Bombeck, Erma Louise Fiste

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Bombeck, Erma Louise Fiste

(b. 21 February 1927 in Dayton, Ohio; d. 22 April 1996 in San Francisco, California), newspaper columnist and best-selling author who poked gentle fun at suburban life, housework, marriage, and parenthood.

Bombeck was the only child of Cassius Fiste, a crane operator for the city of Dayton who died when his daughter was nine years old, and Erma Haines, a homemaker who went to work in a General Motors factory after her husband’s death. In order to survive her family problems, Erma developed a whimsical approach to life. By the time she was thirteen years old she was writing a humor column for her junior high school paper, which she continued at Patterson Vocational High School in Dayton. When she graduated from high school in 1944, she took a job as a copygirl for the Dayton Journal-Herald. After graduating from the University of Dayton in 1949, she became a reporter for the same paper and eventually a feature writer for the women’s page. In 1949 she married William Bombeck, a sportswriter on the paper who became a public school administrator in Dayton.

When her first child, Betsy, was born in 1953, Bombeck left her job to take on the role of homemaker and mother. The couple had two other children. In the era of the idealized suburban wife and mother, Bombeck recalled, “we knew what we were supposed to do: Snap those beans. Iron those shoelaces.” She read about famous women who had fashioned their own careers and concluded that “it wasn’t fulfilling to clean chrome faucets with a toothbrush.” In 1964, when her youngest child started school, Bombeck decided that, at the age of thirty-seven, she was “too old for a paper route, too young for Social Security, and too tired for an affair.” She convinced the editor of a small suburban weekly, the Kettering-Oakwood Times, to let her write a humorous column for $3 a week on what she termed the “utility room beat.” By the following year the column, titled “At Wit’s End,” was appearing twice weekly in the Journal-Herald. Its popularity grew rapidly, and by 1970 the column was syndicated on a three-times-a-week basis. By the time of her death, it appeared twice weekly in more than 600 newspapers with an estimated 30 million readers.

Bombeck’s columns featured a gentle self-deprecating wit based upon her experiences cleaning house, shopping, raising children, and being a wife, roles she continued to hold even after the family moved in 1971 to Paradise Valley, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix, where her husband became a high school principal. She once noted, “I spend ninety percent of my life living scripts and ten percent writing them.” Her tart comments were welcomed by millions of suburban wives and mothers weary of striving for illusory perfection. Bombeck told a reporter, “My type of humor is almost pure identification. A housewife reads my column and says, ‘But that’s what happened to ME! I know just what she’s talking about.’” Her writings dealt with the mundane realities of a homemaker’s world. These included ironing—her “second favorite household chore,” the first being “hitting my head on the top of the bunk bed until I faint”—and dirty ovens: “If it won’t catch fire today, clean it tomorrow.” She also wrote about the problems of family relationships including sibling rivalry (“Who gets the fruit cocktail with the one cherry on top?”) and male obsessions (“If a man watches sixteen consecutive quarters of football, he can be declared legally dead.”) “No one knows what her life expectancy is,” she once joked, “but I have a horror of leaving this world and not having anyone in the entire family know how to replace a toilet tissue spindle.” Amused by the popularity of Robert James Waller’s novel The Bridges of Madison County (1992), she commented that housewives all over America were fantasizing about their romantic ideal man, “hiding bottles of wine behind the bleach in the utility room just in case. The other day, an exterminator knocked on my door asking for directions and I wondered, ‘Is he the one?’”

Bombeck was also the author of more than a dozen books. These included such best-sellers as 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), Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession (1983), and A Marriage Made in Heaven: or, Too Tired for an Affair (1993). After sales of more than 15 million books, Bombeck signed a three-book deal with Harper & Row in 1988 that experts valued at $12 million. In addition to her writing, Bombeck appeared regularly on the ABC television show Good Morning America from 1975 to 1986. She also lectured widely; contributed to several magazines; created and produced Maggie, a television series that ran briefly in 1981; and saw The Grass Is Greener made into a television movie in 1978, with Carol Burnett playing Bombeck’s harried alter ego.

In 1992 Bombeck underwent a mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer. The following year her kidneys began to fail as a result of a hereditary disorder, polycystic kidney disease, that had been diagnosed when she was twenty years old. She began dialysis at home. She was touched when more than thirty fans offered her their kidneys. She responded to those who expressed sadness about her illness by remarking, “Never feel sorry for a humorist.” She continued to work on her column and books, refusing to worry about other goals. “Miss America took all the good ones,” she joked. “I wanted to cure world hunger and have world peace. I wanted to do that, but she took it.” After a long wait for a kidney transplant, a suitable donor was found, and she underwent the operation at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center in April 1996. The hospital announced that she died “from medical complications following a kidney transplant.”

Erma Bombeck once told an interviewer about her work, “I would rather hang from one hundred refrigerator doors than in the Louvre.” She exceeded that goal.

Books by Erma Bombeck not mentioned in the text include At Wit’s End (1967), a collection of columns; “Just Wait Till You Have Children of Your Own!” (1971); I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression (1973); Aunt Erma’s Cope Book (1979); Family: The Ties That Bind—And Gag! (1987);i Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise: Children Surviving Cancer (1989); When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time to Go Home (1991); and All I Know About Animal Behavior I Learned in Loehmann’s Dressing Room (1995). Obituaries are in the New York Times and USA Today (both 23 Apr. 1996).

Louise A. Mayo