Heloise at 40: high-tech but still down-to-earth

The household hints column hits a big milestone next month, with the founder's daughter at the helm and the future well in hand.

January 17, 1999|By Roy Bragg | Roy Bragg,san antonio express-news

It's a weekday afternoon in San Antonio, and the best-known name in American housekeeping isn't doing any.

There's no time right now. Heloise, America's first name in household hints, instead is hunkered down at a computer, answering questions from inquiring minds on the Internet.

This is a day set aside for her monthly online chat. As she nibbles on a piece of pizza, there's a question about carving-knife maintenance.

Heloise is quick with the answer -- hand-wash it, sharpen it on a whetstone, and if it's stored in a counter-top knife holder, store it upside down so the blade won't be dulled by rubbing against the holder's surface.

If this kind of advice seems insignificant to you, you've probably got a maid, mom or spouse picking up after you. But if you are your own domestic, you listen to this woman.

At 47, Heloise -- real name Ponce Cruse Evans -- is a bona fide cul-tural icon, a part of our collective consciousness. A persona identifiable by a single name, just like Cher and Madonna, only synonymous with the arcane world of household hints rather than pop music.

But there's more to Heloise than just great, and always fascinating, advice. Heloise has established herself as a savvy, self- assured executive, one who knows her customers and her business better than many captains of industry claim to know theirs.

The bottom line, of course, is "Hints from Heloise," the syn- dicated snippets of household advice that appear in 500 newspapers in 21 countries every day of the year. These days, Heloise is also beamed to your television set on a regular basis and shows up on the magazine rack in Good Housekeeping every month. She's had eight books published that have sold more 4.5 million copies.

Two dozen times a year, she appears in person at conventions around the country. And now she's floating on the Internet.

That's a lot of helpful hints to come up with -- but be assured they don't come off the top of Heloise's head. She gets up to 3,000 letters, faxes and e-mails a week. Some have questions; others have hints that end up in the column. (Her Web site is www.heloise.com.)

To deal with these, Heloise has a staff of five who work in a suite of offices in her home in San Antonio. She and her posse thoroughly test each hint in her kitchen. Then each idea is checked with state, federal, public and private consumer and safety experts to make sure they don't contain any hidden faux pas.

The best part? As odd as some of them sound, those hints intended to make home drudgery go easier -- vinegar for stains, coffee grounds for odors, boric acid for roaches -- all work as promised.

They've worked for a long, long time. Next month marks the 40th anniversary for the "Hints from Heloise" column, begun by her mother at the family's kitchen table in 1959. Heloise the mom wrote the column until her death in 1977. Heloise the daughter has been writing it for 21 years, which means she's been doing it longer.

And now, with her monthly Internet chat, presented by HomeArts, a women's lifestyle Web site, via more media than ever. (The address is www.homearts.com/heloise.)

On this day, besides the knife inquiry and a few questions about spills, the digital chatter turns to the subject of etiquette and manners on major holidays.

When's the best time to serve dinner? How do you handle seating arrangements? What do you bring when invited to dinner? Not the kind of questions Heloise usually handles. But still the chatters look to her for answers.

Susan Bischoff, a Houston Chronicle assistant managing editor and a Heloise friend, says that's because people treat the silver-haired columnist as a close friend.

"They feel like they know her so well that she gets cards and letters and calls all the time from people [suggesting that she] dye her hair," Bischoff says.

A publicity photo of the original Heloise, which appeared in a 1963 issue of Saturday Evening Post, shows the way she connected with her audience. In a decidedly un-Martha Stewart shot, the columnist is pictured as a figure of domestic mythology -- six arms, each wielding an implement of homemaking such as a frying pan or iron.

King Features, which distributes the Heloise column, is considering an update of the photo for a campaign to mark the column's 40th anniversary. In it, today's Heloise will be wielding modern American household necessities -- cellular phone and computer mouse, for example -- along with some old standard kitchen items.

This, Heloise explains, shows how American life, and her job, have changed.

"This isn't 1950," she says. "I'm not Donna Reed."

Of course not. As we said, she is Ponce Cruse Evans, and she has been married to plumbing contractor David Evans for nearly 18 years.

Her mom's name wasn't Heloise, either. "She was Eloise," she explains. "When they went to King Features, they decided it would work better with an H. They liked the alliteration."

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