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Daddy-Long-Legs & Dear Enemy, Page 2

Jean Webster


  Jean Webster

  P.S.—I am sure I shall make an intelligent juror. I never read the papers. J. W.

  She received a letter in response reiterating that she had to appear for jury duty or face a $250 fine. After asking ten lawyers for legal advice, Webster went to court on the appointed day, and was excused.8

  Meanwhile, her literary career continued, with the publication of The Four Pools Mystery (1908), Much Ado About Peter (1909), and Just Patty (1911). But Daddy-Long-Legs, published in 1912, became the major triumph of her career, an instant and overwhelming success both in the United States and abroad in translation. In one sense, it was about her affair with McKinney; dedicated “To You,” it celebrates the epistolary romance. In another sense, one critic argues, it is “the ideal love story” of a feminist: “a girl is brought by a distinguished man to absolute independence and is then in a position to have an equal relationship with him.”9

  In 1914, Webster turned the novel into a stage play starring Ruth Chatterton. It was “the biggest dramatic hit in the country,” and after an extensive run at New York’s Gaiety Theatre, played in Minneapolis, Atlantic City, Chicago, and Washington, as well as touring California and London.10 In Chicago, it ran for twenty-five weeks to full houses, and it was performed at the Opera House in Poughkeepsie at the special request of Vassar students.

  Webster’s papers at Vassar College contain her descriptions of each act and her summaries of the main characters. Without the confines of the first-person epistolary mode, Webster is more explicit and didactic about her intentions. In particular, she stresses Judy’s innate and perhaps genetic gifts. While the “orphans as a body represent a dead level of mediocrity, the result of bad environment and in some cases bad heredity ... Judy stands out in striking contrast.” She “rises out of the mass, original, resourceful, courageous.... She emerges from her dark background, throws off the trammels that have bound her down and daringly faces life.... There is an element of revolt in her nature, a spirit of fight which makes her a fierce little rebel against injustice.”11

  Daddy-Long-Legs inspired much interest in the plight of orphans. In 1915 Woman’s World reported,

  The book has aroused public interest in the lot of the lonely and homeless children of the asylums, and many well to do people, inspired by the example of Daddy Longlegs [sic] of the story, have come forward to adopt or bear the burden of the expense of educating one or more orphans. It is said a wealthy New York bachelor has thus adopted forty children. The New York State Charities Aid Society found so many requests for orphans for adoption coming in after the publication of the book that they appointed a special committee to look after the applications.

  Webster encouraged this interest in orphans with the production of thousands of Daddy-Long-Legs dolls, each carrying a message about the needs of children in institutions, which were sold in 150 cities of forty states. Webster was among the most highly paid women writers in the United States. As the author of five best sellers in addition to Daddy-Long-Legs, she earned book royalties averaging more than $10,000 a year. Royalties from the productions of Daddy-Long-Legs, averaging almost $2,000 per week, vaulted her into a whole different league of earnings.

  At the height of her celebrity, Webster published her sequel to Daddy-Long-Legs, another novel-in-letters called Dear Enemy. In her letters, Judy Abbott returns frequently to her dreams of an ideal orphan asylum: “Wait till you see the orphan asylum that I’m going to be the head of! It’s my favorite play at night before I go to sleep. I plan it out to the littlest detail—the meals and clothes and study and amusements and punishments; for even my superior orphans are sometimes bad.” Judy becomes a writer and a mother instead, but she persuades her college roommate Sallie McBride to take over the John Grier Home. Sallie brings her experience as a social and settlement worker to John Grier, and has to contend with the resident doctor Sandy MacRae, a dour Scot who believes in heredity defects and genetics above environment.

  Dear Enemy shows the evolution in Webster’s thinking about these issues, and addresses questions of heredity in a more sophisticated fashion than does Daddy-Long-Legs, with its tributes to Judy’s uniqueness. MacRae and his cohorts are eugenicists who ask whether children’s destinies have been set from birth by bad heredity. Could even those children, if brought up in a good, loving family, turn out all right in the end? What could be done about alcoholism, retardation, even crime? He makes Sallie read the studies of inbreeding popular in the period, horror tales of the degenerate and feeble-minded inbred Jukes and Kallikaks, and starts her thinking about weeding out defectives.

  But Sallie has her own ideas about child care. As she declares, “Orphan-asylums have gone out of style. What I am going to develop is a boarding-school for the physical, moral, and mental growth of children whose parents have not been able to provide for their care.” She emphasizes environment—colorful surroundings, fresh air, appetizing food, pretty clothes for the girls, an Indian-style Adirondack camp for the boys, and self-esteem, private property, and vocational training for all. Sadie Kate Kilcoyne, a feisty orphan, emerges in Dear Enemy as a leader in the next generation of intelligent women. She is, like Judy and Sallie, imaginative, playful, and, perhaps most importantly, a good letter writer. With Sadie Kate’s help, Sallie succeeds in converting the doctor, as well as the children and the Trustees to her methods.

  There are elements of Dear Enemy that are also disguised autobiography. Dr. MacRae is married to a woman who “went insane” and had to be institutionalized, as did their little girl. His wife conveniently dies in time for him to court Sallie. Real life was harsher. In June 1915, McKinney’s wife divorced him on the grounds of desertion. Although divorce was no scandal in Greenwich Village, Webster chose to keep the wedding modest and small. She asked her friend Mrs. Joseph W. Lewis of St. Louis to plan the small September 7, 1915, ceremony. Her only attendants were Lewis’s little son and daughter. After the wedding the McKinneys lived in Manhattan, and at his farm in Dutchess County, New York, where they raised ducks and pheasants.

  Tragically, this idyll did not last long. Webster died from complications of childbirth less than a year after her marriage, only a few hours after the birth of her daughter, Jean Webster McKinney, who survived. Uterine fibroids were cited as the cause in some reports; certainly having a first child at the age of forty carried more risk in 1916 than it does today. Webster’s obituary and birth announcement for her daughter appeared side by side in the newspaper.

  Following her death, Webster’s reputation waned; but Daddy-Long-Legs has been made into three film versions. Despite Webster’s emphasis on Judy’s rebellious spirit, these films make her less central as a character and allow her less agency in changing people and institutions. In the popular 1919 silent film, starring Mary Pickford, more than half the time is given to Judy’s childhood in the orphanage. According to Variety, “The punch of the picture is not in the love story of Judy growing up, falling in love with her guardian, and eventually marrying him, but in the pathos of the wistful little Judy, with her heart full of love, being constantly misunderstood—extracting joy through the instructive ‘mothering’ of the other little orphans.”12 The 1931 version, starring Janet Gaynor, is also more of a Cinderella story, with Judy as the poor orphan girl who marries a rich man. The best-known movie treatment is the 1955 musical, with Leslie Caron and Fred Astaire. Caron, as a sweet, passive French version of Judy named Julie André, seems bizarrely out of place at Walston, an American women’s college of the 1950s with the students in beanies and tight-waisted dresses. Astaire is the rogue scion of the Pendleton family, who plays the drums when he is taking a break from advising the French government on its economy. In his New York mansion/family museum, we see his grandfather, Jervis Pendleton, painted by Whistler; his father, Jervis Pendleton II, painted by Sargent; and his own portrait by Picasso. Johnny Mercer wrote one of his best songs, “Something’s Gotta Give,” for the screen romance of Judy and Jervis; but
the description of Judy as an “irresistible force” seems peculiar in light of Caron’s kittenish and saccharine performance.

  But Judy Abbott and Sallie McBride were indeed irresistible forces who bowled over both their suitors and their antagonists with their intelligence, imagination, high spirits, determination, and grit. They were part of a new wave of American heroines in the twentieth century, feisty and fast-talking dames whose refusal to kowtow to men marked their independence and charm rather than hostility or prudishness. This kind of heroine flourished particularly in the movies; as Karen Alkalay-Gut suggests, “the concept of playful, combative, and productive partnerships between a man and a woman in American novels and film ... from Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy to the present, ... was first ... fixed by Webster.”13 With their colloquial language, cartoon-like illustrations, and frank descriptions of their lives, problems, and feelings, Judy and Sallie can be seen as precursors of today’s endearing singletons and bachelorettes, from Cathy Guisewaite’s popular comic-strip heroine, to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, with her diary, and her hordes of scribbling sisters and imitators. Webster contributed a mixture of seriousness of purpose and playfulness of expression to the portrait of the New Woman that is as fresh and modern as it was a century ago, and should delight a new generation of readers.


  1. Karen Alkalay-Gut, “Jean Webster,”

  2. Jean Webster McKinney Papers, Vassar College, Box 25, Folder 1.

  3. Elizabeth Daniels, “Vassar History,” http://vassun,

  4. Quoted in Karen Alkalay-Gut, Alone in the Dawn: The Life of Adelaide Crapsey, Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1988, 119.

  5. Jean Webster McKinney Papers, Vassar College, Box 25, Folder 1; unidentified clipping from 1907.

  6. Anne Bower, Epistolary Responses: The Letter in 20th-Century American Fiction and Criticism, Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1987, 99.

  7. Quoted in Christine Stansell, American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century, New York: Henry Holt, 2000, 231.

  8. “Girl Writer as a Juror—Help,” New York Times, May 11, 1909.

  9. Alkalay-Gut, Alone in the Dawn, 249.

  10. Alan Simpson, with Mary Simpson, Jean Webster: Storyteller, New York: Tymor Associates, 1984, 81.

  11. Jean Webster McKinney Papers, Vassar College, Box 12, Folder 5.

  12. Variety, May 16, 1919:54, quoted in Bower, 104-105.

  13. Alkalay-Gut, “Jean Webster.”

  Suggestions for Further Reading


  When Patty Went to College. New York: Century, 1903.

  The Wheat Princess. New York: Century, 1905.

  Jerry Junior. New York: Century, 1907.

  The Four Pools Mystery. New York: Century, 1908.

  Much Ado About Peter. New York: Century, 1909.

  Just Patty. New York: Century, 1911.

  Daddy-Long-Legs. New York: Century, 1912.

  Dear Enemy. New York: Century, 1915.


  Alkalay-Gut, Karen. “Jean Webster,” html.

  Salisbury, Rachel. “Jean Webster,” Notable American Women, Vol. III. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971, 555-556.

  Simpson, Alan and Mary, with Ralph Connor. Jean Webster: Storyteller. Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: Tymor Associates, 1984.

  Papers, letters, manuscripts, and clippings are in the Jean Webster McKinney Collection at Vassar College.


  Alkalay-Gut, Karen. “‘If Mark Twain Had a Sister’: Gender-Specific Values and Structures in Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs.” Journal of American Culture, 16 (Winter 1993): 91-99.

  Bower, Ann. “Delettering: Responses to Agencies in Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs,” in Epistolary Responses: The Letter in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Criticism. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.


  Adickes, Sandra L. To Be Young Was Very Heaven: Women in New York Before the First World War. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

  Alkalay-Gut, Karen. Alone in the Dawn: The Life of Adelaide Crapsey. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1988.

  Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1920s. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985.

  Stansell, Christine. American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000.

  A Note on the Texts

  The texts of Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy have been reset from the original editions, published by The Century Co. in 1912 and 1915 respectively. Jean Webster’s drawings, which are integral to the novels, are reproduced here.




  With Illustrations

  by The Author






  The first Wednesday in every month was a Perfectly Awful Day—a day to be awaited with dread, endured with courage and forgotten with haste. Every floor must be spotless, every chair dustless, and every bed without a wrinkle. Ninety-seven squirming little orphans must be scrubbed and combed and buttoned into freshly starched ginghams; and all ninety-seven reminded of their manners, and told to say, “Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” whenever a Trustee spoke.

