A statuesque woman with clear Irish skin and a slightly bewildered look in her blazing blue eyes drifts in from stage left. She gazes around—at the baronial fireplace, stained glass windows, carved wooden ceiling and gold-leafed pillars. Then she fiendishly seizes a plant. “Do you believe in mercy killing for poinsettias?” she booms. “These have been around since Christmas and they just won’t die. Find me a hit man!”
Were Jean Kerr, 58, performing in one of her own plays instead of in the privacy of her dazzlingly baroque living room in Larchmont, N.Y., she might get a standing ovation. Madame Playwright, who gave up acting as a young woman because she figured that, at 5’10½”, she was too tall, still knows how to make an entrance. She also knows how to compose wry, witty soliloquies. Her Broadway hits—Mary Mary, Poor Richard and Finishing Touches—have endeared her to theatergoers. And her best-selling books—Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, The Snake Has All the Lines and How I Got to Be Perfect—are a delightful cross between Dorothy Parker and Erma Bombeck.
Kerr’s latest effort is the gentle Broadway comedy Lunch Hour. Jean’s 67-year-old husband, Walter, dean of Broadway’s reviewers and now Sunday drama critic for the New York Times, privately loved it, though he never assays his wife’s works for publication. “I can’t pretend to be objective,” he says. His colleagues gave Lunch Hour mixed notices, but it is playing to packed houses, in part because of stars Gilda Radner and Sam Waterston. They are cast as a ditsy young wife and a mild-mannered marriage counselor, whose respective spouses are having an affair. “Adultery is not a trend in the last 18 months,” observes Jean Kerr. “Affairs have been going on since Tolstoy.” So she doesn’t consider the play racy. “Lunch Hour is suitable for a teenager,” she insists. “After all, it’s not right up there with Last Tango in Paris, is it?”
To her current cast, Kerr seems charmingly sophisticated. “Her stock-in-trade is not the boffo, socko joke,” says Waterston. “Her jokes come out of her characters, out of who they are and the situations they find themselves in.” Gilda Radner lauds Kerr’s resourcefulness—in art and life. “Her comedy is fearless—she paved the way for someone like me,” says Gilda, who first met Jean at the Manhattan apartment of the show’s director, Mike Nichols. “I was nervous until I saw her pull an ashtray out of her purse. Mike offered white wine and I asked for a Diet Pepsi and she pulled that out, too. My purse is also like that. I felt Jean and I were pursemates.”
Kerr wasn’t always so practical. As a gangly, convent-educated girl growing up in Scranton, Pa., she adored the movies. Her contractor father, Tom Collins (“He had the name long before the drink”), and her mother, Kitty, a second cousin of playwright Eugene O’Neill, occasionally punished her by forbidding her to go to the Saturday afternoon picture show. “I would have preferred physical violence,” says Jean.
As she grew older, her height became an embarrassment. “It was a curse to be tall,” she remembers. “I only dated basketball players, and they didn’t used to be as smart as they are now. I thought Barnum & Bailey would be my only refuge.” By the time she was a sophomore at Marywood College in Scranton, Jean was in showbiz all right, but as stage manager for a school production of Romeo and Juliet. It starred Broadway actor Hugh Franklin in a guest appearance. One matinee Walter Kerr, then a drama professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., came to watch his friend Franklin perform. The stage manager and the 5’9½” professor were introduced, fell instantly in love and married two years later. From that time on, Jean, who was an enthusiastic dancer, abstained. “It’s one thing to marry someone shorter,” she explains, “but I won’t dance with him. You have to have some sense of fitness.”
But the young Mrs. Kerr kept active. By 1950 she had earned a master’s degree from Catholic University, collaborated with Walter on the Broadway hit Touch and Go, and written her first solo Broadway show, Jenny Kissed Me, which played 24 performances. She was also rearing a family that eventually numbered six: Christopher, now 34, twins Colin and John, 31, Gilbert, 28, Gregory, 22, and Kitty, 17. “Before Kitty arrived, Walter said I only had boys because I didn’t want a younger woman around the house,” she reports. But certainly she preferred the kids to housework. “You don’t get anything back from the dishes,” she observes. “You do get something back from raising children.” Jean hired a housekeeper and wrote between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. “Someone was always running in to report the flavor of the week was banana rum,” she remembers. But they also provided glorious material by doing things like eating the daisies.
It took precious little to fluster their scatterbrained mother. “I’m congenitally vague,” she admits. “I drop things. I spill things.” Words also spill out of her mouth in a malapropos fashion. One night at a Broadway show, director Gordon Davidson pointed out feminist Betty Friedan, who had once called Jean an “Uncle Tom.” Later, at intermission, Jean bumped into Betty in the ladies’ room. “We’ve never met, but I’m Betty Friedan,” blurted out Kerr before she realized she had it all wrong. A bewildered Betty moved hurriedly on.
Kitty is the only child still left in the turreted family manse, which was built around the turn of the century by an auto magnate. Jean calls the place “the Kerr Hilton,” and, like any class resort, it has a private movie theater, which doubles as Walter’s office. Jean has fitted it out with 16 worn theater seats, bought for $75. “Walter loves to show old movies,” she explains. “Just the other Saturday we had 12 of Kitty’s friends for Wuthering Heights.”
Between reels, meals and other aspects of her suburban life, Jean makes notes for her first novel. Presumably it will, like all her works, touch in some part on her life. “It’s easier to write about what you know,” she explains. “I wouldn’t write about a Wall Street broker, for example. What does he say when he comes home at night?” Kerr asks with eyes wide. ” ‘I’m bullish’?”