Respond to this Article March 2003

Giving Mirth

For modern women writers, balancing work and family is agony. For Jean Kerr, it was an art form.

By Elizabeth Austin

Jean Kerr was the epitome of the great gal, back in an era of great gals. With her best-selling book, Please Don't Eat the Daisies, she created a persona that was competent, funny, self-assured, calm in the face of domestic emergency, unapologetically competitive on the tennis court, and tremendously gifted when it came to keeping a houseful of youngsters happily occupied on a rainy afternoon. Even in the '50s and early '60s, during Kerr's heyday, that image of the harried but happy mom occasionally smacked of the emotional airbrush. But with Kerr's death in January, we have lost not only a great author, but also a sunny (if wry) view of motherhood that now appears extinct.

Kerr was an essayist and hugely successful Broadway playwright, wife of The New York Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning theater critic Walter Kerr, and mother of six lively children. Now that almost all of her books are out of print, however, she may be best known as the Doris Day character in the treacly 1960 film version of Please Don't Eat the Daisies, which erases Kerr's extraordinary literary career and morphs her into a home remodeling-obsessed, suburban stay-at-home mom. While the movie's producers may have been trying to streamline Kerr's discursive collection of essays into a standard-issue Hollywood plotline, the result completely misses the point of Kerr's work: She wrote about combining work and family at a time when that was still an unusual choice for an upper-middle-class mother. And unlike so many of today's literary moms, whose prose is blanketed in a perpetual fog of maternal self-righteousness, Kerr was blessedly unsmarmy and unsmug.

In reading Kerr, I always imagined her as the ideal next-door neighbor, someone who--armed only with a teapot, a couple of macaroons, and a medicinal bottle of Scotch--could transform your backed-up sewer drain from a heart- and budget-breaking disaster into prime anecdotal material. When Kerr wrote about homemaking, childrearing, and writing (and that sometimes thorny point in the Venn diagram where all three intersect), she always sounded like a smart, funny woman who was enjoying herself enormously. Although her best-known essays are now almost 50 years old, they still strike a deep chord with anyone who's ever sat huddled on the playground sidelines, keeping a weather eye on the teeter-totter crowd while scribbling furiously on a big yellow pad.

Bemused Spouses

I was a freshman in high school when I discovered Jean Kerr. To say her books changed my life is an understatement; I embraced them as a design for living. For an adolescent struggling with the apparent conundrum of being funny, smart, and female, Kerr's books were clear, convincing evidence that it was possible to combine effortless intelligence (you've got to love a writer who opens a book of essays on family life with a joke about Kierkegaard) with the nitty-gritty details of domesticity. Her 1961 play Mary, Mary spoke directly to my teen anxieties about the unlikelihood that a wisecracking bookworm might ever find true love. (Dorothy Parker, whom I discovered at around the same time, had not been reassuring on this point.) In the play, Mary's sharp-edged wit has driven her husband, Bob, into the arms of a more curvaceous, less challenging rival. As he explains to a friend, "I married Mary because she was so direct and straightforward and said just exactly what she meant." When asked why they divorced, he explains: "Because she was so direct and straightforward and said just exactly what she meant."

In the end, Mary learns to hold her tongue--at least long enough for a big clinch or two--and true love prevails. This plot was calculated to bring hope to the lovelorn, which explains why Mary, Mary ran for more than 1,500 performances on Broadway and remains a perennial choice in community theatre. But what I found most encouraging was the story behind the story: All of Mary's witty lines (and everyone else's, for that matter) had sprung from the fertile brain of Jean Kerr--who had a swell husband, lots of great kids, and lived in a castle right on Long Island Sound, with a full-time housekeeper, no less.

Although Please Don't Eat the Daisies was published in 1957, before I was born, Kerr's effortless ability to straddle the whole career-versus-motherhood divide seemed as timely as (and far more lively than) the long shelves full of the "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar" genre I devoured as a teen. Kerr offers no explanation, much less apology, for including a chapter on "The Care and Feeding of Producers" alongside "How to Get the Best of Your Children" and "Aunt Jean's Marshmallow Fudge Diet."

The book takes its overly whimsical title from a characteristic Kerr passage, in which she translates her children's unexpected misconduct into bemusing anecdote:

"My real problem with children is that I haven't any imagination. I'm always warning them against the common-place defections while they are planning the bizarre and unusual. Christopher gets up ahead of the rest of us on Sunday mornings and he has long since been given a list of clear directives: 'Don't wake the baby,' 'Don't go outside in your pajamas,' 'Don't eat cookies before breakfast.' But I never told him, 'Don't make flour paste and glue together all the pages of the magazine section of the Sunday Times.' Now I tell him, of course.

"And then last week I had a dinner party and told the twins and Christopher not to go in the living room, not to use the guest towels in the bathroom, and not to leave the bicycles on the front step. However, I neglected to tell them not to eat the daisies on the dining-room table. This was a serious omission, as I discovered when I came upon my centerpiece--a charming three-point arrangement of green stems."

