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Bombeck, Erma (Louise)

BOMBECK, Erma (Louise)

Born 21 February 1927, Dayton, Ohio; died 22 April 1996, SanFrancisco, California.

Daughter of Erma and Cassius Fiste; married William Bombeck,1949; children: Betsy, Andrew, Matthew.

"Mostly I worry about surviving," Erma Bombeck wrote in the introduction to one of her books. "Keeping up with the times in a world that changes daily. Knowing what to keep and what to discard. What to accept and what to protest. That is what this book is about. Surviving." Bombeck taught her readers, mostly housewives, to survive boredom, frustration, and alienation through laughter, exaggeration, truth, parody, and sarcasm.

The product of a secure, middle class family, Bombeck found her life changed in 1936 when her father died suddenly. Her young mother and nine-year-old Erma moved into one bedroom of her grandmother's home. As a growing child, Bombeck interpreted her mother's preoccupation with work and her later remarriage as desertion. She reconsidered as an adult, and the cruel self-centeredness of children recurs as a theme in her writing. Because she was a shy child, her mother enlisted her in tap-dancing lessons. Bombeck developed a stage presence and remained a local radio performer, singing and tapping, for almost eight years.

Bombeck's writing career began with a humor column for the junior high school newspaper. During high school she contributed to the newsletter at the department store where she worked. She started secretarial courses after high school and worked at the Dayton Herald as a copy girl. She studied at Ohio University in Athens until her money ran out, went back to work, and entered the University of Dayton, where William Bombeck was also a student. Upon graduation (1949) the Dayton Herald hired her as a reporter.

Her marriage in 1949 and the subsequent plunge into suburban tract housing became the building blocks of her writing. Leaving her job to stay home with her children, Bombeck became aware of the people around her. In the 1950s a child-filled home in a suburban tract was advertised as the family dream. Bombeck knew the isolation that came with the mortgage and subsequently wrote about it. For many years her syndicated columns targeted child rearing, marriage, friends, cups of coffee, car pools, pets, holidays, and common worry. The house-bound housewives read and realized they were not alone. Although other female writers wrote humorously about being a housewife, Bombeck was the first to focus on middle class women living in the new suburbs.

In 1963, Bombeck started a weekly column for the Kettering-Oakwood Times. Two years later, in 1965, she was offered two columns a week at the Dayton paper. Three weeks later her column was acquired by the Newsday syndicate. Through a much wider audience, Bombeck's column flourished and she published a number of humorous books throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Beginning in 1979, Bombeck had been named annually to the list of 25 Most Influential Women in America by The World Almanac. She held 15 honorary doctorates, was a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, and was the first woman named to the American Academy of Humor Columnists. She was appointed to the President's Advisory Committee for Women in 1978 and was grand marshal of the 1986 Rose Bowl Parade.

By the 1990s Bombeck was writing her "At Wit's End," column and filling three television slots each week from the family's Paradise Valley, Arizona, home. She had also served as a commentator on ABC's Good Morning America for 11 years, beginning in 1975. As William Bombeck retired from his job as school teacher and administrator and her children became adults, the focus of her columns changed and Bombeck wrote of the working woman, grown children, retirement, and aging. Her commentaries astutely combined humor and poignancy.

Although her writing focused on home-related activities, Bombeck actively supported various public causes and organizations. She campaigned for two years for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and expressed some impatience with women who didn't realize the precariousness of equality. A convert to Roman Catholicism when she was twenty-two, Bombeck had strong religious and political beliefs, but did not use her columns as a vehicle to promote them. She also lent her support to the Arizona Kidney Foundation, a cause rather close to home as she had suffered from kidney ailments herself, having been diagnosed with polycystic kidney syndrome when a young adult.

Bombeck's own health problems spurred her to try and help others. Her book of interviews with children surviving cancer, I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise (1989) received the American Cancer Society's 1990 Medal of Honor. Bombeck first suffered kidney failure in 1993, only 15 months after undergoing a mastectomy for breast cancer. Despite her illness, she wrote three columns a week until 1994, then continued with two weekly columns, while completing two more books. She shared her health problems with her readers, but always with a sense of humor and a refusal to accept pity. Bombeck died in April 1996 in a San Francisco hospital from complications following a kidney transplant.

Published after her death, Forever, Erma (1996) is a collection of Bombeck's most popular columns and tributes from some of her many admirers, including contemporary columnists, loyal fans, people with whom she had worked tirelessly for public causes, friends, and family. During her career, Bombeck wrote more than 4,500 columns and 12 books, which were on bestseller lists for years. Appearing in 600 newspapers, she was indisputably the most widely syndicated humorist. Since her death, no humor columnist has been able to match her wide appeal. The size and homogeny of her early, loyal audience of homemakers contributed to her success. She reigned in their world of household chaos by making fun of herself as she battled the trials of daily life. Bombeck became a well-loved next door neighbor who understood and helped readers laugh about their own lives.

Other Works:

At Wit's End (1967). "Just Wait till You Have Children of Your Own!" (1971). I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression (1973). The Grass is Always Greener over the Septic Tank (1976). If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? (1978). Aunt Erma's Cope Book (1979). Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession (1983). Family Ties That Bind…and Gag! (1987). When You Look Like Your Passport Photo It's Time to Go Home (1991). A Marriage Made in Heaven—or, Too Tired for an Affair (1993). All I Know About Animal Behavior I Learned in Loehmann's Dressing Room (1996).

Bibliography:

Astor, D., "Is There a Successor to Erma Bombeck?" in Editor & Publisher (28 March 1998). Dressner, Z., "Domestic Comic Writers," in Women's Comic Visions (1991). Edwards, S., Erma Bombeck: A Life in Humor (1997). Hubbard, K., "Remembering Erma" in People (28 April 1997). Walker, N., and Z. Dressner, Redressing the Balance (1989).

Reference Works:

CA 21-24 (1977). CANR 12 (1984), 39 (1992). Celebrity Register (1990). MTCW (1991) WWAW (1991).

—JANET M. BEYER

UPDATED BY JANETTE GOFF DIXON

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