Dan Greenburg, Who Poked Fun With His Pen, Dies at 87

Dan Greenburg, the prolific humorist, best-selling author, essayist, playwright and screenwriter whose satirical prose examined Jewish angst, women and sex, and who later produced a series of humorous children’s books, died on Monday in the Bronx. He was 87.

His death, at a hospice facility, was caused by worsening complications of a stroke he had a year ago, his son, Zack O’Malley Greenburg, said.

Mr. Greenburg achieved national fame in 1964 with the publication of his “How to Be a Jewish Mother: A Very Lovely Training Manual,” a tongue-firmly-in-cheek assessment of the unique and often baffling qualities of a stereotypical Jewish mother.

“Never accept a compliment,” Mr. Greenburg advised. For example: “Irving, tell me, how is the chopped liver?”

“Mmmm! Sylvia, it’s delicious!”

“I don’t know. First the chicken livers that the butcher gave me were dry. Then the timer on the oven didn’t work. Then, at the last minute, I ran out of onions. Tell me, how could it be good?”

Though his own mother didn’t think it was particularly funny, “How to Be a Jewish Mother” sold more than 270,000 copies in its first year alone and opened the door for the 28-year-old Mr. Greenburg to embark on a long career as a writer.

He subsequently published more than a dozen books for adults, including “How to Make Yourself Miserable” (1966), “What Do Women Want” (1982) and “Scoring: A Sexual Memoir” (1972), mostly based on his own neurotic and hilarious attempts at connecting with the opposite sex.

He branched into other genres as well — horror, the occult and murder mysteries — and he later began writing humorous children’s fiction, turning out numerous volumes of the popular “The Zack Files” series, for which his son was the inspiration.

The versatile Mr. Greenburg also acted, did stand-up comedy and wrote plays and movie scripts, including for the hits “Private Lessons” (1981) and “Private School” (1983).

Though he was a native Chicagoan, Mr. Greenburg was among the angst-ridden, carnally obsessed Jewish writers, like Woody Allen, Jules Feiffer and Philip Roth, who emerged in New York during the sexually charged 1960s with shocking, comical and explicit explorations of their neurotic sexual fantasies and behaviors.

He wrote more than 150 humor pieces for The New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy, Vanity Fair and other publications. When asked by his Playboy editor over lunch at a Chinese restaurant in 1972 to take part in an orgy in order to write an amusing essay, Mr. Greenburg was flummoxed.

Mr. Greenburg’s “How to Be a Jewish Mother” (1964) was an instant success and launched his career. He later wrote a series of children’s books, “The Zack Files,” inspired by his son.

“My chopsticks suddenly became too heavy to hold, and I lowered them carefully to the table,” he wrote in Playboy that year. “I should tell you at this point that I am so shy with women that it took me till the age of 23 to lose my virginity, till 30 to get married, and today, at 36, I am still unable to go to an ordinary cocktail party and chitchat with folks like any regular grown-up person. The idea of sending old Greenburg to take part in an orgy was, frankly, tantamount to sending someone with advanced vertigo to do a tap dance on the wing of an airborne 747.”

The woman he married at 30, in 1967, was the journalist Nora Ephron, who would find success and fame as a comedy screenwriter and director after their nine-year marriage — the first for both of them — ended in an amicable divorce. They had the friendliest split one could imagine. “When we got the divorce, we kept dating,” Mr. Greenburg said on a podcast in 2021.

Mr. Greenburg’s disarming wiseguy prose earned grudging respect from the critics. His examination of the paranormal, “Something’s There” (1976), was praised by John Leonard in The New York Times for its “skeptical, muscular, street-smart in the nether world” look at the occult.

“Fans of the author of ‘How to Be a Jewish Mother’ and ‘Scoring’ will be pleased to learn that Mr. Greenburg hasn’t lost his sense of humor, even if he has lost a portion of his mind,” Mr. Leonard wrote. “He is still, like Dean Martin, preoccupied with sex.”

Daniel Greenburg was born on June 20, 1936, to Samuel and Leah (Rozalsky) Greenburg. His mother was a Hebrew-school teacher, his father an artist. Intending to follow in his father’s footsteps, Mr. Greenburg enrolled in the fine arts program at the University of Illinois but switched to industrial design. He graduated in 1958.

Wanting to abandon Chicago’s cold winters, he packed up his secondhand Chevy and drove to Los Angeles. Knowing no one there and having few options, he applied to graduate school at U.C.L.A., where he earned a master’s degree in fine arts.

He soon talked his way into a job as an advertising writer with a small agency. When he read J.D. Salinger’s novel “Catcher in the Rye,” he was so moved by it that he decided he should try his hand at mimicking writers like Mr. Salinger.

He wrote a satirical version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and, after selling it to Esquire in 1958 for $350, began to envision himself as a satirist. But, by his account, he knew he had a long way to go to become a successful writer.

Splitting his focus between advertising and magazine writing, Mr. Greenburg eventually landed in New York, where in the early 1960s he met the editor and publisher Ralph Ginzburg, who was starting Eros, a magazine about erotica. Mr. Ginzburg recruited Mr. Greenburg to be its managing editor. Mr. Ginzburg went on to earn notoriety when he was convicted of violating federal obscenity laws in 1963.

Meeting a book publisher at a party, Mr. Greenburg pitched an idea for what he wanted to title “The Snob’s Guide to Status Cars.” The publisher, Roger Price (who was also a humorist), rejected the pitch but suggested that Mr. Greenburg come back to him with another book idea. Over lunch days later, the two lamented how their Jewish mothers had used guilt to get them to eat. As he recalled on the 2021 podcast, Mr. Greenburg wondered: “How do they do this? Do they have a handbook on how to be Jewish mothers?”

A lightbulb flashed on, he recalled, and he thought, “I’ll write that.” Mr. Price liked the idea, offered a $500 advance, and “How to Be a Jewish Mother” was published by Price, Stern, Sloan in late 1964. It became a hit and effectively launched Mr. Greenburg’s writing career. It would go on to be published in 24 countries and was made into a musical, which had a brief run on Broadway beginning in December 1967.

After divorcing Ms. Ephron, Mr. Greenburg in 1980 married the writer Suzanne O’Malley, with whom he had his son, Zack, his only child. They divorced in the 1990s. In 1998 he married Judith C. Wilson, a writer. In addition to his son, she survives him, along with a granddaughter. Mr. Greenburg lived in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Mr. Greenburg outside his home in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., in 1998. He published more than a dozen books for adults and scores more for children.Credit…Librado Romero/The New York Times

A fearful child, Mr. Greenburg undertook a series of hair-raising adventures as an adult while mining material for his children’s books, which he began writing in the mid-1990s. He rode upside-down in an open-cockpit plane over the Pacific with a stunt pilot; was chased by an elephant in Africa; rode with New York City firefighters to fires and with the city’s police in high-speed chases; and visited a tiger ranch in Texas, where he learned to discipline 200-pound tigers.

“I visit schools constantly,” he