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Remembering the Wit of Erma Bombeck

A new play reminds us of one of America's most-clipped columnists

By Richard Harris for Next Avenue

Even at 9-years-old, Margaret (Peggy) and Allison Engel were avid newspaper readers. Each morning, the twin sisters from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, would spread the Cleveland Plain Dealer on the floor and devour the comics together — so neither could get a jump on the other.

As teenagers in the mid-'60s, this morning ritual continued, but the girls found themselves increasingly drawn to a new columnist who made their mother laugh. "We thought newspapers were ponderous, but here was Erma Bombeck — funny without being a comic, offering insights into the world we grew up in: mothers and children in suburbia," they say now, finishing each other's sentence.

Today, the Engel sisters are journalists/playwrights with a track record of writing about witty women. Their 2010 show Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, with Kathleen Turner cast as the fireball columnist, was a hit. Now they've turned their attention to Bombeck, whose take on politics was more subtle than Ivins' but no less potent.

Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End premiered this month at the Arena Stage Theater in Washington, D.C., a one-woman show starring Barbara Chisholm that's part of the annual Women's Voices Theater Festival.

"A lot of columnists have tried to mine their family circumstances for humor, but Erma had this amazing ability to go three levels down," Peggy Engel says, "writing about things in the Vietnam era that struck home about families not getting along, fighting about hair length and skirt length."

Working From Home

Bombeck's column, called At Wit's End, began in 1964 as a weekly musing from a housewife in a Kettering, Ohio, newspaper. But it quickly caught on as readers told their friends in other cities about it. By 1978, it was running three times a week in some 900 newspapers, and yellowing Bombeck clippings were affixed to refrigerators across America.

Bombeck cranked out her columns — about stay-at-home moms, carpools and family conflicts — from her bedroom, sitting on her bed and pounding on a manual typewriter perched on a brick and board desk (the play uses an ironing board instead). Her columns included classics like the 1971 piece called I've Always Loved You Best in which Bombeck addressed the age-old question children have for their parents: Which sibling do you love the most?

"Mom kept her bedroom door closed while she worked, so my brothers and I would pass notes under the door, asking for McDonald's money or whether we could go to a friend's house," Bombeck's oldest child, Betsy, told me. "Mom gave me Betty Friedan's book [The Feminine Mystique] to read. I don't know that I understood everything at the time, but I understood it was important for women to make a place for themselves. Mom traveled a lot for the Equal Rights Amendment [ERA] and was very disappointed when it didn't pass. Before she died [in 1996], she told me, 'Now it's up to your generation.'"

Ironically, just as the Bombeck play opens, actress Meryl Streep, who stars in the new film Suffragette, and others are reviving efforts for Congress to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which fell three states short of ratification more than 30 years ago. The Engel sisters wonder whether the ERA would have been added to the Constitution if the press had focused more on Midwest ERA supporters such as Bombeck, who might have been viewed as less strident and threatening than the main east coast activists, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan.

An Accidental Feminist

You could say Bombeck became a feminist by accident, accompanying a friend to a talk by a woman she hadn't heard of: Friedan, whose bookThe Feminine Mystique had just been published.

In the play, a disembodied Friedan speaks to Bombeck, saying: "It is a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a longing that women are suffering now. Each housewife struggles with it alone. … She's afraid to ask the question, 'Is this all?' It is not a joke. Those housewife humorists who pretend it is are wrong. This is not funny."

At the lecture, Friedan had scolded the audience that "too many women were not using their God-given abilities to their potential." For Bombeck, this was a call to action.

"The next day, she bought The Feminine Mystique," Allison Engel says, "and three weeks later, outside her comfort zone, she went to the local newspaper with the idea for the column, asking the editor: 'Would you buy this?' Which was a scary proposition for Bombeck."

He did and the rest is history.

A Name to Remember

Bombeck became a household name — a Good Morning America regular and a go-to guest on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show.

Her agent, Aaron Priest, remembers a Ladies Home Journal poll asking readers who they'd most like to have lunch with. The list included the First Lady, Bombeck and other notables. "It wasn't a surprise Erma won," he told an audience after a preview performance of the play, "but that she got more votes than the other nine people combined."

But popularity fades over time. Ask Ted Koppel, who spent 25 years as anchor of ABC's Nightline. On his final broadcast 10 years ago, he mentioned a quiz he would give interns, asking for a show of hands if anyone recognized the names Chet Huntley, John Chancellor or Howard K. Smith, all famous TV anchormen in their day. Rarely did they garner a flicker of recognition.

Suspecting Erma Bombeck would suffer a similar fate in 2015, I conducted my own unscientific test among Millennials. Despite Erma Bombeck's achievements as one of the country's most widely circulated columnists, a prolific author and a sought-after speaker, when I mentioned her name to folks 35 and younger, I was indeed met with blank stares.

That's partly what motivated the Engel sisters to mount this play.

"Erma is part of a really underrepresented part of American life: working moms who were 35 and over. She was an amazing dynamo. We want the rest of the population — not just the boomers who remember her, but the Millennials who are too young to have known her — to recognize what she achieved," Peggy Engel says. "There was a woman who came up to us after one of the previews who said while she was at college, her mother would cut out Erma's columns and mail her each one. Her mother has since died, but when she was watching the play she said it was like her mother was with her."

This year, the original Bombeck family house in the Dayton, Ohio, suburb of Centerville (across the street from Phil Donahue's), where her column was born, was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Bombecks long ago moved to Arizona, where Erma succumbed to kidney disease at the age of 69.

"Mom died too early with many projects left unfinished — including a play she was developing," says Betsy Bombeck. "But Mom lived each day as hard as she could and famously urged women to have no regrets." She then invoked one of her mother's most-quoted lines: "Seize the moment; remember all those women on The Titanic who waved off the dessert cart."

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