: A Novel for Alaska Statehood
Background and review of Ferber’s fictional account of Alaska’s quest for statehood