Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

Co-author of 'Cheaper by the Dozen'
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The Independent Online

Ernestine Gilbreth, writer: born New York 5 April 1908; married 1930 Charles Carey (died 1986; one son, one daughter); died Fresno, California 4 November 2006.

A buyer at Macy's department store in the Thirties, Ernestine Gilbreth Carey found worldwide fame for her tonsillectomy: the unnecessary operation was filmed but not recorded because the cameraman forgot to remove his lens-cap.

This is one of many madcap incidents in the exhilarating Cheaper by the Dozen (1949), a memoir written with her brother Frank Gilbreth Jnr, about the New Jersey house in which 12 children grew up in the early 20th century and makes the Addams Family appear restrained. These offspring continually questioned their father Frank's insistence that they adopt the chart-driven time-and- motion efficiencies which had made him famous in America and Europe.

Brought up in a poor Maine household, he had eschewed university, learnt bricklaying and devised a back-saving scaffold derided by his employer; accepted elsewhere, it led to a firm which augmented the stopwatch with film of workers in action. His mission was against "stupidity incorporated".

Married in 1904 to a Berkeley graduate in English, Lillian Moller, Frank Snr sired six sons and six daughters in 17 years. As Ernestine remarked, he would have preferred their arrival as a litter. Time was not wasted on baby talk; a German nurse instilled a foreign language from the cradle, and the 14-room house at Eagle Rock Way in Montclair continued language studies with a Victrola and 78s in each bathroom (washing limited to one disc's worth).

Efficiency brought chaos, what with an unfortunate Irish factotum and a recalcitrant, right-hand-drive car. The children's heads were knocked with a pencil at errors during touch-typing lessons ("Some of us today recoil every time we touch the back-space key"). Such endeavours were filmed (pencilless). Film also evidenced surgeons' life-and-death inefficency ("They really aren't much different from skilled mechanics, except that they're not so skilled"): several children were volunteered for filming at home during tonsillectomy but, somehow, nobody realised that Ernestine was mistakenly undergoing the knife.

Children often went missing, one left behind at lunchtime in a restaurant whose clientele changed by night. A pretty young woman in a booth, highball in hand, was now plying her trade: "Are you looking for a little girl?" Frank Snr's reply, "Goodness no, I'm looking for a naughty little boy", brought the remark, "Whoops, dearie, pardon me."

Come the Twenties, Frank Snr's objection to Ernestine's bobbed hair was nullified by her claiming it more efficient to brush. After leaving his brain to Harvard ("My hat size is 7 3/8, in case you want to get a jar ready") he died at 55 when telephoning his wife from the station.

The struggles and success with the firm by his widow, now with a PhD in psychology, were described in Ernestine and Frank Jnr's Belles on the Toes (1950). Without the beguilingly eccentric father, its panache is intermittent (the last child leaves and Lillian supervises the house's demolition). Rings Around Us (1957) tells of Ernestine's encountering the sales executive Charles Carey after graduating in English from Smith College in 1929. They met in a Greenwich Village bar and "my bones seemed to be transmitting some urgent news during the next few hours".

They soon married. A move to Long Island followed numerous Manhattan apartments, and they restricted themselves to two children. Retail work brought journalism and those books very different from others' academic studies of the Gilbreths. Several light comic novels lack the enduring brio of Cheaper by the Dozen, which was translated into 53 languages and filmed in 1950 with Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy (Barbara Bates played Ernestine); a rougher, Steve Martin version appeared in 2003. Belles on their Toes was filmed in 1952.

Christopher Hawtree

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