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Jean Kerr, 79; Turned Suburban Life Into Broadway Comedies

January 08, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Jean Kerr, the witty author, playwright and columnist who translated her Broadway-oriented suburban family life into the best-seller "Please Don't Eat the Daisies," which was spun off into a successful movie and television series, has died. She was 79.

Kerr, the widow and collaborator of drama critic, playwright and director Walter Kerr, died Sunday in a White Plains, N.Y., hospital, apparently of pneumonia. She had lived in nearby Larchmont in what she called her "gingerbread dream house."

The home, with unusual amenities including a two-story fireplace, was represented in most of her writings. It had been converted from the stables and coach house of what was once described as "a large estate with turrets, medieval courtyard and a 32-bell carillon geared to play the duet from 'Carmen' every noon."

Kerr's biggest hit play, "Mary, Mary," starring Barbara Bel Geddes and Barry Nelson as a still-in-love divorced couple, ran for four years on Broadway; a touring version visited Los Angeles. That play, like Kerr's earlier book, was made into a motion picture in 1963, starring Nelson and Debbie Reynolds.

Kerr had a few lesser hits on stage -- and some flops.

But her greatest national following probably came with the 1957 publication of "Please Don't Eat the Daisies," her essays about life in Larchmont with her husband, five sons, one daughter and assorted pets. The motion picture starring Doris Day followed in 1960, and the television series with Patricia Crowley ran on NBC from 1965 to 1967.

Although neither Day nor Crowley looked much like the 5-foot, 10 1/2-inch dark-haired Kerr, the family, careers and experiences of the book, movie and TV series all matched the Kerrs' backgrounds.

As for Kerr, like the on-screen heroines, she wore a bathrobe around the house. And at the peak of her popularity, when "Mary, Mary" was playing to sellout audiences on both stage and screen and "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" was popular in three media, Kerr told The Times modestly: "It's pretty good for a girl who tried writing to justify not doing the dishes."

As a self-declared unnatural playwright, Kerr told Theatre Arts magazine in 1955, "I have two trifling ambitions in the theater: to make a lot of people laugh and to make a lot of money."

Entertain she did, in her plays, her dozens of magazine and newspaper humor pieces and her books, which also included "The Snake Has All the Lines" in 1960, "Penny Candy" in 1970 and "How I Got to Be Perfect" in 1978.

A Times critic reviewed her first book, "Daisies," in 1957 as "a series of essays about her children, her house, her diets, her sleep habits" written in a "tone of determined buoyance." For example, he said, she wrote that in answer to the query "List your pen name," she always responded, "I just call it Ball-Point."

Another Times critic three years later noted of "Snake" that "Jean Kerr has a husband, an old car, a houseful of kids, and somehow has parlayed these undistinguished materials into a laugh classic.... Out of ... pallid domestic situations come convulsive lines."

Jean Kerr found the "Snake" title, like most of her material, in her own home. When she congratulated a son for being cast as Adam in a biblical play, he complained, "Yeah, but the snake has all the lines."

Kerr was a nervous playwright and compared any opening night to "a public hanging, and you're the hanged." If she survived the performance, she always went home to a sleepless night, regardless of whether reviews were bad, mixed or raves.

Although initial reviews of "Mary, Mary" were mixed, by the time the touring version got to the now-defunct Biltmore Theater in 1962, Times critic Cecil Smith wrote: "The play sparkles with the sort of wit that has made Jean Kerr famous. And the funniest lines are in the mouths of the outspoken Mary -- a sort of self-portrait."

When Kerr's play "Finishing Touches," which played on Broadway for five months, opened in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson in 1973, then-Times drama critic Dan Sullivan wrote that the play suggests but never consummates infidelity and "gives you some good laughs and not too much moralizing. It is a very sensible comedy, in the way that adjective is used to describe shoes.... Everyone will learn to settle for what he has because, after all -- that's life."

Kerr's final theatrical effort, which made a respectable showing on Broadway, was 1980's "Lunch Hour," directed by Mike Nichols and starring Sam Waterston and Gilda Radner.

Bridget Jean Collins was born in Scranton, Pa., to Irish immigrant parents on July 10, 1923. She attended Catholic schools, graduating from Marywood College and later earning a master's degree at Catholic University. Looking to marry a man smarter than she was, she wed Catholic University drama professor Walter Kerr, whom she met while she was an undergraduate stage manager.

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