Some of Kerr's observations seem timeless: "In the beginning, we made the usual mistake of looking at houses we could afford. I am working on a proposition, hereafter to be known as Kerr's law, which states in essence: All the houses you can afford to buy are depressing." Others now feel a bit dated, but only in the way that all quotidian-based humor is dated, as Robert Benchley's sidesplitting musings are firmly rooted in the '20s, and Nora Ephron's early essays eternally evoke the '70s.

Kerr's essays made the combination of literature and motherhood seem as easy as falling off a log--and far less likely to result in broken bones. She cheerily tried to persuade her readers that jotting down paragraphs between carpool runs is actually the optimal way to write. "I will read anything rather than work," she confessed. "For this reason, and because I have four boys, I do about half of my 'work' in the family car, parked alongside a sign that says 'Littering is Punishable by a $50 Fine' . . . Out in the car, where I freeze to death or roast to death depending on the season, all is serene. The few things there are to read in the front-seat area (Chevrolet, E-gasoline-F, 100-temp-200) I have long since committed to memory. So there is nothing to do but write, after I have the glove compartment tidied up."

Aunt Jean's Blueprint for Happiness

From her works, I distilled what she might have called "Aunt Jean's Blueprint for Happiness": Find a nice, literate husband, buy a tumbledown Victorian house, fill it with clever, mischievous children and big slobbery dogs with whimsical names, and spend your leisure moments tossing off witty little essays on the hilarious vicissitudes of domestic life. (After some years of putting these principles into practice, I called Jean Kerr--allegedly to interview her for a newspaper article, but actually to complain that it is far funnier to read about collapsing plaster, incontinent canines, and impertinent toddlers than it is to deal with them on a daily basis. She was suitably apologetic, and freely admitted that she had edited out some of the less amusing aspects of both homemaking and publishing. However, she callously declined my suggestion that a prominent warning label be added to any future editions.)

Once I'd gobbled my way through Kerr's slim oeuvre, I went looking eagerly for another writer just as good. Decades later, I'm still looking. No one since has managed to write about the domestic scene with Mrs. Kerr's pitch-perfect balance of wit, warmth, and intelligence. Instead, the mother/writers of the half-century have focused on the anxieties and stresses of parenting. Personally, I don't need anybody to tell me how hard it is to bring up a child; trust me, I already know. What I really need is someone who will refocus my attention on the sheer, unalloyed delights of sharing your life with babies--and teenagers, too.

Although Erma Bombeck was just five years younger than Kerr, her career peaked in the '70s with such dismally titled bestsellers as The Grass is Always Greener over the Septic Tank; If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?; I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression. Her wisecracking, oy-vey approach to life guaranteed her a huge audience, although it didn't do much for the psyche of the American mother. It's downright dispiriting to read much Bombeck. Her world is one of unappreciated, unfulfilled wives and mothers drudging away year after year, hoping to receive that one glimmer of recognition that will make it all worthwhile.

The opening of one chapter in Cherries, titled "I'm Laughing So Hard I Can't Stop Crying," is typical:

"The last time my family laughed was when my oven caught fire.

"I did not get these varicose veins in my neck from whispering. We shout at one another. We say hateful things. We cry, slam doors, goof off, make mistakes, experience disappointments, tragedies, sickness, and traumas. When I last checked, we were members in good standing of your basic screw-up family.

"There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.

"And how do you know laughter if there is no pain to compare it with." (That quote, whether intentionally or not, ends with a period, not a question mark.)

Bombeck's fans could argue that she was more honest about the challenges of family life. In a column titled "Big-Time Guilt," Bombeck recorded her profound dismay at finding herself pregnant again at 40, caroming oddly between one-liners and gut-spilling. "It wasn't fair," she raged. "What did I have to look forward to? Lamb-stained bibs, sleepless nights, Girl Scout cookies, Show and Tell, car pools, field trips, fevers at midnight." The column moved on to her eventual acceptance and love for the unborn child, and ends with the sad story of her miscarriage. It's revealing that Bombeck refers to her "S and S (Suffering and Sacrifice)," not when she talks about losing the baby, but when she first contemplates raising it.

Kerr never lets us that far inside. She writes mirthfully about raising a bumper crop of children spaced erratically over a couple of decades; there's never the tiniest hint that a 40-ish woman who has spent half a lifetime in the maternal trenches might entertain some mixed feelings about starting over with an infant. When she writes about her lastborn baby daughter, all we hear is bemused delight: "She smiled the kind of smile that would give you hope in February. Then she held up her arms and said, very distinctly, 'Hi, little fella.'" We'll never know whether Kerr was guilty of a little retrospective sugar-coating. But I do know which book I'd recommend to an overwhelmed friend facing an unexpected pregnancy post-40.

Certainly, Kerr is far from the only author to write well about life with children. In the 1980s, New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen's pieces about her children were heartfelt and evocative; years later, I still remember her brief account of her son's discovery of fireflies on a hot summer night. But her columns were so often strewn with references to the stress of combining motherhood with work, making a two-headed beast of her life, that I often found myself feeling sorry for her.

