After nearly drowning in a whirlpool while on vacation in Acapulco in the early 1960s, Elaine Kendall decided to start writing.
As she lay exhausted on the beach after being rescued, she realized her obituary would have reported only that she was a “beloved mother and housewife,” and she wanted her life’s work to include a career, according to her son, Richard Kendall.
That she succeeded in her goal would be an understatement.
The prolific author of books, plays, articles and essays for more than 60 years died Aug. 4 in Santa Barbara after complications from a series of falls. She was 91.
Mrs. Kendall wrote four nonfiction books of cultural history: “The Upper Hand,” an account of changing male/female roles in modern society; “The Happy Mediocrity,” an examination of American choices in architecture, food, clothing and culture as they developed over the centuries; “Peculiar Institutions,” an informal account of the development of women’s education — specifically the “Seven Sisters” colleges — from pre-revolutionary times to the present; and “Seeing Europe Again: Confessions of a First World Traveler,” a light-hearted and sometimes satirical comparison of European and American cultural attitudes — and what happens when those attitudes come up against the sometimes less-than-glamorous realities of traveling the world.
Her articles about art, theater and other cultural pursuits appeared in Harpers, The New York Times Magazine, Performing Arts, Horizon, American Heritage, Vogue, The Dramatist, Playbill and other national magazines.
For 17 years, from 1980 to 1997, she was a weekly book critic for The Los Angeles Times.
Mrs. Kendall particularly loved the theatre, and over the course of her career, she wrote four dramatic plays, according to her son. They included “Two Margarets,” dramatizing the double life of birth control crusader, Margaret Sanger; “The Chameleon,” based upon the career of Judah P. Benjamin, Confederate statesman and eventually, leading English barrister; “The Nominee,” a drama about the Supreme Court nomination process; and “The Trial of Mata Hari,” which drew upon newly translated records implying that the notorious exotic dancer may not have been guilty of espionage during World War I.
“The closing speech from ‘The Trial of Mata Hari’ is included in the 2011 Smith & Kraus edition of Best Women’s Monologues,” noted Richard Kendall, adding that his mother also wrote libretti and lyrics for musical shows.
They included “An American Cantata”; “The Would-be Diva” (about Ganna Walska, creator of Lotusland in Montecito); “Isadora!” (about dancer Isadora Duncan); and “Cole & Will: Together Again!” (a meld of brief Shakespearean scenes and Cole Porter songs).
Born to Rhoda and Herman Becker on June 29, 1928, in New York City, Mrs. Kendall earned her bachelor’s degree from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., in 1949. She met her husband of 69 years, Herbert J. Kendall, a commercial real estate developer, in 1950.
“They met on a blind date that was a great success even though Elaine had just had her wisdom teeth removed,” Richard Kendall said.
The couple married months later, settled in Princeton, N.J., and raised two children.
In 1993, the Kendalls moved to Montecito and quickly became involved in the community. They purchased the Victoria Hall Theatre in downtown Santa Barbara, presenting and producing many plays (including some of Mrs. Kendall’s own productions) over the years at what became known as the “Old Vic” and is now the Ensemble Theatre.
Most recently, Mrs. Kendall wrote a monthly column for the online magazine, The Satirist, taking on timely political and cultural subjects with sly humor, particularly directed at the current occupant of the White House, such as “Humpty Dumpty Is President of the USA,” in which she traced the history of the Humpty Dumpty character from the 10th century to the present.
“My mother continued to write into her 90s — her last piece was published just two months before her passing,” according to Richard Kendall.
Along with her husband, Mrs. Kendall supported a wide variety of nonprofits in her lifetime through the Herbert and Elaine Kendall Charitable Foundation. They included Human Rights Watch, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Doctors Without Borders, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and Direct Relief.
Mrs. Kendall also gave to the Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts, Lobero Theatre and Community Arts Music Association of Santa Barbara. She was a member of the Laurel Chain Association, a distinction given to Mount Holyoke alumnae who donated to the college for more than 50 years.
Mrs. Kendall is survived by her husband, Herbert J. Kendall; son, Richard Kendall, and his wife Lisa; and daughter, Nancy McCabe and her husband Patrick.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Ensemble Theatre. Services are pending.