Edna Ferber

Have you ever experienced a time when one person’s name seems to come up again and again, to the point that you ask how can this person have done so much? It has been that way lately for me with Edna Ferber.

Edna Ferber was born in 1885 and died in 1968. In between those years she wrote novels, plays, short stories, and essays. She won a Pulitzer Prize, and quite a few of her books were made into movies, one that won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and one that is included in the American Film Institute’s (AFI) list of the 100 best films of all time.

This all starts with So Big, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of 1925. That year, it was made into a silent film starring Colleen Moore. In 1932 it was remade as a talking picture starring Barbara Stanwyck. But it is the 1953 version, starring Jane Wyman, that people know best.

Her 1926 novel Show Boat was the basis for Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s ground-breaking 1927 musical. There were three film versions: 1929, 1936, and 1953. Ferber herself made her acting debut in 1939 when Orson Welles produced a radio version of Show Boat: Ferber was cast as Parthy Ann Hawkes.

She wrote Cimarron in 1929. It was made into a movie starring Richard Dix and Irene Dunne—a movie that won the Oscar for best picture in 1931. Cimarron was remade in 1960, starring Glenn Ford and Maria Schell.

In 1941 she wrote Saratoga Trunk, which became a movie in 1945, starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. In 1959, the musical Saratoga, based on the book, premiered on Broadway, featuring songs by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. It ran for 80 performances, and was not nearly the hit Show Boat had been.

Her 1952 book Giant became the 1956 movie starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and, in his final role before his death, James Dean. Dean actually died in a car accident before filming was complete, and Nick Adams—who would later play Johnny Yuma in the TV show The Rebel—filled in some scenes. Giant stands at number 82 on the AFI’s list of the best movies.

Finally, her 1958 book Ice Palace was filmed in 1960, starring Richard Burton and Robert Ryan. Ferber wrote several plays with George S. Kaufman, and of those, Stage Door and Dinner at Eight became movies.

Ferber was never married nor romantically linked to anyone. She was of Hungarian-Jewish descent, and had suffered painful anti-semitism growing up in Iowa and Wisconsin. Most of her books feature characters whose race, religion, or ethnicity cause them to experience prejudice. She was also a member of the Algonquin Round Table, known for her acerbic wit. As such, she was portrayed by Lili Taylor in the 1994 movie Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.

It seems a coincidence that I have encountered Edna Ferber’s name so many times in the past few months. Then again, it’s only fitting in March, Women’s History Month, to stop and think about a woman who had such a huge influence on the literature, movies, and musicals of the 20th century.

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Constable Fieldson

One of the more remarkable characters in the early history of Webster Groves, one you’ve likely never heard of, is Constable John Fieldson. The story is common that our city was incorporated in response to a terrible crime, the murder of Bertram Atwater, visiting from Chicago. Influential citizens, fearing that the growing village of Webster Groves was inadequately patrolled by the constables sent by the County, determined that incorporation was the only way to ensure a strong local police presence. What we can learn of the career of Constable John Fieldson makes it sound like Webster Groves was pretty well patrolled already.

The first time we hear of Fieldson is in July 1895. One day that month a painter named Jack Wurtz grew angry that two of his employees had ‘done him up’ for $10. (PD, 07/17/1895) He got drunk on ‘a fighting brand of whisky,’ and announced that he was hunting for the two. He set his bottle of whiskey in the middle of Lockwood Avenue near Old Orchard, and sat there with his shotgun, inviting people to step up and take a drink, warning that he would fill the first man who did with buckshot. People naturally gathered to see the commotion, but nobody stepped forward.

Constable Fieldson, who normally covered Webster Groves, was called, and arrived shortly. He approached Wurtz with his revolver in hand, but Wurtz had his shotgun cocked and leveled at the Constable. After a few moments of this standoff, Fieldson retreated to swear out a warrant against Wurtz, hoping that would have some effect.

Meanwhile the local men determined to form a posse, and about twenty of them gathered with shotguns and pistols. This caused Wurtz to retreat to his home. When he went indoors, the posse secured the door so he could not escape. This only infuriated him and he began firing his shotgun through the roof and out the door. They let him out. He sat on his porch still threatening anyone who came near.

Constable Fieldson arrived with his warrant, but saw that it would make no difference in the situation. He snuck around the house, up under the porch, and seized Wurtz’s hands. The others jumped in and threw the gun away. Wurtz was arrested and sent to Clayton.

In January 1896, after the murder of Bertram Atwater, Constable Fieldson was assigned to deliver the suspects in the case to the Clayton jail. Three men had been involved in the crime, but one, John Schmidt, had been severely wounded by Atwater during the attempted robbery. The other two, ‘Cottonhead’ Schmidt and Sam Foster, were taken in a surrey with Fieldson and three deputies. But at Manchester Road they were accosted by a crowd of nearly 200 men who brandished guns, held up nooses, and swore to hang the men right there. The three deputies deserted Fieldson on the spot, one taking the Constable’s own gun with him, leaving Fieldson unarmed.

He managed to whip his horses into an escape, though Schmidt was wounded by a gunshot in his thigh, and Foster got a bullet through his coat. Fieldson made for Kirkwood, where he planned to take the train to Clayton. But word had preceded him, and there were mobs all about looking to lynch Schmidt and Foster. They spent the night sneaking along railroad tracks and through the woods until they reached the jail. All this time, both suspects were aware that they were in the custody of an unarmed man–but they felt safer as prisoners of law enforcement than being caught by the angry mobs.

A month later, in February 1896, there is another story involving Fieldson in the Post-Dispatch, this time called ‘Rescued from an Angry Mob.’ (PD, 02/15/1896) A young man named Fred Young had assaulted a seven-year-old girl in her home, though her screams frightened him off before he could do more than throw the girl on her bed. When her father returned home and heard what had happened, he roused his neighbors to help him find Fred Young. The crowd took the young man to the same bridge where Bertram Atwater had been murdered, planning to hang him, but soon Constable Fieldson arrived. He was far outnumbered, and at first the mob refused to hand over Fred Young. It was fortunate that there were cooler heads present, who pointed out that this was the same Constable Fieldson who had stood down the mob in the planned lynching of Atwater’s murderers, and they released the young man to be taken to jail in Clayton.

In lauding John Fieldson’s work, a reporter for the Post-Dispatch wrote, ‘Constable Fieldson belongs to that rare band of heroes whose heroism is displayed in the simple performance of the duty of preventing the violation of law by a mob and of giving persons accused of a brutal crime the protection of the law. His courage and ingenuity are in marked contrast with the mawkish cowardice and stupidity of many law officers under similar circumstances that he deserves to be held up as an exemplar.’ (PD, 01/25/1896) Perhaps rougher than necessary on other officers, but it sounds like Webster Groves was fortunate to have the services of Constable Fieldson.

 

‘Webster Groves’

We recently found an article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch dated November 3, 1903. It was titled ‘Founder of Suburb Dies.’ It was an article about Benjamin F. Webster, the man for whom, as the article states, Webster Groves was named. Very interesting article, except it is wrong.

In 1845, Dr. Artemus Bullard was sent by First Presbyterian Church in St. Louis to organize a church in the area that was to become Webster Groves. At the time it was a settlement of farms and of large country homes for St. Louis businessmen. Bullard was taken with the lovely forested environs, and he built a school for boys there, naming it after the great statesman, Daniel Webster. His Webster College opened in 1850.

When the Pacific Railroad opened a line that passed through the developing village, its station was named for the school–Webster Station. Once it was learned that there was already a Webster Station in Missouri, the name was changed to Webster Groves. Dr. Bullard’s school did not outlive the strife of the Civil War, though its main building still stands on the grounds of the Great Circle campus on Gore Avenue.

Benjamin Franklin Webster was born in Boston in 1835, but was brought to St. Louis when he was two. He was educated at Amherst College and returned to St. Louis to practice law. He was also involved in real estate, and bought an existing home at 470 East Lockwood in the 1870s. The Sisters of Loretto purchased the Webster house in 1897 for a girl’s academy, naming it Loretto College. The Webster house burned down in 1905, to be replaced by the current Webster Hall. In time, they changed the school’s name to Webster College, which eventually became Webster University.

Coincidences abound in this history, so there is plenty of reason to be confused. Adding to the confusion is the fact that Benjamin F. Webster was involved in an early attempt to incorporate the village of Webster Groves into a city: the committee working on the incorporation even selected him as its mayor-designate, should their efforts become successful. They were not. Webster Groves would not be incorporated until years later, and Benjamin F. Webster never served as mayor.

But the fact is the name of Webster University has little to do with the fact that it is situated in Webster Groves–and Benjamin F. Webster, though important in local history, had nothing to do with the naming of the town.

Influenza, 1918

We were recently researching the history of the mayors of Webster Groves, and happened to come across a proclamation by Mayor R. M. B. Tidd, dated October 11, 1918, urging against all ‘public gatherings, picture shows and public entertainments during the existence of this emergency.’ He also asked churches and societies to suspend congregating. The emergency was, of course, the quickly growing influenza pandemic of 1918.

Webster Groves was likely following the lead of the City of St. Louis, which is cited as a model case for how to handle such an outbreak. St. Louis Health Commissioner Max C. Starkloff, in coordination with Mayor Henry Kiel, instituted a series of business, school, church, and entertainment closures—many of which were highly unpopular—but all of which saved lives and lessened the impact of the disease. These lasted from early October 1918 until January 1919.

We found articles in the Webster News Times about the library being closed, first on October 10, 1918, with the terse message, ‘The Library will be closed until further notice, by order of the Board of Health.’ This would have been the public library housed in and managed by the Monday Club of Webster Groves. A notice on November 25 then states, ‘It is hoped that all books will be returned to the Library promptly that they may be fumigated by the city. The Library is opened for receiving such books at the usual hours.’

