Bombeck, Erma (1927–1996)

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Bombeck, Erma (1927–1996)

American humor columnist and author. Born Erma Louise Fiste on February 21, 1927, in Dayton, Ohio; died on April 22, 1996, in San Francisco, California; daughter and only child of Cassius (a laborer for the city of Dayton) and Erma (Haines) Fiste; attended Patterson Vocation High School, Dayton; awarded B.A. from University of Dayton, 1949; married William L. Bombeck, on August 13, 1949; children: Betsy, Matthew, and Andrew.

Selected writings:

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 (1984); Family Ties That Bind … and Gag! (1978); I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise (1989); 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 (1995).

With her syndicated column "At Wit's End," a string of best-selling books, and 11 years as a correspondent on ABC's "Good Morning America," Erma Bombeck was known for almost 30 years as America's wisecracking champion of the suburban housewife. Focusing her wry wit and self-deprecating humor on the events of everyday life, from housework ("My second favorite household chore is ironing. My first being hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint."), to vacations ("Jet lag can damage your biological clock and cause you to give birth at age 53"), Bombeck credited her success to identification. "A housewife reads my column and says, 'But that's happened to ME! I know just what she's talking about!'"

Bombeck, who always retained her Midwestern unpretentiousness, said her life story could be told in 15 minutes tops. From the eighth grade on, she was writing humor columns for her school paper and devouring books by humorists James Thurber, Robert Benchley, H. Allen Smith, and Max Schulman. In 1944, fresh out of high school, she worked as a copy girl at the Dayton Journal-Herald but left after a year to attend college. Four years later, she returned to the Journal-Herald where she was relegated to writing obituaries and radio listings before landing a feature spot on the women's page. Bombeck described her first housekeeping column to a Newsday reporter as "sort of a sick Heloise." "I told people to clean their johns, lock them up, and send the kids to the gas station at the corner." In 1949, she married William Bombeck (who left sportswriting to become a public-school administrator) and, after the birth of her first child in 1953, quit her job to become a full-time housewife and mother.

Ten years and two more children later, she needed to know whether she could do something more than get stains out of bibs. "I was 37," she recalled, "too old for a paper route, too young for social security, and too tired for an affair." On a typewriter that was propped on the edge of a bed, she began writing a humor column for a local weekly, the Kettering-Oakwood Times. A year later, in 1965, she was once again hired by the Dayton Journal-Herald to produce two columns a week. Within a year, she was syndicated and, by the 1990s, was carried in over 600 papers. The bedroom workspace gave way to an office in a nine-room ranch house in a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, where the Bombecks moved in 1971. Even with the increasing work demands, Bombeck's family always came first. "I can't be gone more than two days," she once quipped, "because that's all the underwear we have." As the years went by and the nest emptied, Bombeck took up the subjects of grown children, working women, retirement, and aging.

In 1967, she published her first book, a compilation of her columns entitled At Wit's End. Her second effort, Just Wait Till You Have Children of Your Own, was written in collaboration with cartoonist Bil Keane in 1971 and chronicled the traumas of living with an adolescent. A series of bestsellers followed at regular intervals. Pamela Marsh reviewed her 1973 book, I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression, for the Christian Science Monitor. "This is no Class A Number 1 out-of-control housewife we have here," she wrote, "but a deliberate comic who doesn't place a foot or a word wrong without deliberate intent." Bombeck turned serious in 1989, with a book of interviews with children surviving cancer entitled I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise, which received the American Cancer Society's 1990 Medal of Honor.

Erma Bombeck held strong opinions on politics and world affairs but kept them out of her columns. "I stick close to home," she told Herbert Mitgang of The New York Times Book Review in 1978. "I'm still exploiting my children, husband and family life. I know what my domain is." She campaigned for two years for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), though she thought the movement ignored housewives. She sometimes broached serious issues in her books. In I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression, she decried the violence children witness on the six o'clock television news. "My children in their short span on earth have seen Watts in flames, mothers with clubs and rocks protesting schools, college students slain by national guardsmen, mass slaughter in California, and political conventions that defy anything they have seen on a movie screen…. I

challenge you to protect a generation from violence that has seen the horrors of Kent, Dallas, and Attica."

Bombeck was beset with medical problems, beginning at the age of 20 with polycystic kidney disease, a hereditary disorder that slowly forms tissue-destroying cysts. (Her father, who died of a heart attack when she was nine, may have also had the disease, as do her two sons.) In 1992, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. About a year later, her kidneys began to fail. She went on a waiting list for a new kidney while undergoing dialysis four times a day at her home. After losing a kidney in 1995, Bombeck was urged by friends to use her clout to skip to the top of the transplant list, but she preferred to wait her turn. Abhorring pity, she resisted sharing her health problems with her millions of fans. "What a crummy exit," she told People magazine in 1994, "to have someone say, 'Yeah, I remember, she had cancer and kidney disease.' I want people to remember 29 years of work and a line of books in the library to give 'em a laugh." Erma Bombeck died on April 22, 1996, of complications following her awaited transplant.


The [New London] Day. April 23, 1996.

Green, Carol Hurd, and Mary Grimley Mason, eds. American Women Writers. NY: Continuum, 1994.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1979. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1979.

"Speaker of the House," in People. May 5, 1996, p. 226.

suggested reading:

Forever Erma. Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1996.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts