Peculiar Treasure

Edna Ferber’s autobiography, first pub’d in 1938 then re-released in 1960 with a new introduction by Ferber. The book suffers from one fatal flaw—Ferber didn’t know the ending before she started to write. This is how she constructed all of her fiction, starting at the end and then heading towards it, which makes me suspect this was a critical ingredient to her wildly successful writing. The autobiography drags, she spends too much time in certain areas, namely after she begins to attain success, dallying in her theater rehearsals and rewrites too much for my taste.

The early stuff is good, her journey from Kalamazoo, MI to Ottumwa, IA to Appleton, WI where she spent her teenage years and serendipitously wound up in journalism instead of acting. A walking tour pamphlet in Appleton erroneously states that “her senior essay was so impressive that the editor of the Appleton Daily Crescent offered her a job.” It wasn’t her essay, but the fact that she had won a state speech-making contest. “The winning of the state contest had put me, so far as that small community was concerned, in something of the position of the college athlete who easily gets a job selling bonds in a broker’s office,” writes Ferber.

Several phrases from her books kept popping up, like “just so much velvet.”

She travels, a lot, the benefit of not having saddled herself with husband or children. She gags on Hollywood but gushes over SF: “But San Francisco! There was a city! It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, one of the half-dozen great cities of America; a city of distinction, of flavor, of the quality which excites the visitor.” She goes much further afield, Hawaii, Russia, Europe; when she “settles down” for a few months it’s either in Chicago or NYC. About LA: “I learned that no one walked in Hollywood. This is still true, almost twenty [ed: and 100] years later. Just a few months ago people passing in motorcars stares and pointed at this strange biped walking along the palm-lined avenues of Beverly Hills.”

“Under the influence of the music and a moon and a highball poured from a Prohibition hip flask I became engaged a number of times and hastily wrote to break it off the next morning before I started the day’s grist of writing… I wanted perfection. All old maids are perfectionists. That’s why they’re old maids… I wish I could be tactful enough to say that I regret not having married. I must confess that I know no woman with whom I should want to exchange places.”

On love of writing: “Life really can’t utterly defeat a writer who is in love with writing, for life itself is a writer’s lover until death; fascinating, cruel, lavish, warm, cold, treacherous, constant; the more varied the moods the richer the experience.”

On hearing praise of a work long finished:

A writer doesn’t tire of hearing people say they like his book or play. He loves hearing it. But the difficulty is this: by the time the reader has read it or the playgoer has seen it, the writer has laid it away in lavender. To him it is a ghost. If his response to flattery or appreciation seems absent-minded, forced and even churlish it is because he scarcely knows what you’re talking about. The thing is remote, finished, beyond his reach. His mind, imagination, emotions, creative powers are concentrated on the new thing he is trying to write. Still unconquered, that fresh work is tugging at him, deviling him, eluding him when he tries to pin it down. It grins up at him from his dinner late; it walks with him on the street; it prods and pinches him when he tries to sleep,k it leers at him from the pages of other people’s books; it insinuates itself slyly between him and the person to whom he is talking; it jabbers at him when he himself is talking. Only that interests him, claims all his attention.

She has her shortcomings, partially excusably by the age she was living in, but still sexist, cheap, and racist. She constantly refers to the journalism work she did as “man’s work,” to brag about how hard she worked. When she does research for Show Boat, she spends four days with a traveling troupe and at the end sends the host a copy of her book with a check. He doesn’t cash the check until several years later when his boat sinks. “I wish [the check] had been double in size.” Well send him another one, lady! She also has a cavalier attitude about her cook/maid, Rebecca:

A widow, she has a son, Waters Turpin, by her first marriage, whose first novel got reviews that would have made me jealous if I hadn’t been so pleased, and whose second novel bids fair to rival the first. Novels of American Negro life, they are; but none of this Sambo stuff. Rebecca has taken a quiet pride in this achievement, but she never refers to it, and on the Sunday morning that brought us the New York Times’ superb review of her son’s book, These Low Grounds, my waffles and maple syrup were as crisp, as golden, as toothsome as though no undue excitement marked the day.

Warts and all, I am enjoying her fiction. On the lookout for her collected short stories now.

They Brought Their Women

I raided the shelves of the Main library to greedily devour anything else of Ferber’s after I enjoyed So Big so much. This book of short stories was drolly prefaced by a few pages of Ferber commenting that the American short story was like hot pancakes, “the same deft pouring of the batter, the same expert jerk, the same neat flip of the wrist at the end.” Writing in 1933, she says you just need to look out the window to see the world changing before your eyes. “The writer of fiction finds himself [sic] trying to create in an atmosphere of a three-ring circus, with clowns, equestrians, acrobats whirling in mid-air.” The copy of the collection that I read had fabulous colored title page inserts before each story.

IMG_0057Glamour follows the hectic 24 hour day of a successful Broadway actress as she winds down one play while learning the lines/dress fittings/scenery choices/rehearsing for the next that opens in a few days. Her child is cared for by a nurse, her husband smokes his cigars and drinks and gives her an encouraging word when she needs it, but she is alone and striving for most of the day, except for the four hours of sleep. Truly exhausting to read.

IMG_0058Fräulein has a similar setup for the mother, a rich society matron who entrusts the care of her two children to a German nurse (Fräulein Berta), only having to care for them on Berta’s one afternoon off, during which time the children throw tantrums and are monstrous. Berta sneaks off to avoid the competing attention of the butler and chauffeur, then does some shopping before heading to her husband/beau’s room where she cleans up, washes her hair, bathes, and they have a snack of ham and beer before heading out to dinner and a German Nationalistic meeting (replete with posters of Hitler, “silly-looking man with a Chaplin mustache, no chin, and one mad and one sane eye.”) Then they hit up a movie and she heads back to her employer’s house by midnight to retake control of the children, who are screaming.

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Meadow Lark is a tale of the son of a Kansas farmer who tinkers around in his homemade shed, building himself a car, and then a plane that won’t fly, eventually escaping the farm to work his way up at the local airplane factory, with hopes of someday piloting his own craft. By leaving the farm, he also escaped the plan of his mother and neighboring farm girl to entrap him in marriage, which they liken to leaving feed for a bird (Meadowlark) and then grab him when he’s close. As he soars over the farm at last, the rejected girl says, “Don’t you worry, he won’t come down. He won’t ever come down.”

IMG_0060Hey! Taxi! brings us back to NYC where we follow a Ernie’s hack on a Saturday, the various fares he picks up, his under- and over-tipping, strange parcels he delivers, drunk people who can’t pay schlepped all the way to Brooklyn (the wife threw down exact fare from the window). His stops for coffee and donuts, or dinner at Charley’s (lamb with peas, cauliflower, and potatoes) or a late night snack of hamburger. The attempt to cash in on the post-Broadway crowd, but a war with the traffic cop there. Learned about a 33 1/3 customer– someone the cabbie would take to a club to drink (this during Prohibition), and the cabbie would make sure he was ok, then take him in, park his cab and wait inside with one eye on the 33 1/3 and one eye on the cash register. The cabbie would take 33 1/3 percent of whatever the person spent at the club.

IMG_0064Wall Street — ’28, supposedly written in 1928 (pre- crash), details the life of Cass Condon, an ultra-wealthy stockbroker who spends half of his day simply staring out the huge glass windows of his office, fingering the tickertape machine. He walks a mile then gets into a cab, getting to work by 9:30. “This was the malest street in the world. They poured into it—from the “L” trains and the subways, from ferries and surface lines and taxis—men and men and men, all curiously young and all curiously alike in some indefinable way.” His extremely competent secretary Miss Rosen “could, if necessary, have run the firm single-handedly. She had worked downtown since she was sixteen. There was nothing she did not know about Cass Condon’s business. No letter reached him that she had not first scanned. His telephone calls passed first through her. She separated the gold from the dross, the goats from the lambs; she was the alimentary tract which predigested Cass Condon’s tasks for him.” Condon’s life is quite easy, he leaves to have lunch at the club, taking a leisurely two hours. Then he heads to the gym where he did “a lot of undignified things that resembled the antics of an overturned beetle. He lay on his back and alternately brought his right and left leg up in the air and down slowly within two inches of the floor; he did half-somersaults; he turned over on his face and chinned the ground, his biceps screaming.” Then he goes to check in on his business interests at a motion picture company, falls in love with a girl on the screen and is invited to meet her at the Ambassador Hotel. They go, spend an hour or so chatting and listening to music before he leaves to head home to dress for dinner:

