Former VP Joe Biden presenting the 2017 Liberty Medal to Sen. John McCain.
Image: William Thomas Cain/Getty Images
Joe Biden is moving forward after the death of his son Beau, but it doesn’t sound like he’s ready to put the White House behind him just yet.
The former vice president caught up with Vanity Fair’s David Kamp to chat about his upcoming book, Promise Me, Dad, in which he writes about his family and life after the White House. Perhaps most notably, Obama’s BFF straight up said he’s not ruling out a 2020 presidential run.
“I haven’t decided to run, but I’ve decided I’m not going to decide not to run,” Biden said when Kamp asked about 2020. “We’ll see what happens.”
Earlier in the interview Biden revealed that though he had fully planned to run for president in 2016, the heartbreaking death of his 46-year-old son Beau left him reeling, and he ultimately withdrew himself from the race.
Had his son not been battling brain cancer, Biden would have run without question, he told Vanity Fair. “I had planned on running, and I wasn’t running against Hillary or Bernie or anybody else. Honest to God, I thought that I was the best suited for the moment to be president.”
Biden also said Beau had been the biggest supporter of his potential candidacy. “At one point he said it was my obligation to run, my duty,” he wrote in his book. “Duty was a word Beau Biden did not use lightly.”
“At one point he said it was my obligation to run, my duty.”
But, after learning Beau had Stage IV glioblastoma, the VP felt it’d be best to put the campaign planning on hold.
Biden explained to Vanity Fair that he’d been unable to commit to the necessary rigorous speech schedule. In addition, President Obama hinted that he should sit the 2016 election out because he felt Clinton’s organization was ready.
Now that Biden has had some time to himself and a chance to see Trump running the White House, things could be different. That’s not to say he wouldn’t have a few factors working against him.
Some fiercely talented candidates are being considered for 2020, like Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker — not to mention there’s still a chance Oprah Winfrey could run. Biden will also be 78 years old not long after the 2020 election, so age may be a deterrent.
There are plenty of things to seriously consider, but we’ll be able to gain more insight into Biden’s life when Promise Me, Dad is published on Nov. 14.
Fanny Burneys acutely observed memoirs open a window on the literary and courtly circles of late 18th-century England
Dear diary is a literary commonplace. Diaries, or journals, will be the one factual genre to which any reader can relate. Moreover, in English life and letters, which often celebrate the virtues of privacy and solitude, the diary is a quintessential national form of self-expression. Any list of great English diarists must include John Evelyn, Lord Byron, Francis Kilvert, Virginia Woolf and Fanny Burney (1752-1840).
She was born, Frances, the third daughter of Charles Burney, a fashionable dilettante, in the reign of George II. Her life was dogged with ill health and mixed fortune, but she pioneered a career as a female writer to flourish both as a playwright (eight plays) and also as the author of some much-admired satirical fiction (four novels). Burney always described her work as scribblings, a typically English self-deprecation. Her first novel, Evelina, was published anonymously in 1778, coincidentally the year in which she concluded her first set of journals. A later novel, Cecilia (1782), contained some sentences that deeply impressed the young Jane Austen:
The whole of this unfortunate business, said Dr Lyster, has been the result of PRIDE and PREJUDICE If to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you owe your miseries, so wonderfully is good and evil balanced, that to PRIDE and PREJUDICE you will also owe their termination.
Austen aside, Burney was also admired for her wit by some of the foremost literary figures of her time (notably Dr Johnson, and Edmund Burke), as well as the bluestocking circle, David Garrick and members of the aristocracy. Her early diaries are notable for their first-hand account of the sensational trial of Warren Hastings and the madness of George III, whose doctor, Francis Willis, she came to know well, whom she characterises brilliantly:
Dr Willis is a man of ten thousand; open, honest, dauntless, light-hearted, innocent, and high-minded: I see him impressed with the most animated reverence and affection for his royal patient; but it is wholly for his character not a whit for his rank.
There is not yet a satisfactory single volume anthology of Burneys work as a diarist, but the Everyman edition (published in 1971) is a good showcase for her gifts. Burney is sharp, observant and highly entertaining and her satire was always laced with affection.
