The Magazine

Days of Wine and Daisies

The Happy Life and Work of Jean Kerr.

Apr 14, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 30 • By SUSIE POWELL CURRIE
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IN THE 1960 MOVIE "Please Don't Eat the Daisies," the theater critic Larry Mackay says of his new job at a major New York newspaper, "There's something about getting to the top of your field, even if it's only the bottom of the top." The author Jean Kerr, who died in January at age seventy-nine, wrote several plays and bestselling books filled with such trademark one-liners. If she was never quite at the top of the top, she was always in the top tier, and she seems to have spent much of her time laughing. It was an enviable and admirable life.

Kerr is best known for the 1957 book that spawned the movie (and a short-lived NBC sitcom a decade later). Like her other books--"The Snake Has All the Lines" (1960), "Penny Candy" (1970), and "How I Got to Be Perfect" (1978)--"Please Don't Eat the Daisies" is a collection of witty dispatches from the frontlines of motherhood. She had plenty of material: The four boys immortalized in the book were joined in later works by a brother and sister. In the movie version, Kate and Larry Mackay--played by Doris Day and David Niven--are Manhattanites who long to flee to the country for the sake of their children, four boys who are mostly the same height but somehow sport a wide spectrum of hair colors. Day was one of the few leading ladies of her era willing to play an onscreen mother, which she did winningly, even breaking into "Que Sera, Sera."

Being portrayed by Doris Day must have been a source of amusement for Kerr; though widely regarded as handsome, she apparently struggled with weight and, consequently, shopping. (One dress she chose turned out to be made from the same material as the curtains at the house of her husband's boss, as she discovered with chagrin at a dinner party.) Day, meanwhile, dresses better to take her children shopping for shoes than most people today do to attend a wedding.

Meanwhile, David Niven's Larry--whose debut column of New York theater criticism slams his old friend's play--is a father so distant that it surely must surprise only him that the baby learns to say "Daddy" while addressing the family dog. Giddy with the newfound power of his pen, he tries to sell Kate on the perks of the job. She'll get to make loads of interesting friends, he tells her. "Interesting people don't want to make friends with housewives," she explains. "I wish you wouldn't call yourself a housewife," he says. "You're so much more than that." "So's every other housewife."

Kerr has been compared, inevitably, to that other published suburban housewife, Erma Bombeck, though, in truth, the only book in the genre that can rank with "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" is Shirley Jackson's "Life Among the Savages," a surprisingly charming account of motherhood from the author better known for the grim story "The Lottery" and the Jamesian horror novel "The Haunting of Hill House." While Bombeck did tread some of the same ground, she didn't write about, say, how she taught her boys not to loathe poetry. Worried that the only Milton their children would know was the chocolate maker, the Kerrs instituted a family "Culture Hour" in which the children would recite poems they'd memorized during the week, followed by some highbrow music on the hi-fi.

The first round started inauspiciously with mumbled limericks, but years later, they were deftly handling T.S. Eliot, Alfred Noyes, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. In fact, Kerr--"to the horror of the boys and my own acute embarrassment"--was brought to tears by one son's rendition of Robert Burns's "John Anderson, My Jo." The essay about the whole experiment, titled "The Poet and the Peasants," is one of her most poignant.

JEAN KERR'S WRITING has been compared to that of such New Yorker stalwarts as Robert Benchley, James Thurber, and E.B. White, and she had a genuine talent for aphorism. ("If you can keep your head about you when all about you are losing theirs, it's just possible you haven't grasped the situation.") Her husband, Walter Kerr, was a legendary seventeen-year theater critic for the New York Times, building such a reputation that Broadway's refurbished Ritz Theater was renamed for him in 1990.

When Kerr died in 1996, Frank Rich wrote: "The dinners I spent listening to Walter and Jean finish each other's stories about their adventures in the theatre were so full of love, laughter, humanity, and drama--not to mention cigarette smoke--that they play on in the memory now as brightly as the opening nights that are fixed forever in Walter's incandescent prose."

Married more than fifty years, Jean and Walter met in her native Scranton, Pennsylvania, when she was a student at Marywood College and stage-managing the school production of "Romeo and Juliet." Walter, a decade her senior, was a drama professor at Catholic University who would help fashion that school's drama program into what Time magazine called the finest nonprofessional theater in the country.