After living in Chicago, Illinois and Ottumwa, Iowa, at age 12 Ferber and her family moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, where she graduated from high school and briefly attended Lawrence University. She took newspaper jobs at the Appleton Daily Crescent and the Milwaukee Journal before publishing her first novel. She covered the 1920 Republican and Democratic national conventions for the United Press Association.
Due to her imagination in scene, characterization and plot, several theatrical and film productions have been made based on her works, including Show Boat, Giant, Saratoga Trunk, Cimarron (which won an Oscar) and the 1960 remake. Two of these works - Show Boat and Saratoga Trunk - were developed into musicals. When composer Jerome Kern proposed turning the very serious Show Boat into a musical, Ferber was shocked, thinking it would be transformed into a typical light entertainment of the 1920s, and it was not until Kern explained that he and Oscar Hammerstein II wanted to create a different type of musical that Ferber granted him the rights. Saratoga (musical) was written at a much later date, after serious plots had become acceptable in stage musicals.
In 1925, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her book So Big, which was made into a silent film starring Colleen Moore that same year. An early talkie movie remake followed, in 1932, starring Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent, with Bette Davis in a supporting role. It was the only movie Stanwyck and Davis ever appeared in together, and Stanwyck played Davis' mother-in-law, although only a year older in real life, which allegedly displeased her, as did the attitude of the hoydenish Davis. A 1953 remake of So Big starred Jane Wyman in the Stanwyck role, and is the version most often seen today.
Ferber was a member of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of wits who met for lunch every day at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. Ferber and another member of the Round Table, Alexander Woollcott, were long-time enemies, their antipathy lasting until Woollcott's death in 1943, although Howard Teichmann states in his biography of Woollcott that this was due to a misunderstanding. According to Teichmann, Ferber once described Woollcott as "a New Jersey Nero who has mistaken his pinafore for a toga."
Edna Ferber died on April 16, 1968, at her home in New York City, of cancer, at the age of 82. The New York Times said, "she was among the best-read novelists in the nation, and critics of the 1920s and 1930s did not hesitate to call her the greatest American woman novelist of her day." Said second cousin Jonathan Ferber of her passing, "The legacy of dear Edna shall live on in her words. We must never forget all that she has given to us."
Ferber had no children, never married, and is not known to have engaged in a romance or sexual relationship with anyone of either gender. In her early novel Dawn O'Hara, the title character's aunt is said to have remarked, "Being an old maid was a great deal like death by drowning -- a really delightful sensation when you ceased struggling." Ferber did take a maternal interest in the career of her niece Janet Fox, an actress who performed in the original Broadway casts of Ferber's plays Dinner at Eight and Stage Door.
Ferber was portrayed by Lili Taylor in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. In 2002 in her hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin, the U.S. Postal Service issued an 83-cent commemorative stamp as part of the "Distinguished Americans" series. Artist Mark Summers, well known for his scratchboard technique, created this portrait for the stamp referencing a black-and-white photograph of Ferber taken in 1927.
Musicals adapted from Ferber novels: