Erma Bombeck was America’s most popular newspaper humorist in the 60s and beyond, with a column of life as a suburban mom. I grew up on Long Island and thus was familiar with her work from the beginning, since it appeared in Newsday in the mid-60s. But I was never impressed by her because, you see, I had read Jean Kerr.*
Kerr was born Bridget Jean Collins in Scranton, PA and went on to get a master’s degree in Catholic University in Washington, DC, where she met and married a professor, Walter Kerr. They moved to New Rochelle, NY, where Jean raised six children – and began to write about her experiences as Walter established himself as a drama critic.**
Kerr started out by writing plays, with a couple of Broadway flops in the 40s. Her marriage to Kerr meant she would make the rounds of Broadway parties, where she gained a reputation for being one of the theater crowd’s funniest people. After contributing sketches to a couple of successful revues, her first full-length success came in 1954 with King of Hearts. By this time, and she had begun writing humorous essays on life in the suburbs for various magazines. In 1957, these were gathered together into a single book: Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.
The book made her a success outside of New York. It was an immediate best seller and spawned both a hit movie (with Doris Day and David Niven) and a successful TV series.
Kerr continued to write for Broadway. Her musical, Goldilocks, was a small success, and she ventured into essay territory with The Snake Has All the Lines.*** While not as big a success as Daisies, it still showed she was an incredibly funny writer.
Kerr, though was more interested in Broadway and, in 1961, her play Mary, Mary opened to great success, running over three years and closing as the forth longest-running non-musical play on Broadway.
She had two more collections of essays, Penny Candy and How I Got to Be Perfect, and three more plays: Poor Richard, Finishing Touches, and Lunch Hour. The last was about a couple whose spouses were having an affair, and who started one of their own to get back. It starred Gilda Radner post-SNL.****
At that point, Kerr retired. I don’t know why she choose not to write, but it was a loss to comedy and Broadway. She died in 2003.
*This is, of course, massively unfair to Bombeck, but I was in my teens. The two women were doing different things, and, most notably, Bombeck was writing a column three times a week, while Kerr was content to publish occasional essays, allowing her more time to polish them. I do sometimes wonder how much influence Kerr had on Bombeck.
**Later to become the most powerful drama critic in New York as chief critic for the New York Times.
***The title comes from a story she told about her son, who was cast as Adam in the church play. She was complimenting him on getting the part: “That’s the lead.” Her son looked glum. “Yes, but the snake has all the lines.”
****Along with future TV stars Sam (Law and Order) Waterston, David (Sledge Hammer) Rasche, and Max (wasting his talent in ALF) Wright