Edith Bunker, 90: Death of a fictional character

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"She was a lovely woman." I can almost hear my big sister Lillian's distinctive voice summing up Edith Bunker, matron and linchpin of the Bunker household on the popular "All in the Family" television series back in the 1970s.

Yes, that'd be how Lillian might sum up Edith: a lovely woman. For my sister was a Southern girl transplanted from Shreveport to New York after she married a boy from the Bronx during the war -- the second world one. Her language to this day remains a mix of all the regional and ethnic turns of phrase she's acquired over the years. And she would be right about Edith: a lovely woman. In every way except maybe for a few of the niceties like careful dress. (Edith favored shapeless housedresses.)

. . .

It's quite a melange, my sister's lingo: Born in Chicago, raised down South, and having lived on Long Island for decades now, the phrases and rhythms of her (very) personal patois reflect everything from our parents' native Yiddish to the occasional Arabic expressions she picked up from her Syrian/Lebanese girlfriends when we were growing up on Texas Avenue in Shreveport.

The living quarters along the avenue were above the stores lined up below. Their occupants could have represented a history of American immigration displayed shop by shop in one long, winding downtown block. And full of families like the Bunkers. Yes, she was a lovely woman, Edith.

. . .

But in her adopted Lung-Island dialect, Lillian would never have said of the Bunkers, "They were such lovely people," Archie Bunker being Archie Bunker and all. Archie, the husband and father of the cast, was the kind of lovable bigot who could have passed for your redneck uncle -- full of prejudices louder than they were dangerous -- if only the show hadn't been set in Queens with accents and mannerisms to match.

Besides, like most husbands, Archie was subject to the civilizing influence of his wife, though he would never admit it, even and especially when he was bowing to it. Don't let his accent fool you. Archie is a familiar type, mutatis mutandis, in these latitudes, too. He didn't mean a single ugly word he said, not really.

At first impression Edith might have seemed a little dim, maybe a lot dim, but it would be more accurate to say her thoughts were, well, a little cloudy. But the cloud she lived under was so bright with good intentions, it illuminated her -- and the whole family.

When you think about it, it was Edith, who was supposed to be a dummy, who was the most reasonable member of the family. Hers was a wisdom that has nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with love, which conquers all.

When watching the reruns, don't be misled by Edith's mannerisms -- the way she was always running, or anyway shuffling as fast as she could, to get Archie a beer, shooing guests away from his favorite beat-up easy chair, and smiling apologetically at guests when he would say something stupid, which was regularly.

Edith's voice, which could carry all the way to Manhattan despite its high nasal pitch, became the show's trademark. ("Oh, Aaaaaww-chie!") Like so many wives and mothers, Edith was the family's center of gravity, the solid earth around which the satellites revolved -- not just Archie but the full-hearted and empty-headed daughter (Gloria) and intellectual son-in-law (Mike, better known as Meathead). Edith was the cement that held them all, and the show, together.

If you could get past the sentimentality its writers confused with depth, "All in the Family" was a sound sociological study of a whole layer of American life during the '70s even before the '70s were over. And it was Edith who was key to it.

. . .

Edith's death the other day at 90 -- yes, I know there's a rumor she actually died at 52, peacefully in her sleep of a stroke, departing with the '70s in 1980. But that was on another and lesser show, the justly forgotten sequel, "Archie Bunker's Place," which mainly demonstrated that without Edith the cast wasn't worth watching. Edith always was. She was the anti-ingenue of television serials, and as a character she put the bright, cheery, always impeccable Mary Tyler Moores in the shade.

. . .

Someone named Jean Stapleton, an actress of some talent, once claimed that "what Edith represents is the housewife who is still in bondage to the male figure, very submissive and restricted to the home. She is very naive, and she kind of thinks through a mist, and she lacks the education to expand her world."

Ms. Stapleton might have been closer to the mark if she had described Archie and the rest of the family as being under Edith's tutelage -- because even they showed signs of growing up thanks to her. Diametrically contrary to Jean Stapleton's instant psychoanalysis, Edith is the one who governs and expands their world. Talented actors, like talented musicians, are like that -- they tend to be much better at practicing their art than explaining it.

. . .

Many actresses have played bimbos on stage and screen, and some may not have been acting, but it takes a remarkably smart one to play a dingbat -- Archie's affectionate nickname for Edith -- with all the intelligence, breadth and sensitivity that Ms. Stapleton brought to the role of Edith.

. . .

Jean Stapleton's life roughly coincided with Edith's, for she was born in the 1920s in New York City and died just the other day at 90. She was a typist and secretary before taking up the stage, and adopted her mother's surname, Stapleton, rather than her father's, Murray, because she thought it "more distingué."

How very much like Edith. The actress was able to play Edith intuitively -- and superlatively. Their backgrounds matched. It was only when she analyzed Edith's social significance in the confused America of the 1970s that the actress misspoke. For what would Jean Stapleton know about Edith Bunker? She only brought her to life.

(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.)

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Andy Green, the opinion editor, has taken the "know a little bit about everything" approach in his time at The Sun. He was the city/state editor before coming to the editorial board, and prior to that he covered the State House and Baltimore County government.

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