Meet Jean Kerr

July 08, 2016

If I could pick one writer whose writing “voice” and persona I would most like to emulate, a top contender would have to be Jean Kerr. It’s entirely possible that you’ve never heard of her, so let me introduce you.

Jean Kerr, bottom, with Barbara Bel Geddes
Photo via  Flickr
Jean Kerr (1922-2003) wrote plays and essays, and was most popular in the 50s and 60s. Her essays were gathered into collections such as Please Don’t Eat the Daisies and How I Got to Be Perfect. She was married to the Pulitzer-prize winning drama critic Walter Kerr, with whom she often collaborated on plays. They also had six children, five boys and a girl!

Somehow I stumbled onto her books when I was a pre-teen in the 1970s. Why I should have found a middle-aged playwright and mother of six so irresistible is a mystery, but I was immediately enamored. Her essays made me laugh out loud. (Once I remember reading something of hers while in church and muffling my giggles while my mother glared at me.)  I think I identified with her because of the picture she painted of herself: tall and less than graceful (that was me, too), smart but slightly awkward and unsure of herself (also me). Despite “those children, and that dog,” her life seemed full of challenging work and a loving family. I wanted that, too.

She sounded happy.

Kerr met her husband, Walter, when she was still in college and he was an assistant professor at a different university. They were married in 1943, and in 1946 they wrote The Song of Bernadette, a drama that closed after only two performances. Their later collaborations were more successful, including a revue called Touch and Go and Goldilocks, a musical.

Kerr’s most popular play was 1959’s Mary, Mary, a comedy about a divorced couple discovering that they still loved each other. One of the longest-running productions of the 1960s, it was also made into a movie starring Debbie Reynolds. Her last play was Lunch Hour (1980), and starred Sam Waterston and a post-Saturday Night Live Gilda Radner.

In 1957, her collection of humorous essays, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, became a best seller. The book was eventually adapted into a movie (starring Doris Day and David Niven) as well as a sitcom that ran on NBC from 1965-1967.

More of Kerr’s essays became the books Penny Candy and The Snake Has All the Lines. In 1979, How I Got to Be Perfect pulled together many of the essays from the previous books. 

I’ve spent a few happy hours rereading Please Don’t Eat the Daisies and How I Got to Be Perfect while I wrote this blog post. Here are a few tidbits:

From the introduction to Please Don’t Eat the Daisies:
“I do have a compulsion to read in out-of-the-way places, and it is often a blessing; on the other hand, it sometimes comes between me and what I tell the children is ‘my work.’ As a matter of fact, I will read anything rather than work. And I don’t mean interesting things like the yellow section of the telephone book or the enclosures that come with the Bloomingdale bill….
“For this reason, and because I have small boys, I do about half of my ‘work’ in the family car, parked alongside a sign that says ‘Littering Is Punishable by a $50 Fine….’”
“Out in the car, where I freeze to death or roast to death depending on the season, all is serene. The few things there are to read in the front-seat area (Chevrolet, E-gasoline-F, 100-temp-200) I have long sine committed to memory. So there is nothing to do but write, after I have the glove compartment tidied up.”
On taking her children to the beach:
“It was my plan to loll in the deck chair and improve my mind while the happy children gamboled and frolicked on the sand. That was my plan. Their plan was to show me two dead crabs, five clam shells, one rusty pail they found under two rocks, the two rocks, two hundred and seventy-two Good Humor sticks, one small boy who had taken off his bathing suit, one enormous hole they dug (and wasn’t it lucky the lifeguard fell in it, and not the old gentleman…), fourteen cigarette butts, and a tear in Gilbert’s new bathing trunks.”
From “Letters of Protest I Never Sent”
“The Ever-Krisp Curtain Co.
Dear Sirs:
In what mad burst of whimsy did you adopt the slogan ‘These curtains laugh at soap and water’? Now, I begrudge no man his flights of fancy. We are all poets at heart. And when I purchased my Ever-Krisp curtains I did not really expect them to burst into wild guffaws or even ladylike giggles the first time I put them in the sink. (As a matter of fact, with five small boys and one loud Siamese cat I don’t want to hear one word from those curtains.) But, in my incurable naivete, I did take your claim to imply that these curtains actually survived contact with soap and water. I don’t mean I expect them to remain ever-krisp. I’m quite accustomed to ever-limp curtains. I did, however, expect them to remain ever-red with ever-white ruffles. As it happens, they are now a sort of off-pink strawberry ripple, which of course doesn’t go with my kitchen.
(I also rediscovered the origin of a phrase I use from time to time, “What I am really looking for is a blessing that’s not in disguise,” attributed to Kerr’s mother.)

If you want to read Kerr for yourself, her books are out of print, but used copies are available, and you can download Please Don’t Eat the Daisies for free here. You can also check your library for her work—mine has one of her books and one of her plays. Some of the essays feel dated, but many of them still amuse.

You can also take a peek at the Kerrs’ former rather fantastic and unusual house (which she referred to jokingly as the “Kerr-Hilton”) by clicking here.

Funny but not mean-spirited or crass, bemused, occasionally flustered, but always able to rise to the occasion (though not always successfully) and laugh about it later—that’s the spirit she brought to the page. I haven’t found another author quite like her.

Do you have a favorite not-so-well-known author? Please share!

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  1. Dear Kathy I am captured by what you shared on Jean Kerr. I am going to check out her writing. Sounds like she would be a favorite of mine. Have seen the movie "Please Don't Eat the Daisies". Loved it. So glad you shared this wonderful writer. Hope you have a super weekend. Hugs!

  2. Debbie--I think you'd like her. She's funny, but her humor is gentle. The "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" movie was fun and I enjoyed it, too, but it's not really like the book, since the book is essays and not a novel. You'll have to let me know what you think.

  3. Funny, but not mean spiritied...this is what I love! I will check my library system. I like the writing of Nora Ephron, she who wrote You've Got Mail and some books. Funny, but not mean spirited, if you know of any other authors, or films, I would be interested...Thanks for the recommendaion, Kathy.

  4. Rita--Hope you can track down some of her writings. I also like Nora Ephron. If you're looking for funny, you might like Bill Bryson (my favorite is his I'm a Stranger Here Myself), or Gina Barecca's It's Not That I'm Bitter. Dominique Browning has also written some lovely books that you might enjoy. All of these are non-fiction/essays.