Margaret Frances Lynch — later to be be my mother, let’s get right to the important stuff — was born on November 25, 1916 in Lincoln, Nebraska and toilet trained, according to her mother, by the age of one. The only child of Clara Frances Renning, an orthopedic nurse at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and Hugh Franklin Lynch, an up-and-coming businessman with the Moline Plow Company, Margaret was by all accounts the apple of her dad’s eye. He called her “My”. At the age of one, under her father’s tutelage, she was merrily singing, or attempting to, “K-K-K-Katy”, and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in Latin. 1917 was also the year in which my mother, on closer inspection, was discovered to be tongue-tied (medical name: ankyloglossia), after which Dr. Charles Mayo sharpened his scalpel and my mother started talking (and hasn’t stopped since).
I have here beside me a telegram dated September 1918 which reads: “Not very well. Perhaps you’d better come soon.” It was sent from Nebraska by Hugh Lynch to his wife and baby daughter, visiting family in Minnesota. My grandmother grabbed my mother, leapt on a train, and arrived frantically at Hugh’s bedside only hours before he, like so many millions of others, succumbed to the deadly Spanish Flu virus. Dr. Mayo wired his colleagues in Nebraska to please offer his nurse Frances Lynch any vaccine available. The hospital had one dose left. Frances gave it to “My”. My grandmother nevertheless survived, never remarried and never forgave the world for taking her husband away. Although she brightened considerably of course when I came along, as one would, but we’re not there yet. We have my mother’s career still to get through. Feel free to skim.
Frances and Margaret moved back to the Renning family home in the small town of Kasson, Minnesota, fifteen miles west of Rochester. Margaret was looked after by her Norwegian maternal grandfather and various teenage aunts and uncles while Frances resumed her job at the Mayo Clinic, commuting the fifteen miles home by bus at the weekend. Despite missing her mother and having no father, despite loathing Minnesotan winters--a factor in which her ability to wear three sweaters at once and still be cold no doubt has its origins—Mama says she had a pleasant childhood. She had a terrier named Jerry who bit people, a pet rooster with a possible identity not to mention gender disorder named Martha Ruth Ann who walked Mama to school and back, numerous neighborhood friends with whom to romp and play Tag, Hide and Seek, Jacks, and Pump Pump Pullaway whatever that is, and a not-particularly-on-the-ball first cousin named Junior who willingly tested my mother’s After School Entertainment Ideas for flaws, such as jumping out the barn window with bedsprings tied to his feet (broken collarbone), out of the hayloft parachute-style, flapping a bed sheet (broken arm), or out of the maple tree holding an open umbrella (broken foot and dislocated shoulder) and who incidentally in later life went on to join the Hell’s Angels, something he presumably found not nearly as dangerous or scary as being related to Margaret Lynch.
As she grew up in Kasson, spending summers under the lilacs, lying in hammocks munching green apples while cousins were being whisked off to the ER right and left, my mother made an important discovery: she could quite happily spend an entire day with her nose in a book instead of housecleaning. She quickly worked her way through Kasson’s tiny library. By the age of nine she had consumed all the great Russian novels, Dickens, Chaucer, Fielding, and Saki and dipped into Henry James, Austen, De Maupassant, and the Brontes. (I read the entire Nancy Drew series, twice, plus all the Cherry Ames Student Nurse books, by the age of fifteen. I mention this only to impress you.)
My mother was in fact such a bright little spark that she skipped a grade and, one can safely say, her passion for books continues to this day. Her greatest fear, not counting spiders, is being Stuck Somewhere With Nothing Decent To Read. Which, granted, kind of makes the idea of locking her in a dentist’s waiting room, all magazines removed, with a rubber tarantula on her shoulder seem attractive, just to, you know, see, but anyhow, for the record, should you ever require a gift, she prefers non-fiction. How I Crossed the Kalihari Blindfolded, if there were such a thing, might appeal, or what growing up in Archangel was like. She’s also just read something on eels. (She says I’m the only one who can buy books for her and keeps asking how come I’m so good at it. Easy, I tell her, all I do is go up to Waterstones and pick out something I’d never read in a million years.)
My mother’s teenage aunts eventually outgrew the family house in Kasson and moved on to greater things, leaving Margaret, in between chapters, to become, at the age of ten, the chief carpet-sweeper, grocery-shopper, cook and bottle-washer and I suppose what today we’d call “primary caregiver” to her grandfather Frank, who spent the last few years of his life on a bed wheeled into the living room until his heart finally gave out in 1927. Whereupon the bank repossessed the house, my mother’s Uncle Irvin shot the dog, an act for which she never forgave him, Martha Ruth Ann went into the pot (they didn’t tell her) and Frances and Margaret moved to Rochester to a rented room with a bathroom down the hall to which they would tiptoe back and forth, terrified of disturbing the landlady. A sixty-dollars-a-month nurse’s salary didn’t go very far, even in those days. They lived only one block from school, but my mother, who arose every morning at 4:00 A.M. to study, would be at the gates an hour early, even in winter, scared of being late. Although her nails were chewed to the quick and often bled, I am happy to report she got “As” in everything except math.
Her start in radio got underway at age fourteen, after a schoolfriend’s father, like countless businessmen across the country wanting to get in on this new thing called “radio” but not knowing the first thing about running a radio station, opened a radio station. Young Margaret persuaded him to hire her and that he needed things called “sponsors”. How she knew this, or knew how to do this, I don’t know, but about two seconds later she had secured for him his first one, Bisguard Bauer, a local shoe store, having wooed them with a slogan of her own devising: “Don’t Spend Your Life Two Feet Away From Happiness!”. Mama was soon appointed chief copywriter there at KROC, chiefly because there was no one else to do it. Sponsors poured in. Soon she was doing interviews as well. Rochester was full of celebrities who’d come to town (and still do) to go through the world famous Mayo Clinic, where my mother worked after school as a receptionist. She interviewed, among others, Lou Gehrig, Jeanette MacDonald, William Powell, Knute Rockne, Amos and Andy, Fibber McGee and Molly, and Ernest Hemingway. (Can't you just see it? There you are, trying to slip into the Clinic unnoticed, hoping you’re not dying of something, when a skinny little dark-haired thing with a notebook and pencil materializes saying “Right this way, Miss MacDonald, I’ll show you where Haematology is, and incidentally what brings you here and what’s Nelson Eddy really like and how do you keep a straight face when someone’s singing two inches away from your nose?”)
Margaret Frances Lynch graduated from high school two years early at the age of sixteen and entered Rochester Junior College. She sold her first script to station WCCO in Minneapolis. The subject was traffic safety and she played the leading role. Sadly, no copies survive. She went on to attend the University of Minnesota where she majored in English with an emphasis on writing and dramatics. In 1937, upon graduation, two years earlier than her classmates, as I mentioned, but can’t mention often enough and, please note, only one point shy of making Phi Beta Kappa, due to her having unfortunately flunked Cooking, having unfortunately thrown up Spanish Rice With Tomato Sauce all over the cookery teacher’s front---Mama, by now calling herself “Peg”, went back to work at the Clinic’s reception desk, where, being a highly impressionable not to mention somewhat hypochondriacal twenty-one-year-old, she came down with every disease or medical condition that passed over her desk. Miraculously, she survived six months at her post. After reporting to Dr. Mayo one afternoon that she had every symptom of prostate cancer, Dr. Mayo suggested, not unkindly, that it might be time for her to quit, whereupon, after an unsuccessful month job-hunting in Chicago, Peg moved on to a small radio station, KATE, in Albert Lea, Minnesota, about forty miles south of Rochester. She took the name “Lynn Fairbanks” so as not to be confused with another “Peg” who worked there, “Fairbanks” being a family name on her father’s side, after a Jonathan Fairebanke or Fayrebanke arrived from Sowerby Bridge in Yorkshire around 1637 and built the first timber frame house in America (which still survives in Dedham, Massachusetts) and incidentally no relation whatsoever to the Douglas Fairbankses of acting fame, whose real name was Ullman. Which is a good thing because I was starting to get tired of typing “Fairbanks”.
Though hired by station KATE as a copy writer, Mama, in addition, wrote two hundred and fifty commercial spots per week, a daily half hour woman’s show, a weekly half hour theatre show, a weekly farm news program, plus three ten minute plays and two five minute sketches per week. And there’s me thinking cranking out a novel is hard. It was here at KATE that she created the husband and wife duo Ethel and Albert. Peg played “Ethel” and George Russell, the station announcer, played “Albert”. Born as a three minute filler sketch in her woman’s show, Ethel and Albert was initially a sort of commercial, Peg having discovered that a husband-wife format could be adapted to sell a variety of products. Try writing fifteen minutes of snappy dialogue every week for twelve weeks in which a wife tries to persuade her husband to buy an Allis Chalmers Tractor and you’ll get the picture.
After four months at KATE, my mother, back to being “Peg Lynch”, went back to try her luck in Chicago, then Gary, Indiana, before accepting an offer from WCHV in Charlottesville, Virginia, taking Ethel and Albert along with her as well as George Russell, her “Albert”, who had got her the job in the first place. A local woman named Marcia Arrington owned the station, ran it--according to Peg’s letters home to her mother--with all the tact and diplomacy with which Stalin ran the gulags, and most of the staff quit in short order. Peg lasted nine months, then followed suit, after being wrongly accused of stealing thirteen dollars and twenty-eight cents from the kitty.
WCHV’s loss, however, was WTBO in Cumberland, Maryland’s gain, and it was here that Ethel and Albert matured into a popular fifteen minute five-times-a-week evening feature. It seems you could walk down the street and hear radios playing the show through open windows as you went. George Russell, who had also wrangled the WTBO job for Peg, continued to play “Albert” until his habit of buying clothes without paying for them, indeed for not paying any of his bills—and who had in fact been fired from KATE and WCHV for similar reasons—led to his resignation and rather hasty departure, presumably before he was arrested. (I know what you’re thinking but you’re wrong, George did not pocket Marcia Arrington’s precious thirteen dollars, it turned out that Marcia had staged the robbery herself to make Peg, of whom she was jealous, look bad).
Willis Conover, an announcer at WTBO, who went on to become a legend among jazz lovers with the Voice of America program, became my mother’s new “Albert”. He also became engaged to her. Until, that is, they were at the movies one night and the projector broke and the audience had to mill around the lobby and a cute little blonde started chatting to them and after the movie they all three went somewhere for a soda after which Peg went home and Willis---most likely didn’t. The next day he and my mother were expected at Stew another announcer’s for dinner. Willis never showed. My mother stopped speaking to him even though he continued to play “Albert” for a year, bet that was fun. No idea what happened to the blonde. Barn window with bed springs would be my guess. Moral of the story: don’t mess with Peg Lynch.
In February 1944, with just over $500 in her pocket, Mama headed north to New York City, having been approached by producer Robert Maxwell (who went on to produce the television series Superman and Lassie) to take over writing a daytime radio serial called Claudia. Peg’s sample script was not only accepted, Maxwell was thrilled and contracts were drawn up. Meanwhile, an offer from NBC Radio came in. The network was desperate for Ethel and Albert but they wanted to co-own it. In possibly the only smart business move my mother has ever made in ninety-seven years of multiplying two times nothing and getting two, she refused to sell, on the grounds that Ethel and Albert was all she had and that if she sold it, she’d have nothing. To this day, she is still the sole owner of the show. Until, of course, I get my mitts on it.
As the Claudia people dithered with the network to find a time slot, yet another proposition came Peg’s way, this time from the Blue Network (soon to become ABC), which NBC, as owner of both the Red and the Blue Networks (see Early History of Radio somewhere), had been forced to sell off by the monopolies commission or whatever it’s called. Ed Noble, who owned the Lifesavers candy company, promptly bought it, happened to be looking for a daytime comedy that was not a soap opera, a show that was complete each day, and Ethel and Albert fit the bill. Noble allowed my mother to retain all rights. Ethel and Albert was given a five-days-a week fifteen minute slot on national radio, to be transmitted, live, twice a day. After auditioning countless New York actresses, the network concluded that no one was as convincing an “Ethel” as Peg, whereupon Mama was contracted to play “Ethel” and Richard Widmark, “Albert”. The show premiered April 17, 1944. It was an overnight success. Though no one knew it yet, but I have the scrapbooks to prove it, it would soon become a national addiction. Now here’s the annoying part.
All this good fortune happened not after years and years of pounding the New York pavements, slogging away to get noticed, my mother succeeded in less than two months. On top of which, during this same ridiculously short period of time she also managed to acquire a sunny, affordable third floor front apartment overlooking fashionable Gramercy Park (Number 12). Not surprisingly, trainloads of friends and relatives, friends of friends, relatives of friends, fifth cousins by marriage to no one she’d ever heard of all suddenly needed to visit New York, plus I believe a couple of old beaux from Cumberland arrived on her doorstep as well. I sure would have.
After six months of being a radio star, Richard Widmark, definitely not a beau, I hasten to add, announced late on a Friday afternoon that he wouldn’t be in to work on Monday, he was quitting to do a stage play (actors sometimes act like this, honest). ABC, furious, insisted on a week’s notice as per his contract. Annoyed, Widmark duly appeared at the studio on the Monday but never once made eye contact nor spoke to Peg the entire time, kept his hat on throughout the show (at a jaunty, rather smug angle), then got up and walked out before my mother, who had the last line, had finished speaking. Which kind of makes you want to push him down the stairs in a wheelchair and laugh a lot--and incidentally, Peg says that maniacal cackle he gave in The Kiss of Death was his real laugh. And PS. his Broadway play closed in about twenty seconds.
