Erma Bombeck, the homemaker who spun humorous anecdotes about suburban family life into a column syndicated to about 700 newspapers, television commentary, speeches across the country and books with titles such as “The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank,” died Monday. She was 69.
Bombeck, who had lived in Paradise Valley, Ariz., for the past 25 years, died in San Francisco’s UC Medical Center where she had been a patient since kidney transplant surgery earlier this month. She suffered from a hereditary disorder called adult polycystic kidney disease, and died from complications after the transplant surgery.
In high spirits until the end of her life, Bombeck had endured breast cancer and a mastectomy in 1992 and then kidney disease, which required dialysis four times a day at her home. She said about 30 faithful readers had offered to donate a kidney, but none was a match. She refused to use her celebrity to move higher on the list of people waiting for a kidney transplant.
“She was one of the few columnists that really was unique, and between her books and her column and her public appearances, she brought joy to an awful lot of people,” said fellow humorist Art Buchwald. “And she was a friend, so I will really miss her.”
The columns of both Bombeck and Buchwald have appeared regularly in The Times for many years.
Bombeck’s ability to make everyone join her in laughing about everyday foibles of family life made her a wealthy woman. She was also a generous one. Even before she suffered cancer, she contributed a $1.5-million advance fee and all the proceeds of her 1989 book “I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise” to cancer research. She was awarded the American Cancer Society Medal of Honor in 1990.
The author’s other best-selling books include “Just Wait Till You Have Children of Your Own,” “I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression,” “If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?” “Aunt Erma’s Cope Book,” “Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession,” “Family: The Ties That Bind . . . and Gag!” “All I Know About Animal Behavior I Learned in Loehmann’s Dressing Room,” “When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time to Go Home” and “A Marriage Made in Heaven . . . or Too Tired for an Affair.”
She appeared twice a week on “Good Morning, America” from 1975 to 1986 and starred in a short-lived 1980 television series that she created, wrote and produced called “Maggie.”
In the 1970s, Bombeck served on the President’s Advisory Committee on Women and campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment, regularly chiding feminists for “giving a war and not inviting the housewives.”
Born Erma Louise Fiste in Dayton, Ohio, she studied English at Ohio University and the University of Dayton, working part time as a copy girl and reporter at the Dayton Journal Herald. On Aug. 13, 1949, she married William Lawrence Bombeck, a high school teacher and later a principal, who became her financial manager when she started making money from her writing.
“The good years of my life began with my marriage,” she told The Times in 1979. “I was told I couldn’t have any children. Six years after our marriage, we adopted a daughter. And seven years after, I had a baby. I had four pregnancies in four years and two babies from them. The rest has been gravy. If I would never have written a line, I would have made it.”
Even as a famous humorist, she continued to refer to herself as “a former homeroom mother and obituary writer.”
Although she wrote features--and obituaries--for the Journal Herald before her children were born, Bombeck thought the large daily paper would not support her desire to start a column in the mid-1960s. So she went to a neighborhood newspaper, the Kettering-Oakwood Times, which paid her $3 per column. After two years, in 1965, she won a three-times-weekly slot on the Dayton paper for what she called “At Wit’s End.”
The column quickly spread to 65 newspapers via Newsday Syndicate, and by 1967 to about 900 for the Field Newspaper Syndicate. Her column was circulated by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate from 1985 to 1988 and thereafter by Universal Press Syndicate.
Gifted with an incisive wit, Bombeck spoke as well as wrote in one-liners.
On guilt: “I’m always feeling guilty about something. The guilt gene just increases as you get older.”
On goals: “My aim in life is to communicate with the greatest number of people I can and make them laugh at themselves.”
On fantasies: “I still have a thin wish. And a fantasy of having a whole day to do nothing but call a friend up to have lunch and play tennis.”
On the possibility of writing anything other than humor: “None. I know exactly where I belong.”
On the popularity of the novel and film “The Bridges of Madison County": “All over the country, housewives are fantasizing their husbands taking the kids to a fair and leaving them alone for four days. They’re 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?’ ”
Even at the height of her popularity, Bombeck continued to do housework, shop at discount stores and check price tags. She believed that her type of humor involved “pure identification” by women doing the same tasks she did and enabled by her insight to laugh at the drudgery. She never wanted to lose touch with those readers.
Bombeck continued writing about married life’s mundane little problems even after her illnesses became paramount.
“It’s hard to mine humor out of that,” she said in 1994. “You’ll get people feeling sorry for you--and you should never feel sorry for a humorist.”
In addition to her husband of 46 years, Bombeck is survived by their children, Betsy, Andrew and Matthew.