From her Indiana kitchen, she became arguably the most beloved mother of late-night television — the expert pie-maker with the trademark apron, warm smile and gentle demeanor that charmed Americans each time she came on the screen with her signature greeting, “Hi, David!”
Dorothy Mengering wasn’t just comedian David Letterman’s mom. She was everyone’s mom.
Mengering, popularly known as “Dave’s Mom,” died Tuesday at her home in Carmel, Ind. She was 95. Letterman’s publicist, Tom Keaney, confirmed to the Associated Press Mengering’s death, which took place a day before Letterman’s 70th birthday.
Through her occasional appearances on Letterman’s shows, Mengering became a celebrity in her own right. It began with a few phone calls, usually around Thanksgiving, when Mengering would talk to her son — and his viewers — via satellite from her kitchen. Letterman would ask his mother about the most mundane of details — the weather in Indiana, the cat or what she had prepared for dinner.
“I think we started calling her once every two or three months,” Letterman told the St. Petersburg Times in a 1996 profile of his mother. “We’d call her in the spring and try to get her to say that the crocuses were up. There never seemed to be any one reason why we would do it.”
But those simple, humdrum conversations were what made Mengering so memorable, and what made her unexpected comic career on her son’s show take off. As Pamela Davis wrote in the St. Petersburg Times profile, Mengering was a “tuck-you-in-at-night mom. A kiss-and-make-it-better mom. A favorite-meal-on-your-birthday mom.”
Once famous, she would even write a cookbook, 1996’s “Home Cookin’ With Dave’s Mom,” featuring recipes Letterman grew up eating: cup custards, ham loaf and broccoli-lima bean casserole.
But first, she would make a name for herself in the least likely of ways: as a correspondent for three different Winter Olympics.
After Letterman moved to CBS, where he started “The Late Show,” he got the idea to send his 74-year-old mother to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. Appearing bundled up in winter gear — always showing her sincere smile — Mengering put up with all of the various stunts her son made her do — trying cross-country skiing, taking a reindeer-pulled sleigh ride, sharing what she had eaten for her meals (at times, McDonald’s) and even showing off her miniature hotel soaps.
She wasn’t always in on the joke, but she went along with all of her son’s gags anyway.
“He kidded me in Norway,” she told the St. Petersburg Times, explaining that he asked her whether she’d seen any fjords lately. “I was supposed to say ‘No, but I’ve seen some Chevys.’ I didn’t get it until after we were off the air. I saw the tape of the show, and then it dawned on me.”
During her time there, she would interview figure skater Nancy Kerrigan and have a memorable run-in with then-first lady Hillary Clinton, who insisted that she visit the White House sometime.
“Is there anything you or your husband can do about the speed limit in Connecticut?” Mengering asked Clinton, a reference to her son’s many speeding tickets. (Even President Bill Clinton admitted later that he and Hillary Clinton stayed up late to watch her.)
On Mother’s Day in 2015, Letterman put together a montage of some of his mother’s most charming moments on his show, saying he was lucky to have her be a part of it. “Thank you for everything,” he said.
Among the highlights was the time he asked her “after dinner, what are you going to be doing there in Indiana?”
“Two words, David: Old Milwaukee,” she responded.
There was the popular, occasional bit from her kitchen “Guess Mom’s Pies.” There was the time she listed off little-known facts about her son, “His date for senior prom: you’re looking at her,” she said. And the time she described the top 10 things she had learned in her 84 years: “In a pinch, vanilla extract will give you a good buzz,” and “It’s hard having a son who looks older than you.”
The mother, one of the few people who actually called the famous comedian “David,” as opposed to “Dave” would politely tolerate her son’s foolishness “with the sort of doting affection only a parent understands,” Rolling Stone wrote in a profile.
She may have often felt the desire to roll her eyes at certain jokes her son made about her — such as the one about how she sold bootleg Beavis & Butthead shirts on Indianapolis’ Monument Circle — that were apocryphal.
“Sometimes I just have to say ‘David,'” Mengering told the Star Press of Muncie, Ind. “I told him once that people are going to think Mom is a real sot.”
Gretchen Letterman, 61, the youngest of Ms. Mengering’s three children, told the Tampa Bay Times her mother “was the perfect foil” for her comedian brother.
“She wouldn’t take any stuff from him, which was what was so funny,” Gretchen Letterman said. “Even though she let him fill her fridge with Colt 45 malt liquor and bags of White Castle, when he would say something really ridiculous, she would say: ‘Oh David, that’s not true.’”
Mengering, who lived her entire life in Indiana, would set her VCR to record her son’s show every night. The next day after dinner, she would sit down to watch it.
She married Letterman’s father, a florist named Harry Letterman, in 1942. He died in 1973, and she married structural engineer Hans P. Mengering, who died in 2013.
Mengering, a mother of three and grandmother of five, worked as an Indianapolis church secretary and loved curling up with a good book, her children wrote in an obituary published in the Indianapolis Star. Her favorite book, by Hoosier author Gene Stratton Porter, was “The Song of the Cardinal.”
Just after she died Tuesday, her children wrote, a “brilliant red cardinal landed on a branch outside her window, singing his song.”
“Though her quiet life took a detour into the spotlight,” her children wrote, “she never lost her unassuming demeanor, a perfect foil for his comedy and her full life.”
In a piece about the women’s movement in 1989 in the St. Petersburg Times, compiled by Gretchen Letterman, a former longtime journalist there, her mother said:
“When I was growing up, most women’s futures comprised marriage — being dependent on a husband — and children, and it was a good life. (My family is great.) Then came a time, when my first husband died, when I was forced to be on my own. I found I was an individual in my own right, and that was good for me.”
Years later, she would recall feeling a sting when she once received a phone call asking her “Don’t you have your own identity?”
“I am another person besides Dave’s Mom,” she told the St. Petersburg Times. “I’m Gretchen and Jan’s mom, too, and grandmother to four and wife to Hans. So, I have a whole life other than being Dave’s mom.”
She did, however, say: “I’m so grateful that at this time in my life I’m able to do this. Something I’ve never ever dreamed of. David gave me this opportunity so I need to make the most of it.”
David Letterman retired in 2015. That year, he told Indianapolis Monthly that his mother was recovering from a stroke.
“She had a stroke a couple of weeks ago, but she’s fine. She’s 94, for heaven’s sake. If I had a stroke, I’d be hospitalized for the rest of my life. My mom has one, and she’s fine.”
In her cookbook, Mengering summarized why Americans must have taken such a liking to her appearances on the “Late Show.” And it had little to do with her broadcasting skills, which often involved little more than vague, short responses to her son’s often-absurd questions.
“People enjoy seeing a mother and son together,” she wrote. “It’s that simple.”
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