He went into his room. The lamps were lighted there too, and his clothes were laid out. [His wife] was calling from her room. ‘It’s quite a large dinner so there’ll probably be two or three cars. Don’t let that terrible Kassell girl get into ours when we go to the theater. And listen. Tell Jimmy that I don’t want to sit next to George at the show. Will you try to find out from Linda what they paid for the place at Syosset? Remember to speak to Otto..’ He lay down across his bed and even closed his eyes. Miss Rosen would never have asked him to remember all of those things. He breathed deeply. Scented air. Drawn curtains. Soft deferential footsteps. Low-pitched voices. Quiet. Luxurious. Shut in.

A prisoner until nine tomorrow morning.

IMG_0061They Brought Their Women was probably the most frustrating of the bunch, with a woman that you wanted to strangle. An overbearing wife who won’t leave her husband alone, even when he goes on a long business trip to Mexico she insists on accompanying him and not letting him try any of the native food or visit any native festivals. A frustrated artist, he’s trapped in the business world of his father, but at the end he shows a bit of sparkle as if he might chuck it all up and stay in Mexico to paint. His wife accuses him of being crazy. “A little, a little. But not enough.”

IMG_0062No Foolin’ is the tale of a woman with multiple broken engagements who finally falls in love with a man while on a trip to Europe with her parents. She marries him, lives in France, raises a son, becomes thoroughly French. The father dies in a plane crash, the Depression hits, she and son return to the U.S. but hate its constant change and lack of simplicity that Paris had.

IMG_0063Keep it Holy, the final story, follows Linny Mashek, a farm girl from Connecticut who comes to NYC to make hats. Knowing no one, she haunts the streets on Sundays, her day off. She visits the Met, the Natural History Museum, the Aquarium. Sunday mornings, her ritual comes to making coffee, eating a bit of cake and perhaps cooking (illegally!) some eggs in her room at the boarding house before heading out. She has her dinner at Werner’s cafeteria. “It was cheap, bright, good, clean. You got your tray, you selected your food, you served yourself.”

She had selected her food in silence, pointing. She had eaten in silence. She was out again in the February dusk. Suddenly, without warning, panic clutched her. You could live in New York, and go around all day, and have nothing happen. Not one thing. All day long she had talked to no one. From the moment of her awakening this morning until now, standing on the street corner in the early spring dusk, she had talked to no human being. Not one. She was a ghost, unreal, immaterial, drifting like fog through an indifferent city, mingling with the throng but no part of it. She was nothing. She was nobody.

So Big

Holy fuck, Edna Ferber. Why is the entire English-speaking world not reading her books and worshiping her for the fantastic fiction she wrote? When I finished reading this minutes ago, I actually held it in the air and shook it. My god.

Tight, perfect prose, descriptive, and the plot achingly magnificent. The worst pages were the beginning, where you think it’s going to be all about Dirk (So Big), but he’s quickly whisked away and the fantastic Selina is revealed, his mother, who when her father the gambler died, headed to the Chicago suburbs to become a teacher to support herself and ended up marrying a luckless farmer within a few months. Selina gives herself up to farming, making that land work so that she can give son Dirk the best things in life, especially when her hubby croaks a few years in. This charming, good-looking loafer (her son) grows further away from her, first studying at “Midwest” (which became U of Chicago), then to Cornell to study architecture, which he gives up in pursuit of riches to please his married girlfriend. But then an ad campaign lands him in the path of Dallas O’Mara and we’re back in the land of real people again. The book ends with him face-down on his satin sheets, realizing what a worthless life he’s pursued.

Ferber’s lines grab you by the throat, no wonder most of her work has been pillaged by Hollywood for scripts (Dinner at Eight – one of my favorite movies, Giant, Show Boat, Ice Palace, Saratoga Trunk, Cimarron, etc.). Biographically, she’s my kind of gal– never married, no kids. Slurping her autobiography onto my to-read list immediately.