WHEN FRANKLIN P. ADADIS called Edna Ferber "the Jewish Cinderella," he was half right. Jewish she was, and "inordinately proud" of it, but Cinderella? Never. Ferber's gritty climb from middle-class, Middle Western obscurity to the peak of literary fame and fortune in New York during the first half of this century is not a fairy tale. No fairy godmother decreed her success as a writer. That was Ferber - Ferber and her relentless hard work, her discipline, her character, her personality. At the start of World War II, this passionate anti-Nazi asked George Kaufman what she could do for the war. "Well, Edna," he said thoughtfully, "You could be a tank."
She was formidable all right, and she was eccentric and explosive and tied up in enough emotional knots to confound a convention of psychiatrists. Almost everyone who knew her considered her a holy terror, but most of them thought she was worth it. She had intelligence, wit, vitality and as her friend, Kitty Carlisle Hart said, "The charm of the devil."
Julie Goldsmith Gilbert's biography of her great-aunt Edna Ferber - the first ever written - brings good news and bad. The good news first: it is juicy with stories about Ferber and her circle - Robert Sherwood, Alfred Lunt, Mike Todd, Richard Rodgers, Leland Hayward, Moss Hart and other bright lights of Hollywood and Broadway. It is vivid in its detail about Ferber's rise to the top as a popular storyteller. ("I never let a story of yours pass," Terry Roosevelt once wrote her), and in examples of the anger that dominated her personal life.
The bad news is that reading this book can scramble your brain, because Gilbert has told Ferber's story backwards. Yes, backwards. Edna Ferber's life reels dizzyingly in reverse chronological order: from death back to old age back to maturity, to youth, to birth. This stunt must be literary, first, but not the kind calculated to win prizes or contented readers. A backwards biography distorts fine material and arouses a powerful yearning to dump all the chapters on the floor and reorganize them in chronological order.
Even so, some of the fascination and force of Ferber shines through.
Edna Ferber was a popular writer, and a good one. She had the observant eye of a natural reporter and a researcher's respect for accurate detail and authentic background. Her 30 published volumes of novels, short stories and plays include Giant, which dissected Texas, Ice Palace, which helped Alaska attain statehood, and Show Boat, which became the basis for the American musical. Some of Ferber's stories may be a bit dusty today, but the story of her life is not.
A convinced female chauvinist, Ferber believed that women were smarter and tougher than men. Such was the case in her own hard-luck family as well as in much of her writing. Her father, Jacob Ferber, was a small-town merchant, hapless and outclassed by his overpowering wife, Julia. After his death, Edna wrote to support her mother.She remained a spinster all her life, a self-sacrificing but resentful Mama's girl. Dozens of interesting men came and went, but there were no romances. The only sensual appetite Ferber allowed herself to indulge was her untamed passion for food. Food exited her and so did injustice. "Boy, could she write when she was angry," says Gilbert, and it is true that some of Ferber's best nonfiction was written in outrage at, for example, the anti-Semitism of her childhood, or the despised Hitler, or the carnival atmosphere of Bruno Hauptmann's trial which she covered for the New York Times.
To Ferber, "everything mattered; everything was upsetting." Her thermostat was permanently set at rage. She collected grievances at living as people collect old silver, careful to feud only with the finest: Alexander Woollcott (they didn't speak for nine years); Moss Hart (four years); Margaret Leech Pulitzer (two years). Sooner or later she quarrelled with most of her friends and all of her family. One notable exception was William Allen White, editor of the Emporia, Kansas Gazette , her mentor and most loyal fan for 22 years. It was White, the kindly small-town philosopher-editor, who engineered the Pulitzer Prize for Ferber's So Big in 1924, using all the wiles of a slick backroom politician. The story of his Pulitzer manipulation (Gilbert says the prize "was not quite won on the book's merit alone") is documented here for the first time, and it is an eye-opener.
Ferber's longest-running battle was with her Mama, the pleasure of whose company she once compared to a case of typhoid. Edna was tied to Mama by chains of guilt and hatred which she neither acknowledged nor understood. At Julia Ferber's death ("Oh Edna . . . I ruined your life," were her dying words), Edna abruptly switched enemies and turned her wrath permanently on sister Fan, her only sibling.
Her cantankerous spirit and sharp tongue made Ferber a master of the fast put-down. Lunching with Woollcott at the Algonquin, wearing a new broad-shouldered Paris suit that inspired Woollcott to say, "Why Edna, you look almost like a man," she retorted, "Why Aleck, so do you."
It was not surprising that most of Ferber's friends and acquaintances gave her a wide berth. "She was definitely a violent person," says Katharine Hepburn, "I watched my p's and q's with Edna."
Julie Gilbert's prose is burdened with excruciating metaphors: "The guests . . . were a pot-pourri of creme de la creme of American creative doers"; "Her book [Ferber's autobiography] is manicured . . . Her notes are the hangnails that could have possibly made it a very good to excellent one"; "There were a few men who Ferber couldn't penetrate deeply enough to castrate"; "All used to go [to Voisin restaurant] to see and be seen in order to raise their social cholesterol." And dozens more.
But nothing so damages Ferber as Gilbert's decision to write Edna Ferber's life from last to first, thus short-circuiting the smooth flow of narrative, mangling the development of character and garbling the impact of Ferber's angry and repressed life. There ought to be a law against maiming fine biographical material like this.
Moss Hart once refused to write a foreward to an Edna Ferber book, confessing to a friend, "I couldn't possibly do it. I might say Edna Ferber is a wonderful woman, and she would say 'What do you mean wonderful. Of all the words in the English language, the word I most dislike is wonderful.'"
Imagine what Aunt Edna, so fastidious, so prickly, would say about Ferber and her great-niece.