Burney was first brought to the attention of Dr Johnson and fellow diarist Hester Thrale by her father. Her first diary contains an entertaining account of Johnsons unintentional rudeness to her at one literary salon and its aftermath:
Dr Johnson went to town for some days, but not before Mrs Thrale read him a very serious lecture upon giving way to such violence [of opinion]; which he bore with a patience and quietness that even more than made his peace with me; for such a mans confessing himself in the wrong is almost more amiable than another man being steadily right.
When Kate Greene was dying, she left behind a list for her sons an eclectic mix of thoughts, reminders and life lessons. Now her moving story has been made into a film starring Emilia Fox and Rafe Spall. Tanith Carey meets her family
Kate Greene was always one of those people who made lists to organise her thoughts.
Even as a 16-year-old, she was already carefully writing out her requirements for a contract of mateship for her boyfriend, Singe.
Phone at least twice a day, she wrote out in fountain pen on a piece of A4 with red margins.
Flatter me. (Remember, flattering can get you everywhere), it went on.
Yet its the list Kate wrote 20 years later, in the weeks before her death from breast cancer, which has left the lasting impression.
When Kate, an insurance underwriter, realised she was not going to see her two sons, then aged four and five, grow up, she wrote out the ways she hoped they would make the most of their lives whether it was to keep searching for four-leaf clovers, to rollerskate around museums or to grow up to treat women with respect.
When Mara Wilson was a recognizable face, Facebook wasnt yet a thing. AOL was around, but Twitter wasnt. Neither was Tumblr or Snapchat. While Wilson was starring in Matilda, you were probably listening to the static-y hum of a dial-up connection. She is, essentially, part of the last generation of child stars to find fame before dissecting the lives of famous people online became a sport. Shes luckykind of.
Wilson got to have all of her awkward phases and embarrassing moments before there was any chance they would end up on social media, but that doesnt mean she got off easy. Near the end of her early acting days, as she reveals in her new book Where Am I Now?, she decided to search for herself on the Internet and horrifyingly landed on a foot-fetish site for child stars.
I think the world is waking up to the idea that privacy isnt really something that we all have anymore, says Wilson. And that comes as no surprise to me, and Ive been living my life as if there were no privacy for a very long time. I know theres nowhere to hide.
Wilson also now uses the Internet to her benefit. She is a prominent presence on Twitter and Facebook, has a recurring role on the fiction podcast Welcome to Night Vale, and writes online frequently about everything from her anxiety and depression to what its like to live and work as a performer when the world remembers you as one of the kids from Mrs. Doubtfire. At 29, shes a little bit older than fellow child stars Demi Lovato and Emma Watson, but she shares their ability to speak out on social media, while not having grown up under the scrutiny of it.
YouTube personalities really worry me, because at that age I think its really unhealthy for kids to have that amount of power, fame, and unrestricted access to it.Mara Wilson
And Where Am I Now?, out this week, is nothing if not a time capsule that contrasts the ways in which young stars developed before and after the Internet and social media were widespread. There are still conventional pathways to entertainment careersfilm casting, the Disney Channel machinebut theres also YouTube, where anyone can create a channel, cultivate followers, and be exposed to the horrors of a comments section.
If youre an actor you have agents, managers, and hopefully a parent or guardian there too. There are people holding you accountable for your behavior, Wilson says. YouTube personalities really worry me, because at that age I think its really unhealthy for kids to have that amount of power, fame, and unrestricted access to it.
‘The Matilda-Whore Complex’
Thats not to say that all of Wilsons first book is about surviving celebrity in the Internet age. She writes about her time on the set of Mrs. Doubtfire, and about Robin Williams and the collective heartbreak of anyone who knew him after his suicide. She also pens a stirring letter to Matilda Wormwood, the character that defines her screen career, but uses that space to approach her mothers death from breast cancer during production.
