Author Barbara Holland, 77

Barbara Holland saw alcohol as
Barbara Holland saw alcohol as "the social glue of the human race," and that view had a profound impact on her writing. (Mel Crown - Mel Crown)
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By Megan Buerger
Sunday, September 19, 2010

Author Barbara Holland was a self-professed guardian of indulgences including cigars, bacon, naps and gin.

During her 77 years, she had written more than 15 books of eclectic, often quirky range: a historical look at the appreciation of cats, a biography of actress Katharine Hepburn, two wry books about the presidency and a lighthearted book on jousting.

Before she died of lung cancer Sept. 7 in Bluemont, Va., she wrote a memoir of growing up in Washington in the 1940s back when it was "a serious party town."

"I distinctly remember Alben Barkley falling into my aunt's swimming pool," she once said of the former vice president.

Alcohol was involved, as it almost always was in those days. And booze, which she considered "the social glue of the human race," had a profound thematic impact on her writing.

Her books "The Joy of Drinking" (2007) and "Endangered Pleasures" (1995) embraced vices increasingly frowned upon in a modern era that favored organic vegetables, daily workouts at the gym and moderate alcohol consumption.

"Subtly," she wrote in "Endangered Pleasures," "in little ways, joy has been leaking out of our lives. Almost without a struggle, we have let the New Puritans take over, spreading a layer of foreboding across the land until even ignorant small children rarely laugh anymore.

"Pain," she continued, "has become nobler than pleasure; work, however foolish or futile, nobler than play; and denying ourselves even the most harmless delights marks the suitably somber outlook on life."

Born Barbara Murray in Depression-era Washington, her parents divorced when she was a child. She was raised by her mother and stepfather, a Labor Department lawyer whose last name she took as her own.

Ms. Holland's relationship with her stepfather grew tumultuous over the years. "My friends and I were all deathly afraid of our fathers," she wrote in her 2005 memoir, "When All the World Was Young." "Fathers were angry; it was their job."

Growing up in Chevy Chase, she found solace in books and writing poetry. After falling ill with whooping cough in first grade, Ms. Holland temporarily relocated with her mother to Florida in hopes that more sun might improve her condition.

There, she learned how to read. By the time she regained her health, her reading level was so high that she was promoted repeatedly in school until she was noticeably out of place. Lonely and socially behind, she resented her education and concentrated on writing.

She spent three years at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School but refused to participate in gym class, a graduation requirement. Rather than face an extra year, she talked her way into Woodrow Wilson High School in the District for her senior year.

Although Ms. Holland did not attend her high school graduation in 1950, she was recognized for her poetry and is pictured in the yearbook with the subtitle, "Wilson's Amy Lowell," a reference to the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.

Although Ms. Holland shared a love of writing with her mother, an author of children's books, the two experienced a falling out over Ms. Holland's refusal to attend her mother's alma mater, Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

Ms. Holland's personal life grew increasingly complicated. As she related in her memoir, she had an abortion during her senior year of high school and then ran away from home with her then-boyfriend, George E. Earnshaw, whom she later married and divorced. They also had another child, a daughter, whom they gave up for adoption.

For a time, Ms. Holland lost contact with her family and found herself in dire financial condition. She later joked that, as much as the idea appealed to her at the time, she could not afford to fall into alcoholism or drug addiction.

Pulling herself out of depression, she gradually found work at a department store and reconnected with her family.

Over the years, she settled in Philadelphia and did advertising copywriting while publishing her short fiction and essays in magazines. She had a daughter with expressionist painter James Brewton. She was also married and divorced from John B. Wood, a government mathematician, and Mark Schilling, a printing salesman.

Besides her daughter with Brewton, Emily Brewton Schilling of Sarasota, Fla., survivors include two sons with Schilling, Matthew Schilling of Pottstown, Pa., and Benjamin Schilling of Orlando; two brothers, Nicholas Holland of Del Mar, Calif., and Andrew Holland of Kensington; two sisters, Judith Clarke of New Hope, Pa., and Rebecca Snyder of Pensacola, Fla.; and two grandchildren.

In the early 1980s, Ms. Holland focused on writing books. Upon inheriting a cabin in Bluemont in 1993, she found inspiration in the Blue Ridge Mountains and in the solitude the cabin afforded.

"From cradle to grave, my neighbors here swing in a hammock of family ties and nobody leaves except for the churchyard," she wrote in her 1997 essay collection "Bingo Night at the Fire Hall: The Case for Cows, Orchards, Bake Sales and Fairs." "Even the few who fled to Florida get carried home in the end."

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