"I started too late," said Erma Bombeck the other day. "I didn't start writing until I was 37 years old. Terrible! For all the things I've got to do, I should have started when I was 10."
She certainly has made up for lost time. In the past 26 years, this housewife turned multimedia sensation has churned out a three-times-a-week column for more than 700 newspapers, written 10 best-selling books and made hundreds of perky TV talk-show appearances. Her latest tome, "When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It's Time To Go Home" -- an ode to the foibles of traveling -- is a recent No. 1 New York Times best seller, and cements her position as America's favorite humorist.
During a midday break from her writing, Ms. Bombeck talked about her sex life, her maid-free home, and her smooth hairless legs, of which she is very proud.
MA Q: You recently wrote a very nasty column about (cooking, dec
orating and entertaining expert) Martha Stewart.
A: I don't even know her. But she's so perfect, she's such a cheap shot. The first time I was introduced to her work was when I was watching PBS one day near Thanksgiving. And my jaw dropped -- I had saliva running down my chin.
She was running out to the forest, and had this turkey in a smoker under a bunch of leaves. Hasn't she ever heard of just add water? Nothing is too much trouble. I mean, she gilds her own cookies. She's a cheap shot, but fun to pick on, because there's not a woman in the world who would go to those ends. But we all secretly want to be like Martha -- get rid of the kids, get a decent house.
Q: What do you think is the last thing she does at night?
A: Probably puts a mint on her own pillow. (Laughs) I don't think Martha would climb into a bed without a treat. Why am I saying these things? You're bringing out the beast in me.
Q: What do you think of Roseanne Barr, another woman who has made a career out of dealing with the travails of being a housewife?
A: Another easy target. We do come from the same place, but my approach to women is, "You're a lot better than you think you are." She appeals to blue-collar workers who think she's telling it like it really is. But she isn't. There's such a thing as being irreverent about your kids, and just being mean about them. She crosses that line.
Q: Do you consider yourself to be from a blue-collar background?
A: Oh, of course. Probably lower than that -- a no-collar background.
Q: Do you shave your legs, or do you wax them?
A: I don't have to do either. God, no one's ever asked me that before, and I'm thrilled to be able to reveal that I'm hairless because it's one of my pluses. Even in high school, I was lacking hair. Never had to shave a leg, and I would see all these other girls who were braiding it. I've been blessed.
Q: What does your husband think of your success? Is he at all jealous?
A: Everybody worries about that but us. He was a high-school principal for 30 years, and retired eight years ago and takes care of our investments and taxes. That became a full-time job, keeping me out of the slammer, and he's supportive. We're both in the house at the same time, all day long.
Q: Doesn't that get on your nerves?
A: I don't see him that much. But no, we're very individual, and we're not competitive, and both have a sense that when the door closes on what I do, we're out of there, that's it. We'll travel to the rain forests.
Q: Now that you're rich and famous, do you have a maid?
A: No. (Embarrassed pause) No. I couldn't stand somebody pitty-patting around. In fact, I ironed most of yesterday. That's the God's honest truth.
Q: When's the last time you got drunk?
A: I never have! I like an Old Fashioned once in a while, but that's it. I never smoked. (Laughs) I mean, is this woman shallow or what? Sure, I've got vices -- I eat. Pasta, yeast biscuits, I'm big on carbohydrates. And showing it.
Q: You've been burned by the press?
A: Well, some of it has been inaccurate about me. Like there was this newspaper interview that said, "Mother of four," and I thought, "Oh my God! There's one I don't know about!" I'll tell you this . . . are you still awake?
A: Well, the following story sums up my private life. Once, a reporter from the National Enquirer showed up at my mother's doorstep in Sun City and said he was from one of the Florida newspapers that ran my column. I later tracked him down -- that's how I found out he was from the Enquirer. Anyway, she said, "Come on in!" And he wants mother to tell him about my life. And five hours later, the man is dying. She's given him raisins, and coffee and cookies, and the poor guy died from boredom. And they wrote nothing! I was so insulted.
Q: Does sex in a marriage pick up after the kids have grown and gone to college, or does it remain dismal?
A: (Laughs) Compared to what? Actually, it gets better, because you have more time. The attraction is still there for us. There's nothing sadder in this world than for a couple to have their kids grow up and leave, and then to realize that's all they had in common. That's so tragic to me. With us, it was totally different. Our whole lifestyle changed. I stopped filling up a trough and summoning the troops. We started to eat human, and we started to take trips, and we'd go to the movies in the afternoon and . . . (Laughs) . . . things like that. So things picked up, definitely, even though we couldn't be more different.
Q: What celebrity do you look the most like?
A: Rue McClanahan. People tell me all the time that I look a lot like her, and I guess I really do.
Q: Do you have the same desires that her sexually active character (Blanche Devereaux) on "The Golden Girls" has?
A: Ha! Don't I wish! In my dreams.