Jean Webster

Genres - Romance, Comedy, Musical, Drama

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Jean Webster was an author and playwright who achieved prominence in the early twentieth century. Two of her stories have proved especially fruitful to movie and television producers, and one of them, the novel Daddy-Long-Legs, has been remade several times. Born Alice Jane Chandler Webster in Fredonia, NY, in 1876, she came from a family with strong literary ties. Her mother was the niece of author Samuel Clemens and her father was Clemens' business manager and later his publisher. She grew up in a strongly matriarchal home, led by parents and grandparents who were heavily involved in the causes of the day, including racial justice and women's rights. The female influence in the family was only heighened by the death of her father when Webster was in her teens. She attended the Lady Jane Grey School, which later served as the basis for the setting of one of her books. It was also there, because she had a roommate named Alice, where she picked up the first name Jean, which she used for the rest of her life. She attended Vassar College, majoring in English and economics, and became involved with social reform. Webster became deeply concerned with the cause of the destitute in New York, especially homeless, orphaned, and delinquent children. It was also during her time at Vassar that the seeds of her novel Daddy-Long-Legs were planted. She later worked as a journalist, always with a strong sociological angle to her writing, and continued writing fiction. When Patty Went to College (1903) was unusual at the time of its publication, as one of the earliest, if not the very first popular book to describe college life for women. Her work also benefitted from her subsequent extensive travels, which included visits to the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.

Daddy-Long-Legs, telling of an orphaned girl who finds her own resourcefulness and receives an education with help from a mysterious benefactor, was published in 1912. It was an immediate critical and commercial success, the latter sufficient to merit the interest of theatrical producers, and Webster transposed it to the stage during the following year, and, indeed, the first touring production starred a very young Ruth Chatterton, an actress later renowned for her performances in plays such as Dodsworth and in movies such as Female (1933). The book and play proved popular enough to yield merchandise tie-ins, and these were sold to support Webster's charitable concerns. In 1915, Webster married Glenn McKinney in what looked to be a happy and loving union, which took a tragic turn the following year. On June 10, 1916, she entered the Sloan Hospital for Women in New York and gave birth to a daughter. All seemed well, but after an initially promising recovery, Jean Webster died early the following day. Three years after her death, Daddy-Long-Legs was filmed for the first time, with Mary Pickford as the star, and another of her stories became the Shirley Temple vehicle Curly Top (1931). Daddy-Long-Legs has been adapted several times since, most notably in 1955 (as Daddy Long Legs) by director Jean Negulesco as a vehicle for Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron; the sequel, Dear Enemy, has also been adapted into a television miniseries. Despite her early death and limited output, Webster is still one of the most widely read and recognized of woman authors of the early twentieth century, and Daddy-Long-Legs remains in print in the twenty first century.