I sometime wonder what Kerr would have made of Salon's long-running feature, "Mothers Who Think." Did that title refer only to the authors? Or was it a device allowing homebound, cranky readers to feel intellectually superior to those morons on the kindergarten fun fair committee? Sure, MWT offered a good number of interesting and well-written pieces. But the title--like many of the essays in the series--had a chip on its shoulder, as illustrated by the flap copy of the collected MWT essays, which calls them a "testament to the notion that motherhood gives women more to think about, not less." Of course it does; you just have less time to write it all down.

Kerr acknowledged the frustrations of life among the preschool set: "I'm sick of talking about milk," she crabbed ruefully in a passage on her vain attempts to make conversation at the family dinner table. "When do we get to the great topics, like art, music, McLuhan? And what about people like the Kennedys, who, they say, had such brilliant conversation at the dinner table, even when the children were young? How? Didn't those kids get any milk?" But she never whined about it. Nor did she lace her prose with backhanded compliments to her own virtuous self-sacrifice.

In some ways, the closest thing we've got to a Jean Kerr for the 21st century is Allison Pearson, author of last year's I Don't Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother. And that's a little sad. Pearson is, if not a better, certainly a more writerly writer than Kerr ever was. Some passages are achingly well-observed. Her infant son, asleep, "looks as though he has hurled himself at unconsciousness, like a very small man trying to leap aboard an accelerating bus."

But the book, for all its wit and intelligence, is filled with defensiveness and distress, as the heroine tries gamely to meet everyone else's standards for Perfect Wife, Perfect Mother, Perfect Daughter, Perfect Daughter-in-Law, Perfect Employee and All-Around Perfect Woman. It's not surprising that so many of us find our lives reflected in Pearson's pages; we're engaged in those same futile struggles.

Gal Power

The thing I most love about Kerr, and the generation of women who were her most loyal readers, is that they seemed to be taking motherhood on a pass-fail basis. They weren't competing desperately for straight A's on the homefront--nor were they "surrendered" wives and mothers, submerging their identities into the giant gaping maw of family life. They were active and energetic but never "busier-than-thou," and they seemed to be having more fun than any grown-up woman I see around me today--myself included.

Sometimes I think about one Sunday morning, long ago, when my Aunt Marion--a truly great gal, but a sketchy cook at best--decided to get up early and make blueberry muffins, studded with fresh Michigan blueberries the kids had picked the day before. But when she pulled the golden muffins from the oven, she realized she'd forgotten to add the blueberries. In her place, Bombeck would have blamed the oversight on mental decay caused by encroaching menopause--at 31--and would have hidden the evidence by eating all the muffins herself. Pearson, like me, would have dumped the flawed muffins in the garbage and started over, fuming at her own incompetence. But my wise Aunt Marion took the Kerr approach: She just chuckled, poked holes in the hot muffins with her finger, and shoved those blueberries in.

More than anything else, I yearn for Kerr's blithe, unflappable self-confidence. Take for example, her no-nonsense approach to child safety: "The twins are four now, and for several years we have had galvanized iron fencing lashed onto the outside of their bedroom windows. This gives the front of the house a rather institutional look and contributes to unnecessary rumors about my mental health, but it does keep them off the roof, which is what we had in mind." If an occasional busybody tsked that the fenced windows betokened a mother too busy with her own career to keep an eye on her kids, Kerr didn't seem to hear, or care.

Tale Spin

Perhaps my love for Jean Kerr can be chalked up to misplaced nostalgia for an era I missed. It may no longer be possible for a woman to write without irony about the unalloyed joys of motherhood; our expanded choices have also expanded our collective sense of inadequacy, and set us up for internecine wars over whose personal vision of motherhood is most correct.

Yet while I understand that the era shapes its authors, I also believe that an author can shape an era. If we could find another Jean Kerr, maybe we could learn to drop our defensiveness, let slip our self-pity, and enjoy our lives, whatever our choices, a bit more than we do now.

My own life has been full of Jean Kerr moments. But one in particular stands out in my memory. It was a day when my second daughter was just three weeks old, and Olle, a Swedish publisher, came into town to discuss a major project. As a nursing mother, I didn't want to leave the baby for too long, so Olle agreed to meet at my house. Just as he appeared at the door, the babysitter, Juliana, dragged me into the bedroom. "You're leaking," she hissed. I looked down, and saw milk streaming down my front. While I frantically burrowed through my closet for another halfway business-like dress that might still fit, Benchley--a muscular Labrador retriever who fancied himself a shrewd judge of character--kept growling and baring his teeth every time Olle tried to move an inch from his chair. His growling upset the baby, who started to wail piteously.

Dickens, our Golden Retriever, was so overcome by the whole distressing milieu that he disgraced himself in a steaming pile on the dining room rug. Over the din, I heard a small, plaintive, Swedish voice: "Something hjorrible is hjappening ... "

As a writer, I could honestly spin that moment in any direction I please. I could use it to illustrate the unbearable stresses I bravely withstand as I try to combine motherhood with another career, or I could list it as further evidence that, in my life, nothing ever goes quite right. But on that day, I chose to see my world through Jean Kerr's eyes. And I laughed.

I'd give anything to find another author with a wise and knowing voice who could turn moments like these into art.

Elizabeth Austin is a Chicago writer.


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