Almanac

News - July 23, 2014

Longtime Menlo Park resident Fran Kearton dies at 93

by Dave Boyce

The final curtain has come down on the life of Frances Peace Kearton of Menlo Park. Her varied career included fashion and runway modeling in New York City for the John Robert Powers agency; sharing a TV spotlight, comedic writing responsibilities and madcap antics for three years with Dick Van Dyke; opting for single motherhood in a time and place — 1950s Georgia — when that just wasn't done; and writing two comedic memoirs. Ms. Kearton died at Stanford Hospital on Saturday, July 12, after a brief illness. She was 93.

A memorial and celebration of her life is set for 3 p.m. Thursday, July 24, at the Menlo Circus Club at 190 Park Lane in Atherton, according to Vicki Clements, a trustee of her estate.

That Ms. Kearton found work as a humorist is not a surprise. "My mother was a very funny woman. I think (being funny) is hereditary," she told the Almanac in 2010. "She was always funny. Even when things were so bad, she was always funny."

Things did get bad. In the space of a few years early in the Great Depression, the family lost its savings to an unscrupulous stockbroker, her father died and lightning struck their rural Georgia home and it burned to the ground.

Commenting on the one intact item from the fire, a blue cloisonne vase, Ms. Kearton recalled her mother standing amid the ashes with the vase cradled in her arms. "Frances," she said, "remember the main lesson of this loss: never become too attached to material things."

Ms. Kearton said she kept the vase, and did become attached to it.

Her mother, a Vassar graduate with degrees in speech and French, discouraged Fran's Southern pronunciations. No use of "pinnies" to refer to one-cent coins, and "aigs," were not a breakfast food that may be scrambled or poached. As for breakfast itself, Fran pronounced it as "breas" followed by a four-letter word that rhymes with duck. Her mother let her keep that one, she said. "She felt sentimental about it because it was my last baby word."

Ms. Kearton wrote skits five days a week with Mr. Van Dyke in the 1950s for "The Fran and Dick Show" (aka "The Music Shop"), but did not consider herself a comedy writer. "Dick and I never thought we were real writers," she told a group at the Menlo Circus Club in 2010. "We were merely survivors racing into Studio B each day clutching last-minute hastily scrawled skits to feed the insatiable Venus flytrap of a daily live TV hour."

As a woman, she had difficulties that confront pioneers. She was co-host of the show, but was expected to answer phones. Her ideas had to be rearranged so that a man could claim them. "That's the only way I could get things done," she said. "I had to go around the mulberry bush."

Once, learning of Mr. Van Dyke's higher salary, she asked for a raise. She was denied, she said, on the excuse that family men had greater responsibilities and that, with her looks, she would probably remarry soon.

She experienced harassment. Fashion modeling "was fraught with it," she said. "I was always creeping into somebody's heart, which meant they wanted me to creep into their lap, too." Even as a prestigious Powers model, men touched her inappropriately and assumed her morals were loose because she was a model. More than once she was chased around a desk, she said.

"I was a very pretty girl and sometimes that's a plus and sometimes that's a minus," she said. "I prefer to see it as a plus."

She married in 1954 to Reginald Ruston Kearton in a week in which, she said, three men proposed to her. Coming to California, she drove across the country with her mother, mother-in-law and father-in-law in the car. Her experiences with her extended family in a Los Altos estate became comic in retrospect.

At 90 and living in Sharon Heights in 2010, Ms. Kearton cleaned her own house, drove her own car, and was a Democrat in a Republican stronghold. She took tap dancing lessons, stretched before housecleaning and watched "Sit to be Fit" on TV.

Sitting for an interview in the vicinity of an unsold pile of her second memoir, "French Beds I've Slept In (and Some I Wish I Hadn't)," she said: "I might be killed by an avalanche of these books, but it's not a bad way to go."

Ms. Kearton was preceded in death by her husband and her son, Allison Hoyle Adams, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease). She is survived by her grandson Kristian Kearton (Malene).

Donations in her name may be made to the Golden West chapter of the ALS Association.

Go to tinyurl.com/FPK221 to see a 2010 profile of Fran Kearton by the Almanac's Dave Boyce.

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