Highlights of a Life
Erma Bombeck’s best-selling books and syndicated newspaper column, At Wit’s End, satirized the suburbs and the tedium of motherhood and housewifery. Housewives in “typical” homes across the country claimed that Bombeck understood them like no one else; they laughed at her columns with both delight and relief. According to the entry in the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame book, “her humor and insight helped break open the prevailing stereotypes of the housewife happily cleaning in heels and pearls.”
Although Erma eventually became a “typical” housewife, her beginnings were a little out of the ordinary. Born in Dayton, Ohio, to a 16-year-old mother, Erma’s working-class father died when she was nine, and her family drifted apart. Her beloved half-sister, Thelma, went to live with her natural mother, and Erma’s mother worked in a factory. While later Erma realized her mother was wise and heroic, at the time Erma felt only abandoned.
Perhaps surprising, Erma was not the class clown: rather, she was a bookworm who loved to write. According to her biography at www.ermamuseum.org, “When the school day ended, she would rush home [and] grab a book… she would read out loud taking all the parts as though she were in a play. At Christmas, while her friends begged for dolls and bikes, she pleaded for books.”
Young Erma’s literary tastes shaped the writer she would become—she loved the humor of James Thurber, Robert Benchley, and H. Allen Smith to name just a few. She dreamed of writing her own stories and published her first humor column in the school newspaper at Emerson Junior High, The Owl. Her sense of humor was dry and sometimes acidic.
Breaking in to Journalism
Erma always wanted to be a journalist. “As a kid I spent my last nickel to hear Dorothy Thompson speak,” she said. When she was fifteen, Erma asked the editor of the Dayton Herald to give her a job, offering to make arrangements for another girl to work while she was in school. She was hired as “copygirl” but only wrote for the paper once, when she interviewed Shirley Temple, “one sixteen-year-old to another,” and won the newspaper staff award for feature of the week. Bill Bombeck worked at the Dayton Journal, and when Erma met him she liked him instantly. Two or three years later they dated casually, and then Bill joined the Army and went to Korea.
Erma was the first person in her family to graduate from high school, and she aspired to go to college. Of course college attendance by women was somewhat rare in the 1940s: most female high school graduates “either got a job and paid board or got married.” To earn money for college, she continued to work at the Herald, where she was promoted to full-time writer.
College, Mergers, and Marriage
When she’d saved enough money Erma enrolled at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, but financial difficulties and lack of encouragement for her writing caused her to transfer to the University of Dayton, where she was able to live at home and pay her own way at the university. She wrote for the college’s magazine with the mentoring of Brother Tom Price, who told her, “You can write.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Erma returned to the Dayton Journal-Herald, where she was assigned to the women’s section. The two Dayton newspapers had merged, just as Bill and Erma lives were about to merge. The couple had corresponded while Bill was in Korea, and they dated seriously after his return. Bill and Erma were married in August of 1949. In 1953, Erma gave up her job at the paper to stay at home and raise their adopted daughter, Betsy.
In many ways, Erma Bombeck was a product of her times, and she soon succumbed to the misery of suburban housewifery. She was tired, lonely, and isolated—afflicted, in the words of Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique, by “The Problem That Has No Name.” But Friedan’s book, which would later give form to Bombeck’s plight, wouldn’t be published for another ten years. In the meantime, Erma gave birth to two sons: Andrew in 1955, and Matthew in 1958. The Bombecks moved to Centerville, a suburb outside Dayton, and busied themselves with lawn mowing, carting kids to lessons, decorating and redecorating their home. The now-famous Phil Donahue lived across the street, and he would become a longtime Bombeck friend. He described the family as “hardworking, house-proud do-it-yourselfers.”
Erma wanted to give her kids the childhood she didn’t have. But her bottled-up creative energy put pressure on her nerves. At her death, Ellen Goodman’s eulogy included a Bombeck musing from this time: “I hid my dreams in the back of my mind—it was the only safe place in the house. From time to time I would get them out and play with them, not daring to reveal them to anyone else because they were fragile and might get broken.”
At Wit’s End
In 1964, Erma went to the editor of the local paper, the Kettering-Oakwood Times, and offered to do a column. About going back to work, she famously quipped, “I do not feel fulfilled cleaning chrome faucets with a toothbrush. It’s my turn.” About writing a column, she said, “I was too old for a paper route, too young for Social Security and too tired for an affair.”
