Erma Louise Bombeck (née Fiste; February 21, 1927 – April 22, 1996) was an American humorist who achieved great popularity for her newspaper column that described suburban home life from the mid-1960s until the late 1990s. Bombeck also published 15 books, most of which became bestsellers. From 1965 to 1996, Erma Bombeck wrote over 4,000 newspaper columns, using broad and sometimes eloquent humor, chronicling the ordinary life of a midwestern suburban housewife. By the 1970s, her columns were read twice-weekly by 30 million readers of the 900 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada.
Erma Fiste was born in Bellbrook, Ohio, to a working-class family, and was raised in Dayton. Her parents were Erma (née Haines) and Cassius Edwin Fiste, who was the city crane operator. Young Erma lived with her elder paternal half-sister, Thelma. She began elementary school one year earlier than usual for her age, in 1932, and became an excellent student and an avid reader. She particularly enjoyed the popular humor writers of the time. After Erma's father died in 1936, she moved, with her mother, into her grandmother's home. In 1938 her mother remarried, to Albert Harris (a moving van owner). Erma practiced tap dance and singing, and was hired by a local radio station for a children's revue for eight years.
In 1940 Erma entered Emerson Junior High School, and began writing a humorous column for its newspaper, The Owl. In 1942, Bombeck entered Parker (now Patterson) Vocational High School, where she wrote a serious column, mixing in bits of humor. In 1942, she began to work at the Dayton Herald as a copygirl, sharing her full-time assignment with a girlfriend. In 1943, for her first journalistic work, Erma interviewed Shirley Temple, who visited Dayton, and the interview became a newspaper feature.
Erma completed high school in 1944. Then, to earn a college scholarship fund, she worked for a year as a typist and stenographer, for the Dayton Herald and several other companies, and did minor journalistic assignments (obituaries, etc.) for the Dayton Herald as well. Using the money she earned, Erma enrolled in Ohio University at Athens, Ohio, in 1946. However, she failed most of her literary assignments and was rejected for the university newspaper. She left after one semester, when her funds ran out.
Erma later enrolled in the University of Dayton, a Catholic college. She lived in her family home and worked at Rike's Store, a department store, where she wrote humorous material for the company newsletter. In addition, she worked two part-time jobs - as a termite control accountant at an advertising agency[clarification needed] and as a public relations person at the local YMCA. While in college, her English professor, Bro. Tom Price, commented to Erma about her great prospects as a writer, and she began to write for the university student publication, The Exponent. She graduated in 1949 with a degree in English, and became a lifelong active contact for the University — helping financially and participating personally — and became a lifetime trustee of the institution in 1987. In 1949, she converted to Catholicism, from the United Brethren church, and married Bill Bombeck, a former fellow student of the University of Dayton, who was a veteran of the World War II Korean front. His subsequent profession would be that of educator and school supervisor. Bombeck remained active in the church the rest of her life.
The Bombecks were told by doctors that having a child was improbable, so they adopted a girl, Betsy, in 1953. Erma decided to become a full-time housewife, and relinquished her career as a journalist. During 1954, Erma nevertheless wrote a series of humorous columns in the Dayton Shopping News.
Despite the former difficult diagnoses, Erma Bombeck gave birth to a son, Andrew, in 1955. Away from her previous journalistic career, Bombeck initiated an intense period of homemaking, which lasted 10 years, and had her second son, Matthew, in 1958. The Bombeck family moved in 1959 to Centerville, Ohio, into a tract housing development, and were neighbors to the young Phil Donahue. This home was later added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015.
"At Wit's End" (1965)
In 1964 Erma Bombeck resumed her writing career for the local Kettering-Oakwood Times, with weekly columns which yielded $3 each. She wrote in her small bedroom. In 1965 the Dayton Journal Herald requested new humorous columns as well, and Bombeck agreed to write two weekly 450-word columns for $50. After three weeks, the articles went into national syndication through the Newsday Newspaper Syndicate, into 36 major U.S. newspapers, with three weekly columns under the title "At Wit's End".
Bombeck quickly became a popular humorist nationwide. Beginning in 1966, she began doing lectures in the various cities where her columns appeared. In 1967, her newspaper columns were compiled and published by Doubleday, under the title of At Wit's End. And after a humorous appearance on Arthur Godfrey's radio show, she became a regular radio guest on the show.
Aaron Priest, a Doubleday representative, became Bombeck's loyal agent. By 1969, 500 U.S. newspapers featured her "At Wit's End" columns, and she was also writing for Good Housekeeping Magazine, Reader's Digest, Family Circle, Redbook, McCall's, and even Teen magazine. Bombeck and her family moved to Phoenix, Arizona, to a lavish hacienda on a hilltop in Paradise Valley.
By 1978, 900 U.S. newspapers were publishing Bombeck's column.
In 1976 McGraw-Hill published Bombeck's The Grass Is Always Greener over the Septic Tank, which became a best-seller. In 1978, Bombeck arranged both a million-dollar contract for her fifth book, If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? and a 700-thousand-copy advance for her subsequent book, Aunt Erma's Cope Book (1979).
At the invitation of television producer Bob Shanks, Bombeck participated in ABC's Good Morning America from 1975 until 1986. She began doing brief commentaries which were recorded at Phoenix, and eventually did both gag segments and important interviews.
For several years, Bombeck was occupied with multiple writing and TV projects. In 1978, she failed with the television pilot of The Grass is Always Greener on CBS. In 1980, then Bombeck wrote and produced her own show, the also unsuccessful Maggie, for ABC. It aired for just four months (eight episodes) to poor reviews; nevertheless the show meant that Bombeck was becoming quickly overworked, returning from Los Angeles to Phoenix only during weekends. Bombeck was offered a second sitcom attempt but she declined.
Equal Rights Amendment (1978)
In 1978 Bombeck was involved in the Presidential Advisory Committee for Women, particularly for the final implementation of the Equal Rights Amendment, with the ERA America organization's support. Bombeck was strongly criticized for this by conservative figures, and some U.S. stores reacted by removing her books. In 1972 the Equal Rights Amendment was proposed by the United States Congress to the states. Congress specified a seven-year period for ratification. Under Article V of the United States Constitution, ratification by at least three-fourths of the states is necessary, but at the end of the seven-year period, only 35 states had ratified, or three less than the required three-fourths. Of the 35 states that ratified proposed amendment, 5 of them rescinded their ratifications prior to the expiration of the deadline. Bombeck expressed dismay over this development..
Great popularity (1980s)
By 1985 Erma Bombeck's three weekly columns were being published by 900 newspapers in the United States and Canada, and were also being anthologized into a series of best-selling books. She was also making twice-weekly Good Morning America appearances. Bombeck belonged to the American Academy of Humor Columnists, along with other famous personalities. During the 1980s, Bombeck's annual earnings ranged from $500,000 to $1 million a year. She was the grand marshal for the 97th Tournament of Roses Parade held on January 1, 1986. The parade theme was "A Celebration of Laughter."
Erma Bombeck was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease (an incurable, untreatable genetic disease) when she was 20 years old. She survived breast cancer and mastectomy, and kept secret the fact that she had kidney disease, enduring daily dialysis. She went public with her condition in 1993. On a waiting list for transplant for years, one kidney had to be removed, and the remaining one ceased to function. On April 3, 1996, she received a kidney transplant. Erma Bombeck died on April 22, 1996, aged 69, from complications of the operation. Her remains are interred in the Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio, under a large rock from the Phoenix desert.
- At Wit's End, Doubleday, 1967.
- Just Wait Until You Have Children of Your Own, Doubleday, 1971. Written with Bil Keane.
- I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression, Doubleday, 1974.
- The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, McGraw-Hill, 1976.
- If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?, McGraw-Hill, 1978.
- Aunt Erma's Cope Book, McGraw-Hill, 1979.
- Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession, 1983.
- Family — The Ties that Bind ... and Gag!, 1987.
- I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Go to Boise: Children Surviving Cancer, 1989. American Cancer Society's Medal of Honor in 1990. (Profits from the publication of this book were donated to a group of health-related organizations.)
- 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, ISBN 0060177888 HarperCollins 1995
- Forever, Erma: Best-Loved Writing From America's Favorite Humorist, Andrew McMeel Publishing, 1996
- "Insanity is hereditary. You can catch it from your kids."
- "I wondered how Wally Cox, Minnie Pearl and Walter Hickel made out."
- "I fired my deodorant!"
- "Children should be judged on what they are--a punishment for an early marriage."
- "My second favorite household chore is ironing. My first one being hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint."
- "There's nothing sadder in this world than to awake Christmas morning and not be a child."
- "If a man watches three football games in a row, he should be declared legally dead."
- "Mothers-in-law who wear a black armband to the wedding are expendable."
- "The only reason I would take up jogging is so I could hear heavy breathing again."
- "I consider ironed sheets a health hazard."
- "Laughter rises out of tragedy, when you need it the most, and rewards you for your courage."
- "Dreams have only one owner at a time. That's why dreamers are lonely."
- "When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me.'"
- "In general, my children refused to eat anything that hadn't danced on TV."
- "When humor goes, there goes civilization."
- "Seize the moment. Think of all those women on the 'Titanic' who waved off the dessert cart."
- "Never loan your car to anyone to whom you've given birth."
- "The grass is always greener over the septic tank."
- "A child needs your love more when he deserves it least."
- "There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt."
- "It takes a lot of courage to show your dreams to someone else."
- "If you can laugh at it, you can live with it."
- "I told you I was sick." (She requested this to be her epitaph.)
- "I didn't fight my way to the top of the food chain to be a vegetarian".