More importantly, over the weekend, “Albert” auditions were held and Widmark was replaced the following Monday by Young Dr. Malone star Alan Bunce, who went on to happily co-star with my mother for the next twenty years not only in Ethel and Albert but in their radio counterparts in The Couple Next Door. The partnership lasted until Alan’s death in 1965.
Ethel and Albert continued as a fifteen minute radio show on ABC until 1949 (one thousand three hundred and forty scripts) when it was expanded to a half hour (thirty-two scripts), after which, in 1950, it moved seamlessly into commercial television, first as a twice-weekly ten minute segment on NBC’s The Kate Smith Hour (sixty-five scripts) and then in April of 1953, sponsored by Sunbeam, it was given it’s own half hour (sixty-seven scripts). Ethel and Albert moved over to CBS in 1955 (fifteen scripts) as a summer replacement for the Spring Byington vehicle December Bride, Maxwell House sponsoring, and was promptly offered it’s own half hour weekly prime time slot. Margaret Hamilton, famous for her portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, became a regular on the show, playing Albert’s aunt. (Unofficially my godmother, I knew her as “Aunt Maggie” and she entertained, minus witch attire, at my birthday parties. She called me “Pumpkin Pie”. Why, I’m not sure). In the fall of 1955, Ethel and Albert again switched networks, this time to ABC and, now sponsored by Ralston Purina, there it remained until May of 1956 (thirty-nine scripts). Because my mother owned her show, and the sets, and the props--turn over half the furniture in her house and you see “CBS” on the bottom--she was not limited to one single network.
These half hour television shows of hers, if I may digress for a moment—produced and directed by the talented Walter Hart whose marvelous laugh I can still hear—they were performed “live” and broadcast “live”. You do understand what this meant. Because some people today can‘t get their heads round the concept. “Live” meant no stopping and starting, no re-doing stuff when you fluff a line or the phone doesn’t ring or the closet won’t open. It means when the director signals “GO!”, that’s it, you’re on. You perform what you’ve been rehearsing all week and that performance is exactly what America sees at that moment (although Western time zones would normally watch the transcription, called a kinescope). The Ethel and Albert cast, as indeed did all live TV casts, had to remember not just dialogue and last minute cuts, but where to stand, where to sit, who had the close-up on what speech, when to quick get their apron off or their coats on off-camera, what set to race to next--and all the while be coping with props, perhaps be cooking something, eating breakfast, setting a table, decorating a Christmas tree, wallpapering a room and so on. All timed to a tee. My mother says she threw up before every show and sometimes during. I suppose when you’re putting in eighteen hour days, getting up at 4:00 AM, writing one week’s show, rehearsing the second week’s, planning the script, cast and sets for the third, it can get to you after awhile. Not to me, it wouldn’t, of course, but some people would find this hard.
Around about 5:00 P.M. on August 12th of 1948, my mother found time to get up from her typewriter and marry my father. Odd Knut Ronning, a Norwegian pulp and paper engineer then getting his Masters Degree in Engineering at Syracuse University was, according to a press cutting, not long thereafter voted “New York’s Handsomest Husband” and was also, in fact still is, my mother’s third cousin. Not that this matters in the slightest because I assure you I am perfectly normal, absolutely fine, tickety-boo and not at all crazy. Which brings us to June 18th 1951, otherwise known as The Most Important Date In The Life Of Peg Lynch, celebrated annually with cake, truck-loads of presents and firework displays. At least that’s the plan, mostly I get hand cream.
Ethel and Albert made a transition back to radio in 1957 as The Couple Next Door (seven hundred and fifty-eight scripts), which had a three year run as a fifteen minute five-days-a week show, ending in 1960.
Peg, with Alan Bunce, performed as Ethel and Albert in numerous television and radio advertisements for, among others, the American Banker’s Association, Arnold Bread, Babo Cleanser, Bell Telephone, Brooklyn Gas, Chemical Bank, General Electric, Parker Brothers, Prudential, and Wisk Detergent, my mother writing many of the commercials herself.