Her column, At Wit’s End, focused on the absurdity of suburbia, and the fact that “housework, if it is done right, can kill you.” In a Time magazine interview from July 2, 1984, Erma said, “I’ll be honest…when I started, I thought I was squirrelly. I thought it was just me. After the first columns, everyone on the block confessed it was them too.”
But people beyond the confines of her own suburban block began to take note of Erma Bombeck’s column. Glenn Thompson, editor of the Dayton Journal-Herald, noticed her work and asked her to return to her old stomping ground to write the ongoing feature. He also sent a sample to the Newsday Syndicate, who signed Bombeck to a short-term contract. In 1967, Erma accepted a long-term contract with the Field Newspaper Syndicate. Nine hundred newspapers would eventually carry her column.
Erma’s success with the column led to some collections of her work in book form, and then books dedicated to her own peculiar take of the domestic life. Each subsequent book sold better, and after The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, all of her books were best-sellers.
Many women in the era’s growing Feminist Movement thought Erma Bombeck’s message contradicted theirs. “I had a member of the women’s liberation movement write to me and say, ‘Lady, you are the problem.’” But Bombeck believed that ultimately, her columns liberated women, but in a different way from the “traditional” feminist brand of liberation. They didn’t belittle the woman who chose to stay home, instead treating motherhood and housewifery as important. Feminist columnist Ellen Goodman said, “Bombeck cracked open the feminine mystique her own way: with a sidesplitting laugh.” Patricia Leigh Brown said, “She made it okay to live in a ranch house with the requisite station wagon and golden retriever, because she could lovingly satirize the cliché.”
In fact, Bombeck supported the women’s movement, but she resented its exclusion of the housewife. After hearing Betty Friedan speak she said, “These women threw a war for themselves and didn’t invite any of us. That was very wrong of them.” In one column she wrote, “When did a woman selling orange slices in the dime store become more impressive than a woman who did a darned good job raising three kids for twenty years?” Bombeck later commented that
My type of humor is almost pure identification. A housewife reads my column and says, “But that’s happened to ME! I know just what she’s talking about!” You can’t imagine what a great feeling that is for an American housewife. Basically women work alone when they’re at home. They think no one is feeling what they are feeling, that no one understands their daily frustrations.
With the success of her column and books, Erma made a good deal of money through speaking engagements around the country. But in 1978, she gave them all up to do a national tour speaking in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. Its failure to pass was one of her life’s greatest disappointments.
The Bombeck household, of course, was firmly feminist: Erma was the main breadwinner. Bill Bombeck eventually retired from his job as a school administrator in order to manage his wife’s career; at her peak she made from $500,000 to $1 million a year.
Onward and Upward
In 1975 Erma made her television debut on Good Morning America. She shared the screen with David Hartman, Nancy Dussault, Jack Anderson, Rona Barrett, Jonathan Winters, and Geraldo Rivera. She began with two-to-three minutes of her zany twist on life, which evolved into longer interviews with celebrities, including a famous Zsa Zsa Gabor interview in Zsa Zsa’s king-size bed. She always interviewed with a down-home, relaxed style, and she remained on the show for eleven years.
As she got older, Erma’s books and columns turned more serious, though still marked by wit. I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise featured stories about kids with a hope of beating cancer “and living to drive their parents crazy.” A Marriage Made in Heaven … or, Too Tired for an Affair addressed personal issues such as the loss of a close friend, miscarriage, her mother’s deteriorating health, and her own battle with breast cancer. Erma credited her sanity to her husband and their marriage.
Erma Bombeck’s health began declining with a diagnosis of breast cancer, followed by a mastectomy in 1992. Then, in 1994 a hereditary kidney disease progressed to the point where she was on dialysis four times a day. Hundreds of people Erma had never met offered to donate their kidneys. But Erma died in April, 1996, following a transplant operation.
Hundreds of columns and several books mourned the loss of one of America’s greatest humorists. Her work had affected the lives of people all over the country. Phil Donahue, who served as a pall bearer at her funeral, said: “when the scholars gather hundreds of years from now to learn about us, they can’t know it all until they know about Erma.”
Source: “Erma Bombeck.” Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group. (14 January 2005). The Erma Bombeck Online Museum at www.ermamuseum.org.