In a chapter framed by Wilsons fraught relationship with the word cute, she describes the waning days of her Hollywood career, what kinds of people continue to receive Hollywoods attention (Scarlett Johansson makes an appearance), and how most of her acting now consists of voiceover work (in addition to being The Faceless Old Woman on Night Vale, she also had a recurring role as Jill Pill on BoJack Horseman). And in one of the best chapters, The Matilda-Whore Complex, Wilson confronts separating herself from the role that will always keep her in roundups of ’90s pop culture, maintaining the magic of Matilda the character while also giving herself permission to be herself as an adult.
Im 29, I can say Ive been drunk before or say that Ive had sex before and nobody is going to be shocked, says Wilson. Some people might disapprove because they still think of me as a child. But those people either have very strong moral or religious beliefs, or they need to get over themselves.
Going through her late mothers papers, Robin Cutler found a child prodigy, a gifted writer, a friend of Fitzgeralds, and the makings of a faceted biography. Heres the prologue.”>
All the Things You Were
I picked up the book carefully, wary of the mold on its faded cover. Rodents had gnawed through the corners and the edges of its pages. On this oppressive June day when the humidity intensified all sweet and sour odors, the book smelled terrible. It was headed for the landfill, but the playful inscription to Jane Hall and the bold signature on the front endpaper caught my attention: F. Scott (Pretty Boy) Fitzgerald Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1938.
My mother was twenty-three when Fitzgerald brought her this copy ofTender is the Night. Shed been an art student and aspiring author on its publication date in 1934. Three years later, the snappy dialogue in her short stories caught the interest of celebrated Hollywood agent H. N. (Swanie) Swanson; within a few months she was hard at work at MGM. Before long, Jane Elizabeth Hall and F. Scott Fitzgerald were colleagues in adjoining offices at Hollywoods most successful studio.
I carefully tore out the page with the inscription and filed it with other papers that seemed to be worth keeping for another day. It was 1987 and Jane had died on April 18, the Saturday before Easter. I had tried to telephone her on that brilliant April morning to let her know when we would arrive at Poplar Springs. After the fourth attempt I began to panic; she always answered the phone. But she was there, lying peacefully on her double bed, her hands clasped on her chest, surrounded by books, papers, half empty boxes of Milk Bone dog biscuits, a small television on the bureau that was always on, and eleven anxious German shepherds trying to wake her up. Her loaded .38 revolver a gift from the local sheriff because she was so alone in that sprawling stone manor house out in the Fauquier County countrysidewas still in the nightstand drawer.
Until a heart attack ended her life, Jane had a special cachet in Virginia as a formerCosmopolitancover girl who had worked in Culver City for Louis B. Mayer. Jane married during her years as a screenwriter, and I had no idea that she had known Fitzgerald. Though she rarely spoke about her career, a few weeks before she died, she mentioned to me that shed had a chance at real happiness between 1935 and 1942, when shed been productive as an author. For so much of my life, shed seemed preoccupied by money worries and swamped with business problems; in her later years she struggled with physical pain from a back injury. I wanted to learn more about the days when her green eyes sparkled, she laughed often, and her wit was razor sharp. What was it like to work as a writer in Hollywood? How did she end up there? Why did she leave? I didnt expect to postpone my search for the answers to these questions for twenty-two years.
On a chilly October morning in 2009, I began, finally, to look through my mothers papers that Id kept in storage for so long. As a historian, I naturally focused on the years before I was born. As I pored through a scrapbook filled with poems, stories, articles, editorials, and book reviews that shed published before she was fifteen years old, my heart went out to the young tomboy from an Arizona mining town who wanted passionately to be a novelist. Often shed described people on the fringe of lifean elderly lady ignored by a bus driver; the son of a laundress spurned by a pretty, wealthy girl; a lonely street sweeper at midnight; or an alcoholic confined to a hospital bed. Her hard work was driven in part by the premature death of her father and idol, Dick Wick Hall, then Arizonas favorite humorist. Janes fierce ambition and success as a juvenile author led the press to call her a literary prodigy. But her determination would be diluted for a time after her mother succumbed to breast cancer in 1930.
Once she became an orphan, Janes circumstancesand, therefore, the subjects she wrote aboutchanged dramatically. She and her brother traveled east to live with an aunt and uncle as part of a rarefied segment of Manhattan and Virginia society. Jane brought an outsiders perspective to her new life among the debutantes and party girls of the Depression years. And she used what she learned to portray and parody this privileged world in her fiction and screenplays. Her diaries and scores of letters provide an appealing look at what it was like be a woman writer in Depression America. Her voice is candid, refreshing, and at times disturbing as she describes her response to the demands of editors, producers, studio executives, and the watchdog of the production code administration, Joseph Breen. Her published stories, articles, and screenplays depict an absorbing if narrow slice of popular culture in New York City and Hollywood during the turbulent 30s.
At MGM Janes days belonged only to Louis B. Mayer. She worked long hours for some of his top producers dreaming up scenarios and clever dialogue that drew on her experiences in Manhattan. In August 1939, eight months afterCosmopolitanpublished her book length novel,These Glamour Girls, the movie of the same name premiered in New York City. The trailer announced Jane Halls blistering expose of the platinum-plated darlings of the smart set;The New York Timescalled it the best college comedy and the best social comedy of the year.
Jane not only wrote stories and screenplays, she reported from Culver City for Good HousekeepingandCosmopolitan. Her editors there (William Bigelow and Harry Burton) loved the way her buoyant personality came through in her lighthearted interviews with MGM celebrities, and in her account of her visits to the sets ofThe Wizard of OzandGone with the Wind.Her letters home reveal the fun she had lunching with Rosalind Russell, dining with Walter Pidgeon, dancing with Jimmy Stewart, and sailing to Catalina on Joe Mankiewiczs schooner.
I became intrigued by the way Jane participated in and observed the culture of elegance that magazine readers and movie audiences yearned for during the Depression. Historian Morris Dickstein finds that a cultures forms of escape, if they can be called escape, are as significant and revealing as its social criticism. The 30s, a decade often defined by the suffering and poverty that decimated millions of lives, was also rich in the production of popular fantasy and trenchant social criticism. Janes storytelling, laced with insight and satire, is a window into a world that was inaccessible to most Americans then and remains so today.
What determines who a woman will become? It was only after she died that I discovered the album of photos from my mothers childhood. In one image a tall, proud woman stands with her arms around her two children in the brilliant sun near Salome, a hardscrabble mining town in western Arizona.
The woman, Daysie Sutton Hall, is the grandmother I never met. On her right is thirteen-year-old Dickie, Janes brother, in scruffy overalls and an oversized sweater, a cloth fedora pulled down low to shade his eyes. The ten-year-old girl on Daysies left wears a pleated skirt and middy, scuffed shoes, and knee socks pulled up tight. The light brown bangs of her cropped hair almost reach her eyebrows. It is the girls dont-mess-with-me expression that stands out in this 1925 sepia photograph. For she is fearless, funny, mischievous, and proud to be a tomboy who can ride Killer, the wildest horse in the desert hamlet that her father cofounded. What thrills her most is that she has just had her first story accepted by theLos Angeles Times.
I grew up witha different image of Jane. The centerpiece of our living room was Bradshaw Crandells full-length portrait of Mrs. Robert Cutler (Janes married name). There she is a stunning platinum blonde in a long, black velvet evening dress with a white ermine neckline. She appears to be a tall woman with a movie-star figure, perfect features, and ruby lips and nails. The large emerald that sparkles on her left hand matches her green eyes. The woman in this portrait is as inaccessible as classic-era stars in publicity photos. The black wool carpet and ivory upholstered furniture that defined the large paneled room complemented Crandells work. Many people loved the exquisite paintingmovie stars and numerous prominent men and women sat for Crandell who, in 2006, was inducted posthumously into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. But it reminds me of the P. D. Eastman book that I once read to my grandsons:Are You My Mother?
