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.
They were married in 1943, and she joined him in Washington, D.C., receiving a master's degree from Catholic in 1945. The next year marked the first of their Broadway collaborations: "The Song of Bernadette," a dramatization of Franz Werfel's novel about the young Frenchwoman who had visions of the Virgin Mary near Lourdes. Kerr's solo comedy "Jenny Kissed Me" followed two years later. The pair's first real success came in 1949, when their revue "Touch and Go" was hailed as the best show of the season by Brooks Atkinson in the Times. Walter would join Atkinson there in 1966, after stints at the Catholic magazine Commonweal and the New York Herald Tribune.
While Walter was ascending the career ladder, Jean reared their six children in a rambling, crumbling manse in Larchmont, about twenty miles from Manhattan. She also continued writing (from 5 to 7 A.M. in her station wagon). Her solo and collaborative work hit the Broadway boards several more times: "John Murray Anderson's Almanac" in 1953, "King of Hearts" in 1954, "Goldilocks" in 1958, "Mary, Mary" in 1961, "Poor Richard" in 1964, "Finishing Touches" in 1973, and her 1980 swan song, "Lunch Hour," which starred Sam Waterston and Gilda Radner (an ardent fan).
The musical comedy "Goldilocks," coming the year after her bestselling "Please Don't Eat the Daisies," was the last time she and her husband co-wrote a show. Staged by Walter, it was universally reviled--even by its authors, who took a vow never to mention its name again. Noel Coward was especially cutting: "It was frankly one of the most idiotic, formless, amateur productions I have ever seen." But three years later, Kerr was back on top with the romantic comedy "Mary, Mary," starring Barbara Bel Geddes and Barry Nelson as a divorced couple on the brink of other attachments when they rediscover their love for each other. The show, brimming with one-liners, overcame mixed reviews to become the eighth-longest running show on Broadway, with 1,572 performances.
"I'm not a natural playwright at all," she once told an interviewer. "I write what I know." That may be why her wry observations of family life are the most enduring--and ought to be required reading for all new moms, especially those who tend to regale acquaintances with long descriptions of their child's all-night earache. Such mothers' stories are usually something only a grandmother could love, but they could practically draw a crowd if the mother sprinkled in some of Kerr's pithier quotes. She had the gift of making day-to-day life with several small children sound laugh-out-loud funny--to say nothing of her advice for her fellow parents. Many families, surely, could use a refrigerator magnet that reads, "We're bigger than they are, and it's our house."
SOME OF HER REFERENCES are dated (Bendix? Dextri-Maltose?), but that's part of the charm. It's reassuring to know that, in every era, kids eat flowers and balance their dining-room chair on a single leg during meals--for which she recommends "instilling . . . a sense of noblesse oblige, so that when they go crashing back on their heads they go bravely and gallantly and without pulling the tablecloth, the dinner and a full set of dishes with them. . . . It will be excellent training if they should ever enter the Marines, or even Schrafft's."
If you're wondering how to discipline children, her books are full of tips that you won't hear anywhere else. For example, at the beach, when the children are "dropping wet seaweed on somebody's sound-asleep face or spilling sand into an open jar of cold cream, I simply shout, 'Little boy! Stop that immediately, or I will ask your father to spank you!' This stops him without exactly revealing my true identity as the parent of the delinquent."
Or this idea for ending those strange crashes from overhead while you're trying to make dinner: Yell, "Hey, you! Pick up your pants!" on the theory that any given child within earshot will, in fact, have clothes on the floor. After all, Kerr reasons, you don't actually want to know what that noise was, you just want it to stop.
The fact that her rambunctious family provided much of her raw material caused consternation in some quarters. In a New York Times book review, Phyllis Theroux suggested that such a "sizable literary talent"shouldn't be squandered on offspring. If she had wanted to, Theroux harrumphed, Kerr could have written about The Really Big Things. In Time, another reviewer, writing about "How I Got to be Perfect," wished Kerr would read the papers once in a while: "The early [essays] serve as painless reminders of the way we were before women's lib, the sexual revolution, Viet Nam, and Watergate. But Kerr's later work is disquieting because it goes on as if none of these things had happened. A little malice, at least, now seems to be the order of the day."
Actually, Kerr's plays do demonstrate that she didn't live in a bubble; divorce and adultery were part of the plotlines of "Mary, Mary" and "Lunch Hour." It's true that her books don't feature diatribes on then-current events, unless you count the Mayo diet--but, really, did everyone with a byline have to weigh in on the draft and free love?
Keep the malice; I'll take the daisies.
Susie Currie writes from Hyattsville, Maryland.