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Obituaries

Arlene Eisenberg; Co-Author of Best-Selling Guide to Pregnancy

February 15, 2001|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Arlene Eisenberg, co-author with her two daughters of the best-selling pregnancy guide "What to Expect When You're Expecting," died Feb. 8 of breast cancer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. She was 66.

Since its release by Workman Publishing Co. in 1984, the book has become the bible of pregnancy, with 9.6 million copies sold. It spawned four other successful books: "What to Expect the First Year," "What to Eat When You're Expecting," "What to Expect: The Toddler Years" and "The Pregnancy Organizer."

Although hers was not a household name--as were those of baby care experts T. Berry Brazelton, Penelope Leach and Dr. Benjamin Spock--Eisenberg had a devoted following, particularly among the parents of infants who attended a popular weekly discussion group she led for 10 years in Manhattan.

"They regarded her as a mother," said Heidi Murkoff, Eisenberg's daughter and co-author. "She was my mother, but I did lend her out all the time. She was a mother to so many others."

Eisenberg was a freelance writer who specialized in medical topics when Murkoff came to her with the idea of a book for expectant mothers. Murkoff was pregnant with her first child and wanted a factual guide to the next nine months, but found the available books too scary and preachy.

Together with Eisenberg's other daughter, Sandee E. Hathaway, they wrote a straightforward chronicle of pregnancy that described how an expectant mother looks and feels, month by month. Although book agents told them they lacked the medical credentials expected of most pregnancy-guide authors, they sold the book to Workman, which printed 6,400 copies in the first run.

"What to Expect" sold steadily, and by the end of the first year, said Peter Workman, president of the publishing house, "it had literally taken hold. There was something immediately accessible, reassuring and comforting in it."

Seventeen years and 126 printings later, it has been translated into 30 languages, including Croatian for an edition published in 1996, and has made bestseller lists in Poland, Australia and the Netherlands, as well as in the United States. According to a 1998 survey by Playtex, 93% of nursing or expectant mothers had read it.

The book so permeated American culture that Candice Bergen was shown reading it during her television pregnancy on "Murphy Brown." It even inspired a question on the TV game show "Jeopardy."

The success of the first volume not only led to other books but in the near future will result in "What to Expect" videos, a book series for children and a television special.

"We thought we were just writing one little pregnancy book to reassure people, to give them some accurate information," Eisenberg told The Times several years ago. "And we thought that would be that."

The first draft of "What to Expect When You're Expecting" was written by Murkoff. Eisenberg did the medical reporting for the book and later handled much of the updating. Hathaway, who has a degree in nursing, served as editor.

The book is largely organized around questions and answers for each month of pregnancy. The authors wanted to pose questions that women might be afraid to ask, such as "I only have some of the signs of pregnancy--can I still be pregnant?" or "Will my baby suffer if I don't drink milk?" A deliberately extensive index enables a reader to quickly find the page with the subject that may be worrying her at 2 in the morning, from "acupressure in labor" to "zinc in supplements."

Eisenberg found herself dispensing advice quite different from what she was given as a new mother in the 1950s. Her guide to motherhood was Spock, whose baby and child care book remains the granddaddy in the field.

"He was helpful," Eisenberg recalled, "but there were a lot of questions not in the book."

Eisenberg was born Arlene Leila Scharaga in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her father was head of the Queens sanitation department.

Perhaps the most notable event of her youth was discovering crooner Eddie Fisher at a concert when she was 16. She went backstage and met him and his press agent after the show, which led to her becoming president of the Fisher fan club at the height of his popularity. She managed 1,000 clubs across the country and answered millions of letters from the singer's lovesick admirers.

Along the way, young Arlene was deeply smitten, too, but not by Fisher. The focus of her affections was his handsome young publicist, Howard Eisenberg, who had enlisted her help on the fan club. In 1952, two years after their meeting, they were married.

The Eisenbergs later collaborated on writing projects, including a 1965 Look magazine article, "The Christian War Against Anti-Semitism," which earned an award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Last year Eisenberg and Murkoff formed the What to Expect Foundation, which this spring will publish and distribute free an edition of the pregnancy guide written for low-income women.

Murkoff, who lives in Santa Barbara, said she plans to continue the work on the "What to Expect" books. The next installment may tackle the challenge of being the parent of a teenager. Her daughter, Emma, the inspiration for the first book, is now 18 and a prime case study, according to her mother.

In addition to her husband and daughters, Eisenberg is survived by a son, Evan; her mother, Mildred Scharaga; a brother, Victor Scharaga; and six grandchildren.

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