Such Mad Funfollows a talented small-town girl with grand ambitions who sought to be independent at a time when her family, her friends, and her social and cultural milieu had other expectations for her. It is also a behind-the-scenes look at the messages that popular culture conveys to its audiences. Feminist Betty Friedan underscores the critical role that magazines played between the 30s and the 50s in defining womens sense of who they were meant to be. Who was the ideal young womanmore specifically the ideal young, white, middle- and upper-middle-class womantargeted by so many magazines and movie houses? Whether for print or for the screen, Janes stories brim with class conflict while providing guidance for her peers on how to navigate in the eternal search for the perfect mate.
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In the 50s, my mother was often a mystery to meif her bedroom was not off-limits, I headed straight for her mirrored dressing table just to look, not to touch, the artists tools that allowed her to transform herself into a glamour girl before she could be seen in public. She rarely came out of her room without her face on; I dont recall ever seeing her with wet hair. I must have sensed that her life was not what she thought it should be. And after her death I wondered how the plucky tomboy in the photo album became the woman in Crandells portrait. What was lost and gained in the process? Something dramatic happens to little girls as they approach adolescencemany lose their voice.This book is both a coming-of-age story and a cautionary tale set in the cultural and social context of a decade that has surprising parallels with American life today.
Robin R. Cutler is the author of Such Mad Fun: Ambition and Glamour in Hollywoods Golden Age. She has spent most of her career as a public historian both at the National Endowment for the Humanities and as president of two nonprofit organizations. She was the producer/writer of the award-winning PBS documentary Indian America: A Gift from the Past, and co-producer of ROANOAK, an Emmy-nominated dramatic series for PBS. Her first book, A Soul on Trial, was named a notable naval book of 2007. She has a PhD in history from Columbia University and taught for eleven years in universities in New York City.
Robin divides her time between New York, Florida, and her daughters homes in California. In addition to reading, writing, and mentoring students, she loves animals, trees, salted caramel, baseball, the Golden State Warriors, PBS, and Turner Classic Movies. Find her at RobinrCutler.com, Facebook or Twitter @NYCRobin
The famous, glitzy pill-popping novel is not feminist in modern terms. But as a document of a weird watershed in American culture, its unparalleled
Ive got to leave something on this earth before I go, and I dont want it discovered after I go, Jacqueline Susann wrote in her diary on New Years Day, 1963. She would fulfill that ambition three years later with the publication of her second novel, Valley of the Dolls. By the time Susann died of breast cancer in 1974, it had sold 17m copies, spawned a hit movie and made her the favorite punching bag of a literary world that surely envied her success.
On its 50th anniversary, with sales now soaring above 30m, Valley of the Dolls is still luring in readers. Less predictably, its attained a cultural cachet that would have delighted its author. Grove Press (along with Virago in the UK) has just reissued the novel with a stylish 60s-retro cover, Criterion Collection will release a deluxe edition of the film in September and everyone is talking about how contemporary Susanns show business roman clef feels in 2016.
Every year it reasserts its relevance, the authors 33-year-old step-grandson Whitney Robinson told the New York Times this winter. In his introduction to the new edition, the writer and Barneys creative ambassador Simon Doonan judges it the perfect mirror for todays culture.
These marketing lines are, at best, exaggerations. Some parts of the book have aged well, its true. The plot follows three archetypal showbiz girls: beautiful, well-bred Anne Welles; brassy, talented Neely OHara; and sexy, pragmatic Jennifer North. The trio seeks fame and get hooked on prescription pills in the two decades following the second world war in a way that made the novel particularly progressive about sex. Susann examines the female orgasm, menstruation and even lesbianism with the frankness we now associate with womens blogs. Although Jennifer had been startled at the proposal, Susann writes of a youthful affair between female classmates, she felt no revulsion; in fact, she was even a little curious.
Valley of the Dolls was also an excellent document of a short, crucial period in American history: the mid-1960s. The novels ambitious, libidinous heroines owe almost as much to Betty Friedans The Feminine Mystique as to Helen Gurley Browns Sex and the Single Girl; both became bestsellers early in the decade. Meanwhile, Timothy Leary was researching psilocybin and LSD as a psychedelic counterculture began to coalesce on the west coast. But neither second-wave feminism nor the hippie movement had reached critical mass by 1966, and its not as though the author or her readers came from either world anyway. Susann used Middle Americas growing fascination with celebrity to reel in readers.
Legend has it that before her death, Susann announced to a critic that the 60s would be remembered for the Beatles, Andy Warhol and herself, in an immortal soundbite thats quoted on the back cover of the new American edition. Though shes often ridiculed for the statement, shes as much a transitional figure as those men were, bridging the commercial pop sensibility of the decades first half with the sexual and political revolutions of its final years. The Valley of the Dolls movie did something similar. Released just months after 1967s Summer of Love, its most explicit sex scene is framed as an excerpt from a sleazy French directors film. This sleight of hand allows viewers to judge Sharon Tates Jennifer for starring in nudies while enjoying the pretty actresss own nakedness.
Informed as it may have been by a nascent feminist consciousness, Valley of the Dollss take on gender is actually what dates the book. Susanns female characters harbor dreams and appetites that transcend the domestic sphere, but ultimately theyre grown-up children. They treat other women as rivals and rely on men for emotional stability. Even sensible Anne spends 15 years with her life on pause, sleepwalking through a TV career as she pines for her beloved Lyon Burke. Meanwhile, wise father figures like the womens attorney Henry Bellamy are always lurking in the background to save them from their own foolishness. Crooked studio heads and controlling lovers provide occasional reminders that there are corrupt men in this world too, but those moments arent nearly as vivid as the catfights or the breakdowns.
Susanns vision of ideal manhood is similarly narrow. Men like Neelys first husband Mel Harris are portrayed as emasculated for relying on female breadwinners. When Lyon cheats on Anne, Henry explains that its her fault for buying him a business and refusing to settle down with him in rural New England: He probably feels that you castrated him and not once, but twice.
By the end of the novel (spoiler warning), two of the central characters are miserable and the other is dead. But Valley of the Dolls isnt exactly Kate Chopins The Awakening; this tragedy isnt an indictment of rigid gender roles. In fact, it was intended as a cautionary tale about womens ambition. Valley of the Dolls showed that a woman in a ranch house with three kids had a better life than what happened up there at the top, Susann once said, a strange statement from a woman who spent her life chasing wealth and fame.
None of this jeopardizes Valley of the Dollss real legacy, as irresistible camp. Its melodramatic storyline and hammy characters, who overflow with emotion but never demand our empathy, have always been essential to its allure. Audiences laughed openly at preview screenings of the film. In 1969, Nora Ephron proclaimed: Good kitschy writers are born, not made. And when Jacqueline Susann sits down at her typewriter on Central Park South, what spills out is first-rate kitsch. A year later, Russ Meyer and Roger Eberts softcore sort-of parody Beyond the Valley of the Dolls appeared. Centered around an all-girl rock trio dubbed the Carrie Nations, the film features all the hippie psychedelia Susanns story lacks and, according to Ebert, grossed $40m on a $900,000 budget. It, too, will get the Criterion treatment this fall.
If Valley of the Dolls is more relevant than ever, its because camp classics only grow more appealing as time passes and their tenuous relationship to reality further deteriorates. Its easy to see why the novels moral irritated some feminists in 1966. (Gloria Steinems review included the memorable quip: For the reader who has put away comic books but isnt yet ready for editorials in the Daily News, VOTD may bridge an awkward gap.) But 50 years later, its desperate women and condescending men are quaint enough to be entertaining.
Just as Reefer Madness is funnier now that no one calls marijuana devils weed, readers who recognize Susanns heroines as caricatures laugh louder at the image of a barbiturate-mad Judy Garland clone guzzling caviar and slurring to herself, Neely, you can have anything you want. Cause youre a star. Its possible to love Valley of the Dolls without pretending we live in the world it describes.
In 1976 Richard Dawkinss study of evolutionary theory became the first popular science bestseller. How do its ideas stand up today?