  It was a distressing time; and poor Jerusha Abbott, being the oldest orphan, had to bear the brunt of it. But this particular first Wednesday, like its predecessors, finally dragged itself to a close. Jerusha escaped from the pantry where she had been making sandwiches for the asylum’s guests, and turned upstairs to accomplish her regular work. Her special care was room F, where eleven little tots, from four to seven, occupied eleven little cots set in a row. Jerusha assembled her charges, straightened their rumpled frocks, wiped their noses, and started them in an orderly and willing line toward the dining-room to engage themselves for a blessed half hour with bread and milk and prune pudding.

  Then she dropped down on the window seat and leaned throbbing temples against the cool glass. She had been on her feet since five that morning, doing everybody’s bidding, scolded and hurried by a nervous matron. Mrs. Lippett, behind the scenes, did not always maintain that calm and pompous dignity with which she faced an audience of Trustees and lady visitors. Jerusha gazed out across a broad stretch of frozen lawn, beyond the tall iron paling that marked the confines of the asylum, down undulating ridges sprinkled with country estates, to the spires of the village rising from the midst of bare trees.

  The day was ended—quite successfully, so far as she knew. The Trustees and the visiting committee had made their rounds, and read their reports, and drunk their tea, and now were hurrying home to their own cheerful firesides, to forget their bothersome little charges for another month. Jerusha leaned forward watching with curiosity—and a touch of wistfulness—the stream of carriages and automobiles that rolled out of the asylum gates. In imagination she followed first one equipage then another to the big houses dotted along the hillside. She pictured herself in a fur coat and a velvet hat trimmed with feathers leaning back in the seat and nonchalantly murmuring “Home” to the driver. But on the door-sill of her home the picture grew blurred.

  Jerusha had an imagination—an imagination, Mrs. Lippett told her, that would get her into trouble if she didn’t take care—but keen as it was, it could not carry her beyond the front porch of the houses she would enter. Poor, eager, adventurous little Jerusha, in all her seventeen years, had never stepped inside an ordinary house; she could not picture the daily routine of those other human beings who carried on their lives undiscommoded by orphans.

  Je-ru-sha Ab-bott

are wan-ted

  In the of-fice,

  And I think you’d

  Better hurry up!

  Tommy Dillon who had joined the choir, came singing up the stairs and down the corridor, his chant growing louder as he approached room F. Jerusha wrenched herself from the window and refaced the troubles of life.

  “Who wants me?” she cut into Tommy’s chant with a note of sharp anxiety.

  Mrs. Lippett in the office,

  And I think she’s mad.


  Tommy piously intoned, but his accent was not entirely malicious. Even the most hardened little orphan felt sympathy for an erring sister who was summoned to the office to face an annoyed matron; and Tommy liked Jerusha even if she did sometimes jerk him by the arm and nearly scrub his nose off.

  Jerusha went without comment, but with two parallel lines on her brow. What could have gone wrong, she wondered. Were the sandwiches not thin enough? Were there shells in the nut cakes? Had a lady visitor seen the hole in Susie Hawthorn’s stocking? Had—O horrors!—one of the cherubic little babes in her own room F “sassed” a Trustee?

  The long lower hall had not been lighted, and as she came downstairs, a last Trustee stood, on the point of departure, in the open door that led to the porte-cochère. Jerusha caught only a fleeting impression of the man—and the impression consisted entirely of tallness. He was waving his arm toward an automobile waiting in the curved drive. As it sprang into motion and approached, head on for an instant, the glaring headlights threw his shadow sharply against the wall inside. The shadow pictured grotesquely elongated legs and arms that ran along the floor and up the wall of the corridor. It looked, for all the world, like a huge, wavering daddy-long-legs.