In the late summer of 1924 — as her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, So Big, was going to press — Edna Ferber also had a play entitle Minick, opening at the Lyceum Theatre in New London, Connecticut. Unfortunately, the gallery, dome, and chandeliers of the old playhouse had been taken over by a colony of bats. When the lights went up for the opening scene of Minick, the winged mammals began to "dip, swoop, circle and dive all about the auditorium and on the stage itself," recalled the author. This caused an instant uproar, as members of the audience (women in particular) began to shield themselves before running out of the theater altogether.*
That night after the show "we were a dispirited crew," explained Ferber, "after the laughing hysterics of the bat invasion." As the group lolled about enjoying highballs and sandwiches, Winthrop Ames — the show's producer — spoke up with joking encouragement: "Never mind, boys and girls!" he said. "Next time I'll tell you what we'll do. We won't bother with tryouts. We'll all charter a show boat and we'll just drift down the rivers, playing the towns as we come to them, and we'll never get off the boat. It'll be wonderful!"
This notion piqued Edna's curiosity and interest immediately, and she sat up from her slumped position on the floor. "What's a show boat?" she asked.
Winthrop Ames explained that show boats were old-fashioned floating theaters that plied Southern rivers to entertain people in remote areas. At waterfront towns and villages — removed from major railroad avenues — the floating theaters would pull in at town landings to present their shows. The actors, Ames continued, "lived and slept and ate and worked right there on the boat. The country people for miles around would hear the calliope screeching and they'd know the show-boat folks were in town."
Edna Ferber soon lost all thought of Minick and its eventual "mildly approving" reviews. "Here was news of a romantic and dramatic aspect of America of which I'd never heard or dreamed."
The author became enthralled, and the quest was on. "But no sooner had the play opened than I was hot on the trail of show boats. Here, I thought, was one of the most melodramatic and gorgeous bits of Americana that had ever come my way. It was not only the theater — it was the theater plus the glamour of the wandering drifting life, the drama of the river towns, the mystery and terror of the Mississippi itself . . . . I spent a year hunting down every available scrap of show-boat material; reading, interviewing, taking notes and making outlines."
To Edna's delight, she found that a few show boats were still operating in the South — on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, on the rivers of North Carolina and Ohio, and in the Louisiana bayous. She was thrilled, "as excited and happy as if I had come upon a diamond mine."
That fall, the excitement sent Edna on a journey from the bustling metropolis of New York City to a remote region of the coastal South. "Early in my chase," she noted, "I heard of a show boat that was headed for a little village in North Carolina. The James Adams Floating Palace Theatre, it was called."
It was October, and the floating theater season was closing. But Miss Ferber — a former Wisconsin reporter for the Appleton Daily Crescent and Milwaukee Journal — was determined to get her story no matter what:
I dashed down to Carolina, arrived at a town called Washington and engaged a colored boy with a Ford to drive me the thirty miles out to the little landing where the show boat lay . . . . Certain glittering and gorgeous memories may slip from my mind as the years go by, but I'll never forget that Ford. Its original structure probably derived from the well-known brand after which it was named. But its owner had, perforce, supplemented it with bits and pieces of old metal, wire, canvas and wood, held together, seemingly, with chewing gum, spit and faith. Every bolt, joint, hinge and curtain shook, rattled, squeaked and flapped. I, in the back seat, was busy trying to hold the thing together. As a door swung spectrally open and I sprang to shut it a curtain would strain and threaten to tear loose from the cotton thread that held it to the body of the car. By some miracle that worked in defiance of the laws of nature we drew up at the river's edge.
Fully prepared to use her "old newspaper tricks and wiles," Edna hurried across the gangplank as the huge floating theater was preparing to leave port. There was a bustle of activity as the crew made ready to pull out, and a small tugboat — the theater's only motive power — was preparing to tow the craft out into the river.
"My name is Edna Ferber," she explained hurriedly to a tall, bespectacled young man. "I'm a writer. I am trying to write about show boats. I've come all the way from New York to talk to the owner of this one."
"Well, my God!" exclaimed the young man, extending his hand to Edna. "Emma McChesney!" he cried, in reference to the heroine of Miss Ferber's popular short stories. "Beulah!" he shouted. "Beulah! Emma McChesney's here."
The young man was Charles Hunter. And as fate would have it, Hunter and his wife, Beulah Adams — sister of the show boat's owner — were enthusiastic fans of Edna's stories and novels. They had read her novels So Big, Fanny Herself, and Dawn O'Hara, as well as all of her short stories. And Edna was flattered to learn that Charles and Beulah — who just happened to be the lead actors of the Adams Floating Theatre — had actually staged parts of her Emma McChesney stories right there on the show boat. "God bless them," she recalled fondly.
Edna felt welcome immediately. "And I've never known," she declared, "two more understanding, sympathetic and heart-warming souls in all my life. Beulah was known as the Mary Pickford of the rivers."
The season was ending, however, and the James Adams was leaving to put up for the winter at Elizabeth City. Though disappointed, Edna had arrived just in time to make the contact she needed. She now had her inroad to the "romantic" and drifting life of the river performers. "There was nothing to do," she lamented, "but leave for New York with a warm invitation to join the boat the following April at their very first stop, which was Bath, North Carolina."
Back in New York, Edna Ferber spent the winter working on a few short stories, and of course continuing her research on the show boat life. She was amazed at the dearth of literature — fact or fiction — available on the subject. "It was unbelievable," complained Edna, "that this rich and colorful aspect of American life had been almost completely overlooked." She did manage to track down a few people who had actually played on show boats, one of whom was the actor Wallace Ford.
"I waited for April," she wrote. "It was a gay enough New York that winter of 1925." The people Miss Ferber "played about" with would soon become some of the most well known and influential writers of the era. "They were a hard-boiled crew," she explained, "brilliant, wise, witty, generous and debunked." They worked hard, but they also played hard, and Edna found the conversation fresh, original, and stimulating.
The favorite gathering place for many of them was the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street. "There was always reserved for a certain group," recalled Edna, "a table called the Round Table." And gathered at this special table one could often find the likes of sharp-tongued Dorothy Parker, writer and critic Alexander Woollcott, Haywood Broun, and a number of other famous or soon-to-be-famous characters. "No one outside the mythical order was permitted to sit at the Round Table without invitation," declared Edna.
The talk was actually witty, frequently biting and brutal, sometimes merry with a refreshing spontaneity that I do not remember encountering anywhere else in the world. Small wonder. Out of that group emerged some of the most brilliant and successful playwrights, novelists, and actors in America.
Thus refreshed from her winter in New York, Edna was eager to return to North Carolina — to see first-hand the intricate workings of the show boat and the lives of its players.
"When April came I went as eagerly as a lover to meet the show boat," recalled Edna.
Bath, North Carolina, turned out to be a lovely decayed hamlet on the broad Pamlico River. In the days of the Colonies Bath had been the governor's seat. Elms and live oaks arched over the deserted streets. Ancient houses, built by men who knew dignity of architectural design and purity of line, were now moldering into the dust from which they had come. The one hotel or boarding house in the town was a fine old brick mansion . . . . It's rooms were large, gracious and beautifully proportioned. In the main room was a fireplace so huge that a room was built inside it.
When Miss Ferber came to Bath in 1925, however, the old Palmer-Marsh House was not the fine colonial structure we know today. More than 150 years old by that time, the house had fallen into disrepair — and it had become a seedy boarding house owned by Henry Ormond.
Edna Ferber's Signature, Ormond Boarding House, Bath, N.C., April 18, 1925
Upon her arrival at Ormond's, a message from the Hunters was waiting for Edna. The James Adams Floating Theatre would be delayed, the note said, and Edna could expect its arrival in Bath in another day or two. Disappointed, but eager for the boat's appearance, Edna decided to take a room for the night. "My heart sank," she remembered, "as I ascended the broken stairway behind my large and puffing landlady. In the heel of each stocking, above the open-back flat slippers, was a hole the size of a silver dollar."
She opened the door of my room. In contrast with the fresh April air outside the room smelled of mice, mold, and mankind. My eye leaped to the bed. Then, boldly, I crossed to it and turned down the dingy covers. My worst fears realized, I turned an accusing glare upon my landlady.
