Edna Ferber was probably the most respected and widely read woman author of the 20th century, and ranks among the most influential female novelists in history. Her books, which often told large, sweeping stories across a great historical arc from the standpoint of ordinary men and women, sold in the millions, while the plays adapted from them enjoyed long runs and the films adapted from them were among the most successful of their respective eras. Ferber was born to a Jewish family in Kalamazoo, MI, in 1885, the daughter of Jacob Charles Ferber and the former Julia Neumann. She intended to study at Northwestern University, but was forced instead to take a job as a reporter on the Appleton Daily Crescent in Wisconsin, and later went to work for the Milwaukee Journal. It was this early career in journalism that allowed Ferber to perfect her observer's eye for the small details of people's lives and the psychology that motivated them, which she put into the service of her fiction later on, as well as bringing her into close contact with the working men and women who populated her books.
It was anemia, developed out of her exhaustion from overwork as a reporter, that brought Ferber to the writing of fiction. She decided to try it while convalescing and ended up with a short story entitled Dawn O'Hara, which she sold to a magazine almost immediately. That marked the end of her career as a reporter -- from that day forward, she wrote short stories, novels, and plays. Ferber first achieved fame with a series of stories about Emma McChesney, a traveling saleswoman selling underskirts, which eventually ran to more than 30 installments because of its popularity. It was those stories for which, to her embarrassment, President Theodore Roosevelt remembered her when the two met in 1904 at the Republican National Convention. Her works also tended to yield other, even more significant works, on occasion -- it was while in New London, CT, at a tryout of the play Minnick that the producer Winthrop Ames wryly suggested hiring a show boat, which led her to ask what a show boat was, which led her to the then still extant world of show boats working the southern and border states, and resulted in the novel Show Boat (1926). Similarly, it was during a visit with William Allen White that she heard of the Oklahoma and Indian territories, and the opening of the West, which led her to write Cimarron. Show Boat, of course, became the groundbreaking (indeed, one might say, defining) musicals by Jerome Kern, which was later successfully filmed twice, once in 1936 and again in 1951, with an abridged (sort of "Cliff Notes") version slotted into the 1946 Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By, as well. Cimarron was also filmed twice during her lifetime, and a few of her stories, such as So Big -- which dealt with life on a truck farm near Chicago -- were filmed three times, counting early silent versions.