Jean Webster, Author of Daddy-Long-Legs

Jean Webster

Jean Webster (July 24, 1876 – June 11, 1916) was an American author best known for her enduring girls’ novel, Daddy-Long-Legs (1912), which was successfully dramatized two years after its publication.

Her fiction reveals her dedication to social welfare and her characters often triumph over destitution and injustice.

Born Alice Jane Chandler Webster in Fredonia, New York, the name Jean was acquired later, as a young woman. Her parents, Charles Webster and Annie Moffett Webster, were married in 1875; Alice was their firstborn.


A childhood as Alice

Alice didn’t brag about her great-uncle, Samuel Clemens, who was becoming famous as author Mark Twain — Pamela, in the photograph, being his sister, Jane his mother.

Unsurprisingly, Alice’s childhood was an artistic one. Her grandmother had been a music teacher and “from her earliest childhood, books, and those of the best” surrounded Alice.

Twain established the publishing house Charles L. Webster and Company and appointed Alice’s father as its business manager in 1884 out of frustration with his previous publishers’ delays and royalties. Also in 1884, Alice’s brother Samuel was born, the family’s youngest of three; there were eight years between Samuel and Alice, five years between her and William.

The firm found tremendous success with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and The Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, which Charles was instrumental in soliciting, having previously met Grant while working as an engineer out west.

The extended family now lived in New York City during the year and Long Island in the summer. But Charles’ work was increasingly demanding; networking with the firm’s agents required lengthy and frequent travel.

His health declined in concert with the firm’s fortunes, and although Twain reinvested profits, in 1888, he severed his working relationship with Charles. When Alice was fifteen, in 1891, her father committed suicide.


Public and boarding school, and becoming Jean

After Alice graduated from Fredonia Normal School in 1894, she boarded at Lady Jane Grey School in Binghamton for two years where she was taught academics, music, art, letter-writing, diction, and manners.

Here, she became “Jean” to distinguish herself from her roommate Alice, and had many of the experiences she would immortalize in her Patty stories.

In 1896, she returned to Fredonia Normal School for one year, before attending Vassar College in 1897 — class of 1901. There, she met Adelaide Crapsey, also her roommate and a poet, who became the model for Patty (and, later, Judy).

At Vassar, Jean studied English and Economics, including welfare and penal reform, which led her to work at the College Settlement House; observing class inequities indelibly marked her literary pursuits.


Embarking on the writing life

In the course of publishing short works at Vassar, Jean concealed her connection to Twain, relying on her own merits in approaching an editor at the Poughkeepsie Sunday Courier during her sophomore year. She proposed a weekly Vassar-themed column:

“He looked me over dubiously, and asked if I knew how to write. I told him I did, and that my roommates were pretty good spellers; and I thought between us we could turn out a column a week of chatty news, and that I could go home and try, and he would see how he liked it. I cut my classes more or less during the next week, and succeeded in producing quite a chatty column.”

She describes this in the Vassar Quarterly, along with their unanticipated follow-up discussion about rates, during which Jean hastily suggested $3/week (based on a figure she’d heard was equal to a servant’s weekly wages). She and her roommates celebrated at the Smith Brothers restaurant next door.

The Courier columns developed Jean’s work ethic: she prioritized truthfulness, avoided abbreviations, and elaborated on ordinary stories to make deadlines.

During her junior year, she continued with the Courier, but also spent a semester in Europe: briefly in the UK and France, and extensively in Italy, where she developed her thesis “Pauperism in Italy” and researched for fiction. While traveling with two other Vassar students, she also met and established enduring friendships with Ethelyn McKinney and Lena Weinstein there.

After graduation, she wrote for magazines and assembled her school stories into a manuscript. “Much of her writing was no more than a magazine editor, in search of a Christmas story or of a trifle for a hammock on a sunny day, would pay for—a romance, a melodrama or a detective story,” according to biographers Alan and Mary Simpson.

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Orphans and Boarding Schools: On Rereading Daddy-Long-Legs
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Italy and other travels

After securing a publisher for When Patty Went to College (1903), Jean visited Italy again with her mother. Tis first was the only book of Jean’s that her great-uncle read; Twain described it as “limpid, bright, sometimes brilliant; it is easy, flowing, effortless, and brimming with girlish spirits … Its humour is genuine, and not often overstrained.” (“Jean Webster.” Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers)

In Italy, Jean worked casually on short stories (which would appear in 1909’s Much Ado about Peter), concertedly on The Wheat Princess (1905), and deepened her attachment to the country, also the setting for her romance, Jerry Junior (1909), about Americans in Italy.

Jean Webster and her friends believed The Wheat Princess contained her best writing, according to Elizabeth Cutting. EMD’s review in the Vassar paper says: “The book is rapid and interesting reading, not once throughout does the attention wander or flag.”

The next year, Jean traveled with Ethelyn and Lena again, to Ireland — with Ethelyn’s older brother. Jean and Glenn concealed their romantic attachment because Glenn was married to, and had a son with, Annette Raynaud; Annette’s frequent hospitalizations for manic depression complicated their divorce.

Jean spent winters in New York City apartments, occasionally attending literary events, and summers in New England farmhouses. Her literary reputation grew, culminating in 1912, when Daddy-Long-Legs, which began the previous summer in Tyringham, MA was serialized in the Ladies’ Home Journal. It was then published as a novel.


Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy

This story about an orphan who writes letters to her anonymous gentleman benefactor, complete with hand-drawn illustrations and a sense of humor, was a grand success. The following summer, Jean began to dramatize Judy’s story for Henry Miller, who produced it for Broadway in the fall of 1914. Jean’s friend Adelaide became ill and died from tuberculosis during that October.

The show ran for 300 performances in New York City with more than 175,000 attendees. After its run ended in May 1915, it toured widely throughout the U.S. and included the sale of Judy dolls, which funded the adoption of orphans into families.

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Mary Pickford in Daddy Long Legs

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Later, Mary Pickford would purchase the film rights and star on-screen; many other screen and stage productions succeeded: most notably in 1955 with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron, and most recently in 2015, off-Broadway.

Dear Enemy (1915) built on that success. Ruth Danenhower’s review in the May 1916 Vassar Quarterly acknowledges that some might object that Sallie is “simply Judy of Daddy-Long-Legs fame over again” but she was “glad to meet Judy again under any other name, and hope she will have many more reincarnations.”

The next September, Jean married Ethelyn’s brother, Glenn Ford McKinney — son of John Luke McKinney, a co-founder of Standard Oil. Glenn was a high-school valedictorian who later studied law at Princeton but wasn’t close with his father.

Even so, after his death, Glenn’s estate was valued at more than a million dollars in 1934. Glenn practiced law and the couple first lived together in a New York City apartment, overlooking Central Park, but soon settled on Tymor Farm, Union Vale.

The following June, Jean with her friends Ethelyn and Lena — attended Sloan Hospital for Women in New York City; Glenn was recalled from his Princeton reunion and arrived ninety minutes before Jean gave birth to their daughter. She was named Little Jean in honor of her mother, who died the next morning at 7:30, of “childbirth fever.”

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Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster

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A room at the Girls’ Service League in NYC and a bed at the county branch of the New York Orthopedic Hospital (near White Plains), were endowed in Jean Webster’s memory. (American Dictionary of Biography)

In June 1927, a bronze statue called “The Awakening” was erected in Greenwich’s Putnam Cemetery, when Little Jean lived with her aunt, Miss Ethelyn McKinney, described in the New York Times as “slightly larger than life, recumbent figure of a woman, her right arm raised as though to lift a veil, on a pedestal of polished black Swedish granite, with delicate drapery and wreath of laurel about the head.”

In 1977, Jean Webster McKinney Connor donated fifty-two boxes to Vassar College. The Jean Webster Papers included “some correspondence to friends and family, college notebooks, travel journals, as well as later notebooks filled with story ideas, suggestions, and drafts.” In 1981, the Jean Webster Faculty Salary Fund was established, which would later develop into the Jean Webster Chair.

In March 2014, the Vassar Quarterly reported that Daddy-Long-Legs inspired Yoshimi Tamai to establish a children’s charity:  “The novel, immensely popular in Japan, was greatly inspiring to Ashinaga founder Yoshiomi Tamai, who created the organization to provide education and psychological support to children around the world who have lost one or both parents. The foundation runs programs in Japan for those who have lost parents in the earthquake and tsunami that struck the region in 2011, and in Uganda for those who have lost parents to HIV/AIDS.”

Contributed by Marcie McCauley, a graduate of the University of Western Ontario and the Humber College Creative Writing Program. She writes and reads (mostly women writers!) in Toronto, Canada. And she chats about it on Buried In Print and @buriedinprint.

More about Jean Webster

Major Works

  • When Patty Went to College (1903)
  • Wheat Princess (1905)
  • Jerry Junior (1907)
  • The Four Pools Mystery (1908)
  • Much Ado About Peter (1909)
  • Just Patty (1911)
  • Daddy-Long-Legs (1912)
  • Dear Enemy (1915)

More information

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