Jean Kerr Biography

Born Bridget Jean Collins, July 10, 1922, in Scranton, PA; died of pneumonia, January 5, 2003, in White Plains, NY. Author and playwright. Jean Kerr mined the absurdities of suburban life for comic effect in her 1957 best–seller, Please Don't Eat the Daisies. It went on to incarnations as a feature film and even a television series, and remained Kerr's best legacy as a writer whose "bright one–liners and playful romantic comedies have appealed to readers and theatergoers for decades," noted her Washington Post obituary. The mother of six was modest about her success, saying once of her career, "It's pretty good for a girl who tried writing to justify not doing the dishes," according to Los Angeles Times journalist Myrna Oliver.

Kerr grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Irish immigrants, and studied at Marywood College there. She met her future husband, a playwright and professor of drama at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., when she enrolled in its master's program in the early 1940s. She and Walter Kerr wed, and moved to the New York City area after she earned her graduate degree in 1945. They collaborated on a 1946 play, Song of Bernadette, based on the true story of a teenager who saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary at a grotto in Lourdes, France. Adapted from a book of the same name that had already been made into a popular 1943 film, their play was panned by critics and closed after just three nights.

Kerr and her husband had better luck with a 1949 musical comedy revue Touch and Go, but she was soon sidetracked by a growing family that would eventually number five boys and a daughter, including a set of twins. In Larchmont, New York—one of the towns in posh Westchester County that serve as Manhattan's suburban respite—they bought a quirky, elaborate manse built by an inventor that featured turrets, a warren of rooms, two–story fire-place, and even a carillon. Life there, with the children and their pets and her husband's thriving career as a Broadway playwright and director, became the basis for Kerr's amusing articles for a women's magazine, which in turn became her 1957 book, Please Don't Eat the Daisies. It featured what a writer for London's Independent newspaper, Tom Vallance, termed her "hilariously droll essays," perhaps best exemplified by something she once told an interviewer about becoming a mother: "The thing about having a baby," Vallance quoted her as saying, "is that, thereafter, you have it." Kerr's book was turned into a 1960 movie starring Doris Day and David Niven, and later a television series that ran on NBC from 1965 to 1967.

Kerr, pleased to earn enough income to afford child–care help, often parked her Chevrolet a few blocks away from her home for peace and quiet, and wrote there in longhand. "There is nothing to do but write, after I get the glove compartment tidied up," New York Times writer Robert Berkvist quoted her as once saying. She borrowed the title for her second collection of essays, 1960's The Snake Has All the Lines, from an exchange with her young son, who came home from school one day and announced he had won the part of Adam, the biblical first man, in a school play. She congratulated him for landing the plum role, but he groused, "the snake has all the lines," according to Oliver's Los Angeles Times obituary. This and Kerr's subsequent works remained popular with readers, in part because she possessed "an unquestioned gift," asserted Berkvist in his New York Times tribute, "for finding the comic in the commonplace anxieties of suburbia and married life."

Other works written from Kerr's Chevrolet office included Penny Candy and How I Got to Be Perfect, published in 1978, and she still wrote for the stage as well. Mary, Mary, a smash Broadway play about a divorced couple who realize they are still enamored of one another, ran for four years in the early 1960s and was one of the longest–running shows on Broadway of the decade; it, too, became a Hollywood film with Debbie Reynolds as the lead. Her last produced play, 1980's Lunch Hour, was a romantic comedy set in the Hamptons that starred Sam Waterston and Gilda Radner.

Kerr's husband eventually became a Pulitzer Prize–winning theater critic for the New York Times. On the subject of taking her husband's suggestions about her plays in progress, she once told an interviewer that he "can't save me from failure, but he can save me from disgrace," according to the Los Angeles Times 's Oliver. Widowed in 1996, Kerr faced a far tougher critic in one of her sons, Christopher, who once wrote a book report on Please Don't Eat the Daisies for school. "This is about a woman who lives in Larchmont with four wonderful children," he asserted, according to Vallance's Independent obituary. "While it is funny, it is exaggerated to the point of being flat lies." Kerr died on January 5, 2003, of pneumonia; she was 80. She is survived by five sons, a daughter, two brothers, and eleven grandchildren.


Chicago Tribune, January 7, 2003, sec. 2, p. 9; Independent (London, England), January 10, 2003, p. 18; Los Angeles Times, January 8, 2003, p. B10; New York Times, January 7, 2003, p. C14; Washington Post, January 8, 2003, p. B6.

Carol Brennan

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