Ethel and Albert was revived in 1963-64 on NBC Radio Monitor in a three-to-five minute format (two hundred and thirty-seven scripts) and on National Public Radio’s Earplay (twenty scripts) in 1973. Peg wrote and starred in The Little Things In Life (one hundred and fifty scripts) for Radio Playhouse in 1975-76 with Bob Dryden in the role of “Mr. Baxter” (Albert). Six episodes of Ethel and Albert were “adapted” (badly) for British audiences and produced by Granada Television in Manchester, England in 1981 under the title Chintz, featuring a British cast. A course on Peg Lynch’s writing was taught at some point I believe at UCLA. Her career was documented by a certain devoted daughter on a BBC Radio 4 program entitled The Woman Who Invented Sitcom; her Couple Next Door scripts are currently being used to teach English in Hiroshima, Japan. In her entire career, my mother never received one bad review. And believe me, I’ve looked. Along with this website, my mother’s archive is being lovingly and meticulously assembled by the University of Oregon and will be preserved for posterity under the title The Peg Lynch Papers. Why Oregon, where Peg has never set foot? Because they asked, they care, and they are good at what they do, University of Minnesota, my mother’s alma mater, please note, University of Minnesota who never returned my calls, and can jolly well go find some other radio and television legend’s stuff to collect.
Over the years my mother has declined countless invitations to write for other comedy shows and series. Initially because it would have meant moving to Los Angeles and she didn’t want me growing up there (and writing any Mommie Dearest type books maybe, heh heh, good luck there) but later on because--actually I have no idea why she got out of the business. I suspect that after writing over 11,000 scripts she was just sick and tired of it. Or just plain tired.
But of course once it’s in you, I suppose it never leaves you, and over the past 25 or so years and as recently as 2012 in Cincinnati, Peg happily re-created her classic Ethel and Albert comedies onstage with various “Alberts”--Bob Hastings, Parley Baer, Bob Dryden, Arthur Andersen, Eddie Bracken, William Schallert, Jess Cain among them--to wildly appreciative audiences at Old Time Radio & Television Conventions across America. Here’s The New York Times, reviewing a media convention in Manhattan: “Peg Lynch was hilarious. She has the combined talent of Erma Bombeck and Lucille Ball rolled into one and certainly is the forerunner of these popular ladies. She is still as entertaining as ever.” And from Variety: “Lynch’s best scripts ring out with the hilarity born of total audience identification. She knows how to take a simple, believable premise and escalate it to the level of high comedy.” (But what do they know.) Peg once received an award with Alan Bunce for “Best Situation Comedy Team of the Year” which read, misspelled, in big gold letters: “To Peg Lunch and Alan Dunce.” So much for fame, she said. But the medal is framed, along with the others, for it represents exactly what my mother spent all those years writing about: those little everyday comedies and tragedies familiar to us all.
In May of 2015, while rushing into her dressing room to do hair and make-up, Mama fell, either breaking her hip, or, more likely, her doctor said, fell because her hip broke--so, instead of getting an interview, lucky Jim Levulis from WAMC Northeast Public Radio got to lift Peg up off the floor and into an ambulance. The doctors worried she wouldn’t survive an operation at her age. I said she would. They operated. She not only survived, she was walking again two days later and discussing her favorite Russian authors with a male nurse from Murmansk. The doctors said they’d never seen anything like it. I said “That’s Peg.” I rang every day, twice, eventually dispensing with FaceTime because Peg wouldn’t show her face on camera, appalled by “how OLD!” she looked so I’d either end up talking to the window blind or the hand sanitizer above her bed, or spend the phone call being asked to wave and say hello to people crowding her room, people I’d never seen before--doctors, nurses, orderlies, patients from down the hall, the florist delivery person, the guy emptying the wastebasket and so on. Peg kept them all entertained. Not to mention took down all their names and addresses to send thank-yous or chocolates later on (or invite them for Christmas).
After two weeks of rehab, Mama, The 98-Year-Old Medical Marvel, was sent home. Her loving staff welcomed her back--not quite like they do in tails and mob caps, flanking the front steps on Downton Abbey bowing and curtseying, but almost.
Her decline was immediate. I could hear it in her voice. I changed my plane reservation from the following week and headed for Heathrow. I made it to Massachusetts in time. We had two days together. I sat curled next to her on the bed, holding her. She kissed my arm. I kissed her head. She whispered she loved me and was proud of me. I whispered the same to her (wait, did I?). At one point she let out a wail and tried to sit up. We all jumped to attention. “What is it? What’s wrong? What can I get you? What do you want?”
My mama took a breath, smiled, and in the old strong voice I hadn’t heard in years, cried “Life!”
Margaret Frances “Peg” Lynch died at 5pm later that day, July 24th, cradled in her devoted care-giver’s arms, because I had had to race out to the stupid pharmacy who refused to deliver, to refill her prescription for Ativan, an anti-anxiety drug. Terri, who had also held my father when he passed away the year before, said she sang Mama an Irish lullaby. And Mama just closed her eyes. I miss her. Believe it or not.