Kerr legacy wields a mighty pen Writer: Sophie Kerr Underwood earned her living by writing. Now those earnings help keep writing alive at Washington College on the Eastern Shore.

May 16, 1997|By Dail Willis

CHESTERTOWN -- Sophie Kerr Underwood is better remembered today for the money she made writing -- which she bequeathed to Washington College here -- than for her fiction.

In her day, however, she was both popular and prolific. She wrote 23 novels, co-authored a cookbook about Eastern Shore cuisine, and wrote more than 500 stories and articles that were published in the Saturday Evening Post, Woman's Home Companion and other magazines.

RTC The novels, marketed as "women's light fiction," fill two shelves in a library room at Washington College, part of an extensive collection of Sophie Kerr artifacts. They have titles such as "Caroline Goes On," "The Blue Envelope," and "Miss J. Looks On." They were published by major houses and sold well at the time.

"She made a living writing," points out Robert Day, a professor who oversees the campus Literary House.

It was no small accomplishment. The daughter of a Denton nurseryman born and raised on a Caroline County farm, she sold her first short story at the age of 19.

She married John D. Underwood in 1904, but the marriage ended in divorce four years later. The couple had no children.

After a brief stint at newspapers in Pittsburgh, she moved to New York and began a writing career that lasted until she died at 84. At the time of her death, according to her obituary in the New York Times, she was working on a magazine article titled "What Do Women Want?"

Kerr attended Hood College. No one is sure why she didn't leave her money to her alma mater, but college lore has it that she looked elsewhere after learning that Hood was performing vivisections on cats in the biology lab. Such a practice certainly might have offended a woman who often wrote about cats, and && whose Christmas cards featured a photograph of her cat, ZuZu.

Although she spent most of her life in New York, the Eastern Shore figured in much of her work, and she kept a residence in Denton until after World War II.

The cookbook, "The Best I Ever Ate," carried several lengthy essays about the simple regional cooking of the Shore and the importance of good food. The tone ranges from instructive -- "The difference between good and bad cooking is civilization" -- to slyly witty: "In Spain, pie is unknown. So now we have the reason for the voyage of Columbus."

Her other nonfiction writing, largely essays published in magazines, suggest she had strong opinions outside the kitchen, too. Writing in the Saturday Evening Post, she opined: "A burglar who knows his etiquette book may make a more agreeable husband than a minister who eats pie with his knife."

That same shrewd understanding shaped her bequest to the college. The paragraphs in her will spell out precisely how the money is to be divided and used, suggesting that although she was fortunate enough to earn a living writing, she knew well the obstacles facing young, aspiring writers.

Pub Date: 5/16/97

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