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LETTERS TO EDITOR
CurtainUp Book Review
Edna Ferber and Her Circle of Friends
by Elyse Sommer
Julie Gilbert wrote this biography of her great aunt between 1976 and 1977, almost ten years after she died. At a time when George S. Kaufman's plays are enjoying a flurry of revivals and intermittent rumors about a musical version of The Royal Family on which she collaborated with him, this paperback reissue of Gilbert's richly detailed reminiscence is a most welcome and timely addition to any theater enthusiast's bookshelf. It reads as if it had been written yesterday. Many interviews and access to journals and family papers bolster its authenticity.
The writing gives evidence that Gilbert has inherited some of "Aunt Ed's" facility with words as well has her gift for clear-headed, illuminating observations. As Ms. Gilbert explains in her preface "Aunt Ed" was my special angel yet she knew the Edna Ferber who figured so importantly in her life was not angelic. Her eyes wide open view of the author of Show Boat as well as a string of other best-selling books is honest without being a tell all shocker. The Edna Ferber she reveals to us is admirable and likeable, but also irascible and opinionated -- and above all a fascinating achiever with a strong appetite for life and, a not inconsiderable asset for any biography, an illustrious and interesting circle of friends.
At first the book's construct seemed a little odd, starting as it does with an Epilogue that recounts Ferber's death at her Park Avenue home and then working from that final departure from life's stage backward. But both Gilbert's explanation for her method and its graceful and never repetitious execution quickly persuaded me of its absolute rightness. The producer Max Gordon's description of what Ferber was not -- "Well, I'll tell ya, Ferber? She was no schlepper" fitted the biographer's own take on her relative: "Because she never 'schlepped' through life, it seems more fitting to have her descend gracefully back into it."
The backward descend is divided into six parts, the middle ones named with Ferber book titles: The Last Warpath, 1968-1960, The Chill Factor 1960-1954 The Giant Years 1952-1938, The Treasure Years 1938-192, Mother Knows Best 1927-1911 and Edna 1911-1885. With an occasional flashback to a previous section slipped in this sequence works beautifully in piecing together the private and public life of this strong and accomplished woman.
Theater buffs will be particularly interested in the behind-the-scenes story of Ferber's friendship and collaborations with George S. Kaufman. The details about the disastrous production of the first of these, Dinner At Eight, is a classic example of misdirection -- in this case by Sir Tyrone Guthrie, the noted director and founder of the famed Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.
While Dinner at Eight was a flop, dinner at Ferber's home was something far different. As descriptions of food (which Ferber loved) permeated her novels, so do dinner parties (attended as well as given) add many tasty morsels about her dining companions.
Ferber's relationship with Kaufman, who like her belonged to the famous Algonquin Round Table, was a match that was "an even draw for both." As Gilbert notes both suffered and survived not being good looking in different ways -- "Ferber by writing about good-looking people in romantic situations, while warding off physical contact in her personal life; Kaufman by shunning any romantic shenanigans in his plays, yet devoting himself to them in real life". Both responded to speculation about any intimac"y between them with one-liners. Ferber: "George treats me like Bro"adway Rose--bringing brown gardenias." Kaufman: "I'm fond of Edna but I don't like her." Another member of Ferber's Circle, Margalo Gillmore, termed their relationship as a l"literary roll in the hay.
As to the family aspects of her life, Ferber never failed to share her financial wealth -- which for the recipients was not always easy. As Gilbert explains: "Although fairy godmother to me, she was often the Godfather to the rest of her family. As to herself -- well, she cast herself in many roles. Her favorite being a breadwinning Mother Courage". She liked being with people and did not believe in going to the theater alone -- "Other than Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria I never have known or heard of anyone who preferred to sit alone at an entertainment. Half the enjoyment of a play, a lecture, a picture is what is known as audience participation. Anyone who has ever seen a performance in an empty theatre know the clammy silence that blights full enjoyment. Appreciation, transference of any emotion is an infectious thing". Her very favorite theater companion was Noel Coward who's much in the news in this his 100th anniversary year
Ferber's two most successful theatrical ventures were, of course, Show Boat which she called her "oil well" and The Royal Family (written with Kaufman). The latter also proved to be her one brief chance to act out on her fantasy of actually being on stage. When Ethel Barrymore declined to play the lead which was written with her in mind, Ferber's hankering for stage legs of her own grew stronger and stronger. While Ferber's "George, how 'bout me?" went unheeded for the Broadway production, she did get her chance during a revival in Maplewood, New Jersey when Cheryl Crawford turned fairy godmother and cast her to play the lead for a one-week run. To her surprise all the critics came. Some like Brooks Atkinson were "courtly" but a star was NOT born and Ferber, presumably cleansed of the "whim" to act, "settled down to her ten-finger exercise for the rest of her days." As you can see from the bibliography below , the output born of those exercises was prodigious: (Editor's note: This is not in the book which does, however, discuss the key works and provides a serviceable index)/
1910 "The Homely Heroine" in Everybody's Magazine
1911 Dawn O'Hara
1912 Buttered Side Down (short stories)
1913 Roast Beef, Medium
1914 Personality Plus
1915 Emma Mc Chesney and Co.
1917 Fanny Herself
1918 Cheerful - By Request
1919 Half Portions
1921 The Girls
1924 So Big
1927 Mother Knows Best (stories) 1929 Cimarron
1931 American Beauty (no connection to the current movie!)
1933 They Brought Their Women
1935 Come and Get It
1938 Nobody's in Town
1938 Stage Door (play, with George S. Kaufman)
1939 A Peculiar Treasure (autobiography)
1941 Saratoga Trunk
1941 No Room at the Inn
1941 The Land Is Bright (with G. S. Kaufman)
1945 Great Son
1949 One Basket (short stories)
1949 Bravo (with G. S. Kaufman)
1958 Ice Palace
1963 A Kind of Magic (autobiography)
Films based on Ferber works
Come and Get It (1936)
Dinner at Eight (1933)
Dinner at Eight (1989)
The Expert (1932)
A Gay Old Dog (1919) Giant (1956)
Hard to Get (1929)
Ice Palace (1960)
Mother Knows Best (1928)
Our Mrs. McChesney (1918)
The Royal Family of Broadway (1930)
Saratoga Trunk (1945)
Show Boat (1929)
Show Boat (1936)
Show Boat (1951)
So Big (1924) So Big (1932)
So Big (1953)
Stage Door (1937)