One week after Erma Bombeck’s death in 1996, noted British-American journalist Allistar Cook said of her that she was one of the few American humorists with the genius of Mark Twain. For three decades Erma Bombeck celebrated the extraordinary in the ordinary and chronicled life’s absurdities in a syndicated column carried by 900 newspapers at the height of her popularity. Her ability to make everyone join her in laughing about the everyday foibles of family life transformed her into one of the country’s most popular newspaper columnists and a best-selling author.
Erma Louise Fiste was born Feb. 21, 1927, in Dayton, Ohio. She grew up in a lower middle class neighborhood filled with hardworking families. When she was 9, her father, a crane operator, died of a heart attack. “One day you were a family, living in a little house at the bottom of a hill,” she said. “The next day it was all gone.” She and her mother moved in with her grandmother. An avid reader, Erma was fascinated with humor and devoured the works of popular humorists including Robert Benchley and Janes Thurber. It is not surprising that when given the opportunity to write for the school newspaper, she produced a humor column.
She went to work for the local newspaper as a copygirl while still in high school. When Shirley Temple came to Dayton for the premiere of "Since You Went Away", Erma interviewed her as one sixteen year old to another and the story was published on the feature page. Erma received $10 and the newspaper staff award for feature of the week. Determined to attend college, she began working two jobs in order to save enough for books and tuition. She studied English at the University of Dayton, working part time as a copygirl and reporter at the Dayton Journal Herald. Shortly after graduation in 1949 she married William Lawrence Bombeck. She left the newspaper to raise a family.
In 1955 the Bombecks moved to Centerville, Ohio. “That’s when I used to sit at the kitchen window, year after year, watching women like Ruth Gordon, Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Golda Meir carving out their own careers,” she said. “I decided that it wasn’t fulfilling to clean chrome faucets with a toothbrush. At 37, I decided it was my time to strike out.” When her last child started school in 1964, she approached the editor of the local weekly newspaper and asked if she could write a humor column. She was hired for $3 a week and wrote her columns in her cramped bedroom, the typewriter balanced on a plank suspended between a couple of cinder blocks.
The editor of the Dayton Journal-Herald noticed her work and hired her to write two columns a week under her by-line. Three weeks after her column first appeared in the Journal-Herald her work was syndicated. Thirty-eight papers were buying her columns by the end of the first year and five years later “At Wits End” was published in more than 500 newspapers. Erma was popular on the speaking circuit and after a trip to Phoenix in 1969, she went home and said to her husband, “Let’s move to Arizona.” “I had never done that. Been speaking a long time, went to a lot of places, but never had I been to a place where I felt I belonged. This was it.” They moved to Paradise Valley in 1971.
In 1972, Congress approved a constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women. Within a year of its Senate approval, the ERA was ratified by thirty states, but the momentum began to stall as the ERA became an extremely divisive issue. It surprised a lot of people when Erma Bombeck, voice of the American housewife, came out in support of the ERA. She believed that no matter how you spend your life, you deserve recognition and acceptance and that the contribution you make to society by caring for your family should be considered equal to that made by anyone working at a job with regulated hours and pay. She traveled to almost every state where the debate still raged advocating for its passage. Her work on the ERA endeared her to some fans, influenced others, and alienated a few who bristled at the political nature of her work, including some conservative leaders and some bookstore owners who removed her books from their shelves. When asked by a reporter why she put so much effort into the passage of the ERA she replied, “I’m doing it for my kids. It will be important to them. It’s also a great feeling to be a part of history. I wish that they could put this on my tombstone: She got Missouri for the ERA.” Unfortunately, despite an extension of three years, time ran out and the ERA failed. It was one of the biggest disappointments of her life.
Erma was engaged in a variety of volunteer causes in Arizona, from the Salvation Army to the Arizona Kidney Foundation. She served on the Arizona Kidney Foundation Board from 1977-1980. In 1980 she and the Arizona Kidney Foundation’s Women’s Board (now the Arizona Women’s Board) started the annual Author’s Luncheon that has grown into one of the largest such events in the country. She researched, interviewed and wrote a book for children who were surviving cancer. She said of this experience, “They needed to know that someone was still living and beating the disease. They needed optimism and they needed someone to give them a voice and say, “This is the way I want people to treat me. This is what’s on my mind.” I started to interview these kids and boy I was hooked…. They gave me their optimism. They gave me their feelings. I followed these kids around for two years. I went all over the country interviewing everybody.” The 1.5 million dollar advance fee and the 1million dollars in domestic proceeds from her 1989 book “I Want to Grow Up, I Want to Grow Hair, I Want to go to Boise” was donated to the American Cancer Society for cancer research. The foreign proceeds went to the Eleanor Roosevelt Fund, a fund set up to exchange oncologists among foreign countries. In the early 1990s she worked to get to get mobile mammogram units to go into South Phoenix and on Arizona’s Indian Reservations to help disadvantaged women who could not afford them.
Erma Bombeck appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America for eleven years. Many of her segments were recorded in Arizona. She was the author of 15 books, 14 of which she wrote while living here. Ten of her books were on the New York Times best seller list. A May 8, 2016 article in The Guardian said of her, “Bombeck was unarguably one of the most successful and widely read female humorists of the 20th century.” Her impact in Arizona, nationally and internationally continues to be felt.