Its 40 years since Richard Dawkins suggested, in the opening words of The Selfish Gene, that, were an alien to visit Earth, the question it would pose to judge our intellectual maturity was: Have they discovered evolution yet? We had, of course, by the grace of Charles Darwin and a century of evolutionary biologists who had been trying to figure out how natural selection actually worked. In 1976, The Selfish Gene became the first real blockbuster popular science book, a poetic mark in the sand to the public and scientists alike: this idea had to enter our thinking, our research and our culture.
The idea was this: genes strive for immortality, and individuals, families, and species are merely vehicles in that quest. The behaviour of all living things is in service of their genes hence, metaphorically, they are selfish. Before this, it had been proposed that natural selection was honing the behaviour of living things to promote the continuance through time of the individual creature, or family, or group or species. But in fact, Dawkins said, it was the gene itself that was trying to survive, and it just so happened that the best way for it to survive was in concert with other genes in the impermanent husk of an individual.
This gene-centric view of evolution also began to explain one of the oddities of life on Earth the behaviour of social insects. What is the point of a drone bee, doomed to remain childless and in the service of a totalitarian queen? Suddenly it made sense that, with the gene itself steering evolution, the fact that the drone shared its DNA with the queen meant that its servitude guarantees not the individuals survival, but the endurance of the genes they share. Or as the Anglo-Indian biologist JBS Haldane put it: Would I lay down my life to save my brother? No, but I would to save two brothers or eightcousins.
Her columns about the trials of parenting once enthralled America and in the age of parenting blogs, it remains as poignant and funny as ever
Growing up in the 1980s as a tediously well-behaved and highly conformist child, I loved Erma Bombecks books. I often used my allowance to increase my mothers modest collection of her writings. Reading comedy about kids while still one yourself can offer a fascinating bridge between the two solitudes of parent and child, the latter solitude generally being notable for its solipsism.
Bombecks description of motherhood did not mirror my own home life. My mother left the house every day to go to a job, while my father was the homemaker. Yet it never seemed to interfere with my enjoyment of Bombecks suburban stay-at-home-mom jokes. Rereading Bombeck now, as a mother of two myself, I see the flinty edges beneath the smiles but also now know why so many women who owned no other humor books, and were in bed long before Don Pardo introduced the cast of Saturday Night Live, bought everything she wrote.
Bombeck was inarguably one of the most successful and widely read female humorists of the 20th century. By the time her career reached its peak in the mid-1980s, her syndicated column, At Wits End, ran three times a week in 900 newspapers across North America. Every book she wrote was a bestseller. Motherhood was her beat and she was very, very funny.
Bombecks appeal was deliberately middle-brow. Her columns could (and can, though yellowed) be found gracing refrigerator doors across the nation, next to Dear Abby clippings and grocery lists. The most enduring, sadly, is probably one of her least representative. A soppy contribution to the national pastime of deifying the work of raising kids, When God Created Mothers was a giant hit:
Can it think?
Not only can it think, but it can reason and compromise, said the Creator.
Finally, the angel bent over and ran her finger across the cheek.
Theres a leak, she pronounced. I told You that You were trying to put too much into this model.
Its not a leak, said the Lord, Its a tear.
Its unfortunate that Bombecks rare bouts of excessive sentimentality have had more staying power than what writer Lyz Lenz calls her dark absurdity. Had Nora Ephron been a suburban stay-at-home mother instead of a NYC-to-DC journalist and film-maker, her work might have looked remarkably like Bombecks. They shared the conviction that everything is copy and each was an expert at making the joke their own, and thus exorcising the sadness or frustration underlying it.
For Bombeck, the great cosmic joke was motherhood, and suburban motherhood in particular. She and her husband Bill moved to Centerville, Ohio in 1959, buying a home in a tract housing development she would mine brilliantly for material in her 1976 classic, The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank. We are so used, now, to critiques of suburbia that reading Bombecks more curious, anthropological take on it seems like dropping through time. Her materials are carpooling, drive-through-everything, lost clarinet reeds, children who clamor for a pet and then never look after it, dirty ovens, gently bumbling husbands who drift through the house opening cabinets and never closing them, etc.
