Sunday, February 21, 2016

Birthday: Erma Bombeck counseled, "Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died."

Erma Louise Fiste Bombeck (1927-1996)
Columnist, Author

Twenty years after her death, Erma Bombeck’s books still issue forth from America homes, appearing in yard sales and thrift store donations. Her readers are dying off; had she lived, she would have been ninety today.

Time there was, though, when she was one of the most famous columnists in America. A twice-weekly column she started for The Dayton, Ohio Journal Herald in 1965 (450 words, $50 a column), went into syndication after just three weeks. By 1978 her postcards from the Bombeck house in Centerville were read by thirty million Americans and carried by nine hundred newspapers. By 1988, she had sold fifteen million copies of her books, and signed a three-book deal for $12 million. She wrote for all the top magazines, and from 1975 to 1985 appeared twice a week on ABC’s Good Morning America program.

Bombeck started writing in high school: a little humor column for the school paper. She wrote for her college paper and worked part-time as a copygirl for the Dayton Herald. Some of her stuff made it into the women’s section of the paper, but it was a professional backwater. After she and her husband were told they couldn’t have children, they adopted a daughter. Erma gave up writing to be a mother, and promptly had two sons. As a biographer described the decade
Her solution was to bury herself in typical fifties housewifely pursuits. She crocheted Santa Claus doorknob covers, stuck contact paper on everything that didn't move and decorated Bill's dinners with miniature roses sculpted from zucchini. It didn't help.
Once the kids were in school, she pitched a thrice-weekly column idea to her local paper in 1964. They paid $3 a piece. A year later the Dayton paper picked it up, and the rest was history.

Even when she was earning a million dollars a year, Bombeck still ran her own household and did the laundry. After all, she said, she started out writing about being a housewife because it was the only subject she could talk about for ten minutes.

She had a pithy, relatable style: “Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving,” she wrote, and millions of readers nodded. In her New York Times obituary, Lawrence Van Gelder culled a few insights from her over four thousand columns:
*Dirty ovens: "If it won't catch fire today, clean it tomorrow." 
*The dilemmas of sibling rivalry: "Who gets the fruit cocktail with the lone cherry on top?" 
*Affairs: "If a woman is ever to have an affair, it will be in March. Psychologically, it is a perfect month. The bowling tournaments are over. The white sales on bedding are past. Your chest cold has stabilized and the Avon lady is beginning to look like Tom Jones." 
*Housework: "My second favorite household chore is ironing. My first being hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint." 
*Teen-agers: "Don't ever say you understand them. It breaks down the hostile relationship between you that it takes to understand one another." 
*Male habits: "If a man watches 16 consecutive quarters of football, he can be declared legally dead."
Of the last, Bombeck, who was writing pre-ESPN, would doubtless be pleased by advances in technology that have extended the beginning of legal death to four days.

Her only professional trip-ups were trying to break into TV and movies, and being political. She wrote television picture about her life starring Carol Burnett and Charles Grodin and turned one of her books into a short-lived TV series. In 1978, appointed to a presidential advisory committee on women’s rights, she campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. The backlash, organized by Phyllis Schlafly and others, was loud and harsh. Some bookshops stopped selling her books.

She never looked back. In the 1990s, she wrestled with breast cancer and then kidney disease. Writing to the end, she died of complications of a kidney transplant at the age of 69.

The University of Dayton runs the Erma Bombeck Writing Workshop, and the tract house she and Bill- a high school principal- owned in Centerville is a national historic site. The ErmaMuseum preserves her memory on the internet.

#LiteraryBirthdays #HenryBemisBooks  #Charlotte #ErmaBombeck

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