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Meet the Woman who Made the World Laugh: Erma Bombeck

From the book, Erma Bombeck: Writer and Humorist by Lynn Hutner Colwell. Read the full biography and explore more about Bombeck’s life and work at Erma Bombeck Collection.

Erma Bombeck became a household name in the 1970s and 1980s. She spoke for the women of an entire generation, revealing that being a housewife and a mother came with its own sets of concerns, and wasn’t necessarily a glamorous occupation. She wrote with hilarity and wit.

Erma Louise Fiste was born on February 21, 1927. With her parents and half-sister Thelma, Erma lived on Hedges Street in a Dayton, Ohio, neighborhood filled with hardworking, lower middle class families.

Erma was an eager student… Reading opened up life to her and helped her cope with the world of adults in which she found herself. When the school day ended, she would rush home, grab a book and scramble to her special spot under the eaves where it was cool. 

One day when she was fifteen, Erma walked into the office of the managing editor of the Dayton Herald, the city’s afternoon newspaper and said, “I want to work for your paper.” The editor explained that only a full-time position was available.

“That’s okay, I can work two weeks and get you another girl to work the two weeks I’m in school. While she’s in school, I’ll work. That’s how our school operates. It’ll be just like having a full-time person,” Erma ended triumphantly. She was hired.

Bill Bombeck worked for the city’s morning paper, the Dayton Journal. When copygirl met copyboy, sparks flew. Erma thought he was gorgeous. She didn’t care if he couldn’t put two words together and come up with a sentence. She eyed him for two or three years before they got together. Then, after only a couple of dates, he left for the Army and Korea.

Graduating from high school in 1944 and determined to build a college fund, Erma assumed two full-time jobs. After three years as a copygirl, the Dayton Journal-Herald hired her as a full-time writer. The job relieved her of the menial labor she had been performing, but there was little opportunity to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. She spent most of the stint writing obituaries.

Fueled by an intense desire to prove herself, Erma enrolled at the University of Dayton, a private, medium-sized four-year Catholic college. Erma graduated in 1949.

More educated now than any previous member of her family had ever been, Erma willingly abandoned academic life and dove back into the newspaper business. The Dayton Journal-Herald welcomed her home. She was assigned to the women’s section.

And when Bill Bombeck returned from Korea during the final stages of World War II, the two began dating seriously. Erma and Bill, both age twenty-two, got married.

Erma returned to writing humor in 1952. At first her columns, which ran under the title “Operation Dustrag,” offered household hints and new product evaluations. Then newlywed Erma discovered housework. Household absurdities quickly found their way into the column.

At the same time, World War II had created a profound change for American women. With their men at war, millions of women flooded the workplace — 75 percent of them were married and one-third had children under the age of 14. Erma’s first columns struck a nerve with these women.

For two years, Erma and Bill tried to have a baby. Their doctor confirmed that chances of Erma’s conceiving were small and they decided to adopt. When Betsy came into her life, Erma said goodbye to her career and the people she had grown up with at the newspaper without the slightest doubt that she was doing the right thing. Although the doctor had claimed Erma would never conceive a child, she twice proved him wrong. In 1955, Andrew was born, followed by Matthew three years later.

The demands of motherhood amazed Erma. Exhaustion stalked her constantly. There weren’t enough hours in the day. She never had time for herself and sagged under a kind of loneliness she had never known. Since no one discussed these feelings in public, Erma thought something was wrong with her, that she was the only woman in the world experiencing them. She thought she should be able to handle her life, but she wasn’t doing a very good job and no one seemed to understand.

In 1955, the Bombecks moved to Centerville, the city where Bill taught, and settled on a street bustling with growing families. For the first time, she met other women who were as frustrated as she was and who admitted it.

One day in 1964, Erma walked into the office of Ron Ginger, the editor of the local paper, the Kettering-Oakwood Times. “I’d like to do a column for you,” she said. Simple honesty won the day. The editor fell for her charming intro and offered three dollars a week. She turned out her columns in a cramped bedroom, the typewriter balanced on a plank suspended between a couple of cinder blocks.

Erma’s column had run for some time the Dayton Journal-Herald editor spotted her work, offering to up her pay and her workload — $50 a week for two columns to run under her byline. Three weeks after her first column appeared, Erma signed a short-term contract with Newsday. Thirty-eight papers were buying her 400-500 word columns by the end of the first year. Five years later “At Wit’s End” was a staple in 500.

As more newspapers signed her on, though, Erma was asked to lecture in the new cities. The thousands of women (and a surprising number of men) who turned out to hear her speak, applauding her every poke at their lives, thrilled and overwhelmed her. At first, Erma delighted in the trips, but later, she grew tired of the endless series of hotel rooms and of being away from her family. She eventually left the speakers’ circuit.

Book deals soon followed, then magazine columns, a regular feature on Good Morning America, and television and movie deals.

In 1978, Erma was appointed to the President’s National Advisory Committee for Women. Although Erma appreciated being asked to join the commission, she never considered herself a political activist. In fact, she’d never been particularly interested in politics. But one issue forced her into the political arena. It was the Equal Rights Amendment. It surprised a lot of people when Erma Bombeck, voice of the American housewife, came out in support of the ERA. But Erma saw no conflict. Discrimination of any kind had always angered her.

Her staunch support of the amendment did not, however, include its feminist leaders, whom she felt were on the wrong track. She sensed they were waging a war using housewives as the battleground. Erma believed in true equality, that no matter how you spend your life, you deserve recognition and acceptance and that the contribution you make to society by caring for your family should be considered equal to that made by anyone working at a job with regulated hours and pay.

When asked by a reporter why she poured so much time and effort into the ERA, Erma replied, “I’m doing it for my kids. It will be important to them. It’s also a great feeling to be a part of history. I wish that they could put this on my tombstone: She got Missouri for the ERA.” Unfortunately, despite an extension of three years, time ran out and the ERA failed. It was one of the biggest disappointments of Erma Bombeck’s life.

At 20, Bombeck was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, an incurable and untreatable genetic condition. She survived breast cancer and a mastectomy but kept secret the fact that she had kidney disease, enduring daily dialysis. She went public with her condition in 1993. After she spent years on a waiting list for a transplant, one kidney had to be removed, and the remaining one ceased to function. On April 3, 1996, she received a kidney transplant. She died on April 22, 1996, aged 69, from complications of the operation.

At her funeral, friend and neighbour Phil Donahue eulogized, “We shall never see the likes of her again. She was real and she brought us down to earth — gently, generously and with brilliant humor. When the scholars gather hundreds of years from now to learn about us, they can’t know it all if they don’t read Erma.”

Theatre CBS is proud to present Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End June 14 and 15 at the Royal Newfoundland Yacht Club. This one-woman show includes her life story, told by Alison Engel and Margaret Engel with classic Bombeck style.

You'll laugh until it hurts and love every minute of it!



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