"What's the matter"? she demanded.
"D'ye mean you want them changed"? she asked, with that touch of irritation one might show if a guest were to demand why her own monogram did not appear on the hotel linen.
"I do," I replied with dignity and finality. "It is, I believe, customary."
Grudgingly she began to strip the bed under my stern eye. She muttered as she worked. "Only been slept in by my own daughter, and she only used 'em once. She teaches school and comes home, sometimes. Saturdays. Only slept in 'em last Saturday night, fresh."
"Nevertheless--" I said, firmly.
That night I slept practically suspended in midair, defying the law of gravity . . . Little icy-footed mice skipped back and forth and chattered vixenishly in the wainscotings"
After a restless night, Edna rose at the crack of dawn and went downstairs. She sat sleepy-eyed at the breakfast table, but not for long. Her breakfast was a "grisly meal" that consisted of "an indefinable slab of blue meat floating in greenish grease." Her coffee was "black liquid mud," and it took her dulled senses a moment to realize that a can labeled "Klim" actually featured the word "Milk" spelled backwards. Edna left this "lethal collation" untouched and wandered out into the fresh air of Bath.
She walked a quarter of a mile to a small crossroads store. "The musty little shop, as its doorbell dingled," she noticed, "assailed your nostrils with the mingled odors of kerosene, mice, broomstraw, tobacco juice and dampness." Here Edna bought a slab of milk chocolate, a box of "dampish crackers," and a bag of "last winter's apples." She decided to forego the cheese, but her meager supplies kept her satisfied for the rest of the day and part of the next.
Bath's postmaster, H. N. Roper, gave Edna a tour of the small village. Back at Ormond's, Roper also cleared a path through the underbrush so Edna could visit the graves of the old Palmer and Marsh families. She signed the guest register at St. Thomas Church, and perused the inscriptions on the ancient tombstones in the churchyard: "The old, old inscriptions were in Early English script with the letter 's' done with the flourish of the letter 'f.' All the hardships and tears and hopes and fears of the struggling American Colonies could be pieced together from the reading of those weather-worn annals."
The next morning, Roper's son ferried the author across Bath Creek to Plum Point. It was there that the notorious pirate Edward Teach — better known as Blackbeard — had briefly made a home for himself more than 200 years earlier. Miss Ferber paid her young guide fifty cents for his trouble.
On her third morning in Bath, Edna finally beheld the arrival of the massive show boat. The "James Adams Floating Palace Theatre came floating majestically down the Pamlico and tied up alongside the rickety dock." The craft was enormous. Painted white with dark trim, the flat-bottomed vessel was 132 feet long, 34 feet wide, and drew 14 inches of water. The long rectangular barge — a full two stories high — kindled in Edna Ferber all of the romance and river lore that her studies had yielded thus far: "There began, for me, four of the most enchanting days I've ever known."
Edna quickly attached herself to the Hunters and the boat's crew. "Show folks," she marvelled. "My heart leaped toward them; like Tiny Tim [from Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol] I loved them every one, from Jo, the colored cook, to the pilot of the tugboat."
Relishing the experience, Edna lived, played, worked, rehearsed, and ate with the theater company. She took turns selling tickets at the box office window, and "watched the Carolina countryside straggle in, white and colored." And she remembered the words of Winthrop Ames, who the year before had joked of riding the rivers on a show boat and never going home again.
Charles and Beulah Hunter gave up their own comfortable bedroom on the boat so that their distinguished guest would feel at home.
"It was such a dear room. Maybe I only pretended not to know it was really theirs. A large square bright room, with four windows looking out upon the placid river and the green shores. Crisp dimity curtains flirted their pert ruffles. There was a big square wooden bed, a washbowl and pitcher, a low rocking chair, a little shining black iron wood stove. If wishing were transportation I'd be back there now."
The company numbered ten. There was an ingénue, a juvenile lead, a character team, a general business team, a "heavy," and a general utility man. Several members of the tugboat crew played in the band. Charles and Beulah were of course the stars of the show. Edna was all eyes and ears as she soaked up sights and scenes that would soon find their way into print.
