“To be alive, to know consciously that you are alive, and to relish that knowledge–this is a kind of magic.”
“Life can’t defeat a writer who is in love with writing, for life itself is a writer’s lover until death.”
Move over Tom Arnold.* On a recent shoot in Ottumwa, Iowa I learned that Arnold is not the only Ottumwan with ties to Hollywood. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edna Ferber (1885-1968) lived for a spell in Ottumwa.
Ferber’s novel So Big (for which she won the Pulitzer) was made into a movie—three times. The first was a silent film in 1924, the second version (black & white with sound) starred Barbara Stanwyck in 1932, and the third incarnation was a color version in 1953 directed by Robert Wise and starred Jane Wyman and Sterling Hayden. (Maybe a 3-D version is next.)
Ferber’s stories also made it to Broadway and Television—and in some cases her writings like Show Boat started as a novel, and became a Broadway play, and a movie. How many writers have pulled off that trifecta? She wrote the play Dinner at Eight with Charlie Kaufman that also became a TV movie and the George Cukor directed film which featured John Barrymore and Jean Harlow.
Two of her best known works for film lovers are the western Oscar-winning Best Picture Cimarron (1960) and Giant (1956) which was directed by George Stevens and starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. (How many people have overlooked the bottom of the Special Edition DVD: FROM THE NOVEL BY EDNA FERBER. (In 2009, Giant was adapted into a musical and performed at the Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia.)
Ferber’s first published work was Dawn O’Hara in 1911 meaning that her work is coming up on a 100 year run and still appears to have legs. Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, she began her literary career as a journalist after graduating from high school in Appleton, Wisconsin, before moving on to bigger stages in Chicago and New York.
In the book Great American Writers: Twentieth Century, R. Baird Shurman writes, “The triviality of the wealthy, the nobility of the working-class underdog, and the tragedy of senseless financial ruin are recurring themes in her work. These popular themes propelled Ferber’s career and ensured her popularity during the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and World War II.”
“Edna Ferber is a small, peppery, restless, cosmopolitan, a Midwesterner transplanted to Park Avenue. She learned to write on a newspaper and retains a copy editor’s flair for strong simple themes and brisk sentences. Bold strokes. Challenges. Controversies. Crusades.”
Life magazine article The 3 Queens of Fiction
April 6, 1959
And while her time in Ottumwa was short it did impact her literary mindset (though not positively) according to Shurman, ” During Ferber’s early childhood years in Ottumwa, Iowa she and her family experienced unremitting anti-Semitism in a rough, marginally impoverished coal-mining town. Ferber recalled desperately running the gauntlet while taking her father’s lunch to the family store when she was young. Her witnessing of a lynching deeply impacted the young Ferber, as did recurring violent floods on the Des Moines River. The grim, dull life of the town and the often despondent attitudes of its inhabitants imprinted dark impressions on her imagination that ultimately inspired characters and plot elements in her literary works.”
Ferber’s work was also praised by Rudyard Kipling and she received an honorary doctorate from Columbia University. She was as part of the Algonquin Round Table, which was the subject of 1987 Academy-Award Winning documentary The Ten-Year Lunch. The writer’s group was also covered in the 1994 film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, where Ferber was portrayed by Lili Taylor. Ferber’s autobiography is called A Kind of Magic.
Today Ottumwa is an All American City with a very nice performing arts center the Bridge View Center. Suitable for a revival of Show Boat.
* Though Tom Arnold grew up in Ottumwa, the town is probably more well-known to M*A*S*H fans as the home of the fictional character Radar O‘Reilly from the book, movie, and TV show. (Or was the fictional character really based on Don Shaffer?)