This may seem pedestrian stuff, but Bombecks voice is so fresh, so sharp and so eerily acute that there are moments that her work compares to that of Ira Levin, that great chronicler of suburban loneliness and alienation, or Shirley Jackson. She also wrote keenly about being an adoptive mother, about feeling unattractive, about empty-nesting and, more rarely, about sex. (She certainly wrote more frequently about meat loaf.) Depression is there, too (this is from a portion of Septic Tank called Loneliness):
No one talked about it a lot, but everyone knew what it was.
It was the day you alphabetized your spices on the spice rack.
Then you dressed all the naked dolls in the house and arranged them on the bed according to size.
You talked to your plants and they fell asleep on you.
It was a condition, and it came with the territory.
I tried to explain it to my neighbor, Helen.
Im depressed, Helen, I said, and I think I know what it is. (Excuse me.) Lonnie! I see you sneaking out of the house with my mixer and I know what you are going to do with it. Put it back!
More coffee? asked Helen.
Bombeck made magic out of Tupperware parties and comparing diet tips, bored to tears. She spun gold from the hay of misplaced socks (she may have invented the joke about laundry machines eating one of every pair, as old-hat as it now sounds) and over-starched shirts. Almost literal gold, in fact: her $3-a-pop columns, begun in 1959, had given way to million-dollar book advances by 1978.
Bombecks meteoric rise in the 1960s and 1970s (her two failed forays into television were rare missteps) paralleled, if never quite intersected with, the womens lib movement. Once her children were grown, her activism in support of the ERA a proposed equal gender rights amendment to the constitution which had been kicking around since the 1920s and was eventually defeated largely due to conservative Phyllis Schlaflys vehement opposition ruffled some feathers, but her earlier writing had primarily addressed the unfairness of the status of women (particularly mothers) in American society with laughter.
Bombeck was not much for pointing fingers at the structural causes of societal unfairness. Her work and presumed audience was also unflaggingly white and middle-class, even as she hopped up the income rungs year by year. It was better for business as well, of course, but Bombeck was a fundamentally honest humorist, and it seems to a careful reader that laughing at the tedium and mess and ingratitude assailing mid-century homemakers was her activism, in its own way.
In her 1993 book, A Marriage Made in Heaven or Too Tired For an Affair, Bombeck speaks about having attended a talk by Betty Friedan many decades earlier, hoping to break up the tedium of her week, and hearing Friedan detail the dull, dreary chaos of the life she and her friends were leading. Bombeck expected Friedans story to pivot into humor, and was horrified when none was forthcoming. It had to be funny, for Bombeck; it had to be her joke, or it wasnt endurable.
It was a note she would hit again in an uncharacteristically dark moment in Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession. Bombeck ran, in full, a letter she had received from prison in 1982 from a woman who had, unthinkably (though never unthinkably for a writer as generous and sharp as Bombeck), killed her child. The woman wrote of having discovered Bombecks writing and thought that perhaps her life might have been so different if she had known that she could joke about the dirty dishes and the unmade beds and the particular screech that a baby can make just as you feel yourself undone by your day.
It was Friedans talk, however, that made Bombeck decide to march down to her local paper and start writing those $3 columns. It had to be funny, but it also had to be done. Motherhood, when stared in the face, was funny, could be funny, needed to be. What she would have made of the proliferation of parenting bloggers and competitive lunchbox Instagramming, who can say? Her life was her material, as were the lives of her children, who adored her, and in their youth paid little attention to her work. (Her son Matt once described her as a syndicated communist when asked what she did.)
Bombeck, who suffered for decades from health woes, including breast cancer and the polycystic kidney disease that eventually took her life, rarely allowed that aspect of her identity to bleed into her writing, although she wrote a book about children with cancer and made light of her daily dialysis to friends and family. Perhaps its fine, after all, that the sweetness of her writing, even its periodic over-sweetness, has endured as long as her wit. Motherhood, to Bombeck, probably did seem like a gift, coming as it did to her slightly later in life, and via both adoption and childbearing. She wanted what she had, her work says, and she always knew it was funny.