"It seemed to me a lovely life as we floated down the river." The Hunters explained to Edna that the boat might play a new town every night, or it might stay a week in one location. The boat's dining room was directly beneath the performance stage, and Edna found the food to be "abundant, well cooked, and clean" — a far cry from her recent experience at the Ormond Boarding House in Bath. The dressing rooms doubled as sleeping rooms for the troupe, and the large auditorium featured a balcony for African American patrons. "New York was another planet," mused Edna. "I slept in the cool airy bedroom, lulled by the purr of the water against the boat."
The players rehearsed in the daytime and performed at night. This arrangement amused Edna, for it was the source of a constant feud between the actors and the tugboat crew. The players — with music, talk, and laughter — often kept the crew awake at night. The crew, in turn, was loud with early daylight activity that disrupted the morning sleep of the bleary-eyed actors.
"The supine South lay green along the Pamlico shores. No sign of commerce marred the scene; no smoking factory chimneys; sometimes for hours no glimpse of habitation." And from one remote dock to another, Edna Ferber turned a keen eye upon the patrons of the Adams Floating Theatre:
The audiences were remote in type from anything that Chicago or New York had ever heard about. Their ancestors lay now in the little North Carolina churchyards, with beautiful English names engraved dimly on the tombstones and the vaults inside the crumbling churches . . . . Many of these towns were twenty, thirty, thirty-five miles from a railroad. As I watched the audiences I saw, in the dim-lighted auditorium, faces that might have stepped out of a portrait two hundred years old.
Stark descriptions of these rustic audiences would emerge in Edna's forthcoming novel — a story which began to take shape as Miss Ferber lived among the Adams troupe.
The bustle of activity on the show boat seemed endless, and Edna was forced to wait patiently for one of her most anticipated sources of information. Charles Hunter was a busy man. Not only was he the star of the show, but he was also the director — and he wrote many of their plays as well. Amid constant distractions, Edna's efforts to corner an eager Mr. Hunter for an interview were thwarted. Finally, on the morning of her fourth day on the vessel, Charles and Edna sat down in the corner bedroom for a meeting in which he regaled her with "his store of river lore and showboat experience."
Miss Ferber scratched furiously on a pad of yellow note paper as Charles Hunter, smoking steadily, spun his tale for Edna. "It was a stream of pure gold," she confessed. "Incidents, characters, absurdities, drama, tragedies, river lore, theatrical wisdom poured forth in that quiet flexible voice. He looked, really, more like a small-town college professor lecturing to a backward student than like a show-boat actor."
They spent the whole day together, and as Edna filled one sheet of paper with notes she would number it, tear it off, and begin another. Evening came and went, and as dusk gave way to nightfall, the floor around Edna's chair was littered with yellow pages. And scattered about her feet were the makings of an American classic.
"By the time he had finished," Miss Ferber wrote of Charles Hunter, "I had a treasure-trove of show-boat material, human, touching, true. I was (and am) in his everlasting debt."
As her time with the Adams troupe drew to a close, Edna thanked her hosts and asked Charles Hunter what she could do to repay his kindness.
"Send me a [copy of] So Big with your name in it," Mr. Hunter replied cheerfully. And with that, Edna Ferber left the Adams Floating Theatre and returned to her home in New York.
Overcome with gratitude, the author wrote a check for the Hunters and slipped it into the autographed copy of her novel, So Big, when she sent it to Charles. Touched by the gesture, Mr. Hunter pasted the check in the flyleaf of the book and wrote a reply to Edna: "If I ever need it I'll write and ask if it's all right to cash it. Who Knows?"
Within a few years the Adams Floating Theatre would fall on hard times. It sank on a couple of occasions, but was raised and restored. It also endured damage from hurricanes and fire. It was after one of the sinking mishaps that Charles Hunter finally cashed Edna's check, "and I wish it had been double its size," she lamented.
The Adams Floating Theatre was the last active show boat in operation in America. It changed owners in the 1930s, with Mr. Hunter staying on as manager. But gradually, the "old-fashioned hokum" and melodrama offered by flesh-and-blood show boat actors lost its luster compared to the magic of motion pictures. And the floating theater quickly became a thing of the past.
Edna Ferber's determined efforts, however, would soon immortalize the show boat and the lifestyle of its players.
A few weeks after returning from her journey to North Carolina, Edna Ferber sailed for Europe in the early summer of 1925. Seeking an ideal setting to begin work on her new novel, the writer took up residence in the beautiful seaside resort of St. Jean de Luz, on the Cote Basque, in southwestern France. Tucked in the Basses-Pyrénées near the border with Spain, the ancient little fishing port was just the location Edna was looking for.
Settled comfortably in her "big bright room" at the Golf Hotel, Edna soaked in the sights and sounds of St. Jean de Luz. Beyond her French doors and balcony lay the blue waters of the Bay of Biscay. And against a backdrop of boats in the harbor, faint shouts from beach goers, and orchestral music from a nearby casino, Edna began to write.
There was something dreamlike, unreal, about the scene. It was right for the writing of Show Boat . . . . I knew a kind of deep peace and contentment as I pulled my typewriter toward me, slumped unhealthily down on my spine, and began the first page of many months' work.
For the next full year — writing in St. Jean de Luz, in Paris, and in New York — Edna Ferber crafted her engaging tale of a show boat family and its odyssey through the heart of America.
Show Boat is a sweeping tale of maternal oppression, love, disillusionment, and desertion — all in the life of the beautiful Magnolia Ravenal and her traveling show boat family. The novel spans fifty years between the 1870s and the 1920s — from Magnolia's life on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, through married life in Chicago, to her ultimate return to the show boat.
Magnolia's father, the jovial and harried Captain Andy Hawkes, provides a rough-and-tumble foundation of love and support for his young daughter as she grows up on the rivers. Having watched the troupe for all of her young life, Magnolia eventually joins the cast of the floating theater. The girl's mother is the indomitable Parthenia "Parthy" Ann Hawkes — a grim and brooding woman who is never fully at peace with her existence on the rivers; and who is mortified that daughter "Maggie" is exposed to questionable characters and the lifestyles of the river players. Magnolia, of course, relishes her life. She is fascinated by, and attached to, the various actors on her father's massive show boat — the Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theatre.
Magnolia's future takes a decided turn when a dashing riverboat gambler, Gaylord Ravenal, bluffs his way onto the Cotton Blossom as an actor. As Gaylord throws himself into his role as a leading man, he at once clicks with Andy and clashes with the oppressive Parthy. And naturally, Magnolia falls head over heels and marries the young rogue. The marriage frees Magnolia from her stern and domineering mother, but merely sets her on a different course toward disillusionment. Abandoned by Ravenal, Magnolia eventually returns to her roots, and takes her mother's place aboard the Cotton Blossom. The couple's only child, Kim (a successful Broadway actress), tries in vain to get Magnolia to give up the show boat. The rivers had shown Magnolia great happiness and deep sorrow over the years. And in the end, the show boat was her real home — just as it had been for Captain Andy and Parthenia.
The colorful backdrop for this moving tale emerged from Edna Ferber's rich imagination, and from four joyful days spent upon North Carolina waters aboard the James Adams Floating Theatre. "Those four days," she wrote, "comprised the only show-boat experience I ever had . . . . Though I never yet have been on the Mississippi I know and feel that mighty river. I know my descriptions of the South I've never seen, of the river and its people, are sound and true."
The author's descriptions of the Cotton Blossom's physical features owe their detail to the James Adams. And the idea for Gaylord Ravenal's descent from Tennessee aristocracy came to Miss Ferber as she stood among the graves at St. Thomas Church in Bath. An inscription reproduced in Show Boat was a verbatim transcription of the epitaph of Mrs. Margaret Palmer (wife of Robert Palmer), who was interred to the right of the altar in St. Thomas Church:
Here lies the body of Mrs. Suzanne Ravenal, wife of Jean Baptista Ravenal Esqr. one of his Majesty's Council and Surveyor General of the Lands of this Province, who departed this life Octr. 19t. 1765. Aged 37 years. After labouring ten of them under the severest Bodily afflictions brought on by Change of Climate, and tho' she went to her native land received no relief but returned and bore them with uncommon Resolution and Resignation to the last.
At the end of the novel, the description of Kim's bumpy journey in a rattletrap Ford to see her mother (in an effort to get her to give up the show boat) is taken directly from Miss Ferber's own initial trip to see the James Adams in Bath.
The novel was a labor of love, and its degree success caught Edna Ferber off guard. "It doesn't seem right," she mused, "that anyone ever had so much sheer fun, gaiety, novelty, satisfaction and money out of the writing of any one piece of work as I have had out of Show Boat." But the story — published in book form after it appeared serially in the Woman's Home Companion — was not without controversy. "Lawsuits," wrote Edna, "pelted me as with a shower of stones."
Reviews were mixed, and a number of individuals — including river captains and saloon keepers — took the story personally and felt that their professions had been slandered.
The story also dealt frankly with the subject of miscegenation — the occurrence of marriage or cohabitation among people of different races. Ferber's treatment of actress Julie Dozier (a mulatto woman) and her husband, Steve, was inspired by one of the many tales that Charles Hunter shared with Edna aboard the James Adams. In a dramatic scene in Show Boat, as a local sheriff is sent to arrest Julie, Steve quickly cuts her finger and sucks her blood. He then proudly proclaims that he is part Negro — because in the Old South "one drop of Negro blood" made a person Negro in the eyes of society. Julie — who is a cherished friend of the young Magnolia — is spared from the sheriff's clutches, but she is forced to leave the Cotton Blossom. Under Parthy's disapproving eye, a tearful Magnolia runs after the departing Julie in a sad and awkward goodbye.
Years later, after Show Boat had been written and Edna Ferber had published her memoirs, a few citizens of Bath began to take a dim view of the writer and her association with their town. Miss Ferber's less-than-flattering descriptions of the old Ormond Boarding House (as the Palmer-Marsh House was then known) were not appreciated. And soon there were whisperings about Miss Ferber's taking freely of the history and atmosphere of St. Thomas Church without so much as a donation to the rectory.
Nevertheless, the novel was a smash. And it was not long before the story received widespread treatment as a musical play, a radio program, and at least four separate motion pictures.
Miss Ferber initially resented the idea of a musical adaptation of her novel. But she signed a contract in November 1926, and was quickly won over by Jerome Kern's beautiful score, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. One of the compositions written for Show Boat has become an icon of Broadway and cinematic song. It stirs the emotions. "I must break down and confess," admitted Edna, "to being one of those whose eyes grow dreamy and whose mouth is wreathed in wistful smiles whenever the orchestra — any orchestra — plays Ol' Man River . . . . I never have tired of it . . . . And I consider Oscar Hammerstein's lyric to Ol' Man River to be powerful, native, tragic, and true."
When Kern first played and sang the song for Edna, "I give you my word," she confessed, "my hair stood on end, the tears came to my eyes, I breathed like a heroine in a melodrama. This was great music. This was music that would outlast Jerome Kern's day and mine."
And so it has.
Article by Mark A. Moore
Ferber, Edna. A Peculiar Treasure (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1938, 1939); Edna Ferber's autobiography.
Ferber, Edna. Show Boat (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1926); Novel.
Lawing, Michelle F. "Edna Ferber's Visit to Bath," an unpublished research report, North Carolina Historic Sites (Raleigh: North Carolina Office of Archives & History, 1979).
Wilmer, Ann. "The Last Showboat," The State. November 1988.File, "James Adams Floating Theatre," Research Branch, North Carolina Office of Archives & History.
Selected Notable Works by Edna Ferber (b. 1885 - d. 1968):
1911 — Dawn O'Hara
1912 — Buttered Side Down (short stories)
1915 — Emma McChesney and Co.
1917 — Fanny Herself
1924 — So Big
1926 — Show Boat
1927 — Mother Knows Best (stories)
1929 — Cimarron
1931 — American Beauty
1938 — Stage Door (play, with George S. Kaufman)
1939 — A Peculiar Treasure (autobiography)
1941 — The Land Is Bright (with G. S. Kaufman)
1949 — One Basket (short stories)
1949 — Bravo (with G. S. Kaufman)
1952 — Giant
1963 — A Kind of Magic (autobiography)
* In the summer of 1989 the Palmer-Marsh House at Bath — where Edna Ferber stayed in 1925 — experienced its own invasion of bats.