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Subject: Jean Kerr, Playwright and Author

New York
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Date Posted: January 08, 2003 4:06:21 EDT

Jean Kerr, whose wry wit and unerring eye for life's everyday absurdities kept legions of readers and theatergoers laughing with books like "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" and plays like "Mary, Mary," died on Sunday in White Plains. She was 80.

The apparent cause was pneumonia, her son Christopher said. She was in White Plains Hospital and lived nearby in Larchmont, New York, also in Westchester County.

Mrs. Kerr, who was the widow of the drama critic Walter Kerr, was well acquainted with the glamour, grit and egocentric follies of life in the theater and capitalized on that experience. She wrote entertainingly and often about show business, musing about what to say when lunching with a prospective producer (order a drink, so you look relaxed, but don't touch it lest he think you're an alcoholic), or gloomily anticipating negative reviews of her latest work ("If I have to commit suicide, I have nothing but Gelusil").

But she also had an unquestioned gift for finding the comic in the commonplace anxieties of suburbia and married life. She cheerfully acknowledged doing most of her writing in the family car, parked several blocks away from the scrambling chaos of several children and pets ("There is nothing to do but write, after I get the glove compartment tidied up").

The Kerrs made their debut as a team on Broadway in 1946 with "Song of Bernadette," a dramatization of Franz Werfel's novel about a young Frenchwoman who was canonized after saying she had seen visions of the Virgin Mary in a grotto near Lourdes. It was not a success, nor was her solo writing effort two years later, a comedy called "Jenny Kissed Me," about a priest who finds his household disrupted by the arrival of his housekeeper's niece.

Jean and Walter Kerr teamed up again in 1949 with "Touch and Go," a revue for which they wrote the sketches and lyrics and which Mr. Kerr directed. The show was a hit, with sketches ranging from "Hamlet" performed as a musical comedy to a location rehearsal for a film sequence in which one of the characters, a trained ape, turns out to be smarter than the glamorous actress who is the star of the film. Brooks Atkinson, writing in The New York Times,praised the Kerrs' "breezy and informed wit" and hailed the show as the best of the season.

After contributing some sketches to another revue, "John Murray Anderson's Almanac," in 1953, Mrs. Kerr joined forces to write "King of Hearts" with Eleanor Brooke. Starring Donald Cooke, Jackie Cooper and Cloris Leachman, and staged by Mr. Kerr, the 1954 comedy about a comic-strip artist and his love-struck secretary was well received.

Mrs. Kerr scored her first big success outside the theater with the publication in 1957 of "Please Don't Eat the Daisies," a witty and wide-ranging collection of pieces about everything from the pet dogs in her life to the oddities of the Kerrs' house in Larchmont, which boasted a two-story fireplace and a carillon that played the duet from "Carmen." The book became a best seller and then a movie in 1960, with David Niven and Doris Day. It became a television situation comedy as well, and ran on NBC from 1965 to 1967.

The Kerrs returned to Broadway in 1958 with their musical comedy "Goldilocks," staged by Mr. Kerr, with music by Leroy Anderson, lyrics by the Kerrs and Joan Ford, and choreography by Agnes de Mille. The show closed after a mercifully brief run, and the Kerrs made a mutual vow never to mention its name again.

Mrs. Kerr went on to take Broadway by storm in 1961 with "Mary, Mary," a comedy about a divorced couple who seem headed for new and misguided relationships until they discover that they still love each other. Barbara Bel Geddes played the title character, Barry Nelson her stubbornly obtuse former spouse, with Betsy von Furstenberg and Michael Rennie as the handsome troublemakers. The Times's critic, Howard Taubman, gave the show a mixed review.

Nevertheless, audiences packed the theater nightly and "Mary, Mary" became one of the longest-running productions of the decade. Its 1963 screen adaptation, was directed by Mervyn LeRoy with Debbie Reynolds and Barry Nelson. Meanwhile, the original show was still on Broadway, with more than 1,500 performances in all.

Jean Collins Kerr was born in Scranton, Pa., on July 10, 1922. She attended Marywood Seminary and Marywood College in Scranton and acquired a taste for theater while still a student. She was serving as stage manager of a college production of "Romeo and Juliet" when she met Mr. Kerr, then a professor of drama at Catholic University in Washington. Shortly after earning her bachelor's degree at Marywood, she married and received a master's degree from Catholic University in 1945.

Her self-deprecating humor was amply evident in her other published work. She also wrote "The Snake Has All the Lines" (1960), "Penny Candy" (1970) and "How I Got to Be Perfect" (1978), collections of humorous essays.

Her family was a rich source of comic inspiration, a minefield of the unexpected that demanded resilience and a gift for improvisation. In addition to Christopher, who lives in Manhattan, Mrs. Kerr is survived by her sons Colin of Port Jefferson, N.Y., John of Portland, Me., Gregory of Coopersburg, Pa., and Gilbert of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.; her daughter, Kitty of Arlington, Mass.; her brothers Hugh Collins of Meriden, Conn., and Frank Collins of Ardmore, Pa., and 11 granchildren.

Mr. Kerr, whose long career embraced teaching, playwriting, directing and theater criticism first for The New York Herald Tribune and then for The Times died in 1996 at 83.

A tall, handsome woman with a ready smile, Mrs. Kerr never took herself too seriously. "I'm not a natural playwright at all," she told an interviewer. "I write what I know." There were those who felt she drew water from the same well too often. Phyllis Theroux, writing about "How I Got to Be Perfect" in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, noted that "beneath her cleverness lies a sizable literary talent" waiting to be aired.

Mrs. Kerr returned to the theater in 1964 with "Poor Richard," a coolly reviewed romantic comedy.

Nearly 10 years passed before her next appearance on Broadway, with another romantic comedy, "Finishing Touches" (1973).

The 1980 comedy "Lunch Hour" turned out to be Mrs. Kerr's farewell to the theater. Set in the Hamptons and directed by Mike Nichols, the play starred Sam Waterston and Gilda Radner.

For all her experience and success in the theater, Mrs. Kerr never stopped worrying about how her work would be received.

She regarded opening night as "a public hanging, and you're the hanged." She once said, "I think if you can write a play or produce a play," the first step toward success has been made, if "people don't want to kill themselves in the lobby." Then came the inimitable extra twist of Kerr: "Now there must be four or five other steps, but that's the first."

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