It is not until November 29 that another article states, ‘At last the oft-repeated question “When will the Library be open” has been answered.” After six weeks of mandatory closure, the Library had opened on November 21. All the books had been fumigated, and were ‘ready for the enjoyment of the many friends of the Library.’

This is just another example of how local history, when seen in the proper perspective, reflects national, even international history. Webster Groves, and Webster Groves Public Library, were directly impacted by the worldwide influenza pandemic of 1918, and took steps to lessen its impact.

Les Miserables–Capitulation

I have given up trying to read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I was a little over halfway through the book, and I simply couldn’t take it any more. Some part of me cared about Jean Valjean and Cosette, hoping things worked out well for them, but not nearly enough to slog through any more of Hugo’s lengthy digressions on French history, Parisian society, the Benedictine rule, or anything else. Les Miserables is not a book—it’s a lifestyle, and I had enough of it.

To those who love the book, I am truly sorry. It just wasn’t for me. I am reminded of something I read years ago in the book Great Books by David Denby. He was writing about the Great Books course at Columbia University. For many years, he wrote, the final exam for the course contained this essay question: What is your least favorite book we read this semester, and what is the flaw in your character that made it so?

Perhaps I am too impatient, too much a creature of the 21st century, and not willing to allow for the narrative expansiveness of long novels like Les Miserables. I do like for stories to be more focused. If Jean Valjean is being chased by the detective Javert and a platoon of police officers, I expect that chase to take fewer than five chapters—especially when the chapters include lengthy descriptions of buildings passed along the way.

Scottish poet James Thomson’s long poem The Seasons was the most popular and influential poem in England in the 18th century. It influenced literature and music—Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons was based on it—and countless paintings and sculptures, not to mention bits of decorative bric-a-brac were modeled on scenes in the poem. But who has heard of it today? Thomson’s poem is largely unreadable to a modern audience, too much of that ‘O Muse, do speak to me!’ and other stilted locutions.

Perhaps books like Les Miserables are the same. Or perhaps it just wasn’t to my taste. At any rate, I have moved on, and I feel a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I am now going to read Honore Balzac’s Cousin Bette. I like Balzac, and I hope I like it.

Les Miserables–2

I am in part two of Les Miserables. The section is called Cosette. Cosette is the daughter of Fantine, whose story was told in part one. I am about fifty pages into part two, and there has been no mention of Cosette. There has, instead, been a long history of the Battle of Waterloo.

Is this frustrating? I don’t know. The ending of part one leaves the reader anxious to learn the fate of Cosette, for reasons it would too much of a spoiler to enumerate here. But you start reading part two, and work your way through this history. I am a huge fan of military history, and I found Hugo’s description of one of the most important battles ever to be compelling and exciting. But is it part of this story?

Long ago I read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Tolstoy also finds occasion to write at length about the history of the siege of Moscow, about military strategy in general, and about his theory of leadership in war. Does this add to or drag down his story? It depends on one’s perspective. It seems that in large novels of the 19th century, lengthy non-fiction asides were considered normal: whether you enjoy that or not is a matter of personal taste.

Another classic example is Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. One can learn an awful lot about whales and whaling from the book. There are long sections that describe the whale hunt, processing of the carcass, even how perfume is made from ambergris, a by-product of whale processing. Do these drag down the story of Ahab’s maniacal quest to kill the great white whale? Suffice it to say, these parts were not included in the movie.

It’s interesting to note that both War and Peace and Les Miserables are set in the time of the Napoleonic Wars, which loomed massively over early 19th century Europe. How much more I need to learn about these wars while trying to find out what happens to Cosette and Jean Valjean is a question that time will answer.

 

Les Miserables–1

Each December the Tuesday Evening Book Discussion group takes a break, for one month I have no assigned reading, and so I choose a long, significant work of literature to read, one that I have not read before. In the past several years I have read James Joyce’s Ulysses, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and other such tomes. This year I have chosen Victor Hugo’s masterpiece Les Miserables.

It’s funny, but when conversation turns to long books, the one people usually cite is War and Peace. But Les Miserables is a few hundred pages longer than War and Peace. In the version I am reading, a recent translation by Julie Rose, the print is very small as well. It is even a bit of a challenge, holding the book in one’s lap while reading in bed.

As people often say of long books, I had trouble ‘getting into it.’ Anyone who has seen the musical, or the movie based on it may recall that the story begins with an incident involving Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean. That incident, in the movie, is dispatched in ten minutes of narrative storytelling. In the book, there are eighty pages about the life and character of Bishop Myriel before we hear anything about Jean Valjean.

That much ‘introduction’ is not characteristic of how stories are told these days. A creative writing instructor I once had was fond of saying that if the story is about a broken glass, you better break the glass on page one. But reading a long story from the mid-19th century requires a different sensibility, a different set of expectations. This is something I have to remind myself of each winter when I take up an older classic.

Now that I have adjusted my mind to the longer format of a 19th century novel, I plan to write a few posts here about the experience of reading Les Miserables. In the meantime, let me know—have you read the book? Did you love it or hate it? Did you pick it up only because you found the musical so wonderful? Any thoughts are appreciated.