Kerr, (Bridget) Jean Collins

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Kerr, (Bridget) Jean Collins

(b. 10 July 1923 in Scranton, Pennsylvania; d. 5 January 2003 in White Plains, New York), author of plays and essays highlighting the comedy of suburban domestic life.

Kerr was the daughter of Irish immigrants Thomas Collins, Jr., a construction engineer, and Katherine (“Kitty”) (O’Neill) Collins, a homemaker and second cousin of the playwright Eugene O’Neill. Two boys and another girl completed the family. As a student attending Mary-wood Seminary in Scranton, Jean was already interested in movies and theater. After graduation from high school she attended Marywood College, where she met Walter C. Kerr, then a professor of drama at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C, who would become a famed theater critic. They were married on 10 August 1943, shortly after Jean earned her BA from Marywood College (1943). She received an MFA in 1945 from Catholic University. The Kerrs subsequently had five sons, including a set of twins, and one daughter, the youngest child, whose foibles became material for both Kerr’s essays and stage plays. Kerr claimed she began writing to pay a housekeeper to care for the children, so she could sleep late. She wrote in the afternoon and, in the early days, in her car; her husband was known to have assisted her with tasks like typing.

In the mid-1940s Kerr began adapting material for television and stage. Her first play produced on Broadway (1946) was a dramatization, written with her husband, of Franz Werfel’s Song of Bernadette;it closed after three performances. Together, the Kerrs contributed sketches and lyrics to Touch and Go, a musical opening on Broadway (1949) and in London(1950), which had originated at Catholic University, where it had been called Thank You, Just Looking. Jean’s first solo effort, Jenny Kissed Me, was produced off-Broadway in 1948. It also originated in her graduate school days, but it was not well received. However, the sketches she contributed to John Murray Anderson’s musical revue Almanac (1953) were praised.

A decade of greater success began for Kerr with the Broadway production of King of Hearts (1954), a comedy written with Eleanor Brooke and directed by Walter Kerr. When published, it became a selection of the Fireside Theatre Book Club, and it appeared in a movie version as That Certain Feeling (1956). Kerr’s next book, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1957), a collection of previously published magazine articles about her lively family, appeared on the New York Times best-seller list for months. Elizabeth Janeway praised Kerr’s “wonderful eye and ear for those moments of lunacy in which every life abounds.” The 1960 movie adaptation created a romantic plot and renamed the children; it was followed by a television series (1965–1967). Kerr’s next play, Goldi-locks (1958), a musical parody of silent films, written with her husband and choreographed by Agnes de Mille, was called “slight” by some critics. Supposedly, the Kerrs agreed “never to mention its name again.” In 1960 Critic’s Choice, a play written by Ira Levin, related the story of a drama critic and his playwriting wife; it was clearly inspired by the Kerrs.

As with Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Kerr took the title of her next collection, The Snake Has All the Lines (1960), from the ordinary household conversation around her, if the Kerrs’ life in an odd mansion (the so-called Kerr Hilton) in Larchmont, Westchester County, facing Long Island Sound, with a large brood of children, could be called ordinary. Kerr’s most successful play, Mary, Mary, opened 8 March 1961 and ran for 1,572 performances, becoming the longest running Broadway show to that time. The story of the romantic entanglements and reunion of a divorced couple brought praise for Kerr’s wit. A movie version appeared in 1963. Another of Kerr’s plays, Poor Richard (1964), centered on a poet much like Dylan Thomas.

Kerr’s work in the 1970s included a Broadway production, Finishing Touches (1973), and two published collections, Penny Candy (1970) and How I Got to Be Perfect (1978), both in the same vein as Daisies. By this time some critics were calling Kerr’s work outdated, while others wondered why her obvious intelligence was spent on “silly” subjects and “rigid” codes. Yet her fans continued to be delighted with Kerr’s view of family life and opening nights, of shopping and dieting. The actress and comedian Gilda Radner, who starred in Lunch Hour (1980), stated that Kerr’s “comedy is fearless—she paved the way for someone like me.” After Kerr’s plays ended their Broadway runs, most became popular as school and amateur theater productions.

Over the years Kerr wrote for such magazines as the Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s, the Saturday Evening Post, and Harper’s. Kerr said she had no hobbies, but for a quarter of a century she devoted her considerable energy to the Dramatists Guild. She was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, Authors League of America, and American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). She died from complications of pneumonia in White Plains, New York. The funeral mass was held in Larchmont, and she is buried in Greenwood Union Cemetery, Rye, New York. Her husband predeceased her in 1996.

Calling Catholicism her “superstructure,” the tall, blue-eyed Kerr was a prolific writer of plays, essays, and comic pieces, despite her claim that she wrote slowly. In portraying well-heeled suburbia, she kept a clear eye on the inherent absurdities in relationships and on the zaniness and chaos children could create. While some critics call Kerr’s domestic comedy outmoded, devotees find humor and points of identification in her writing. She was among the first authors to write about combining motherhood and a career, and to do so in ways that are filled with wit, not guilt. Kerr’s sharp yet comic perspective is simultaneously both old-fashioned and ahead of its time.

Kerr’s four collections of autobiographical essays picture her life in suburbia; one of her sons called them funny but “definitely exaggerated.” An essay by Andrea Chambers accompanies her interview with Kerr in People Weekly (9 Feb. 1981) and discusses Kerr’s personality. Elizabeth Austin, “Giving Mirth,” Washington Monthly (6 March 2003), expands its subhead: “For today’s women writers, balancing work and family is agony. For Jean Kerr, it was an art form.” Obituaries are in the New York Times (7 Jan. 2003), Washington Post (8 Jan. 2003), and and Variety (9 Jan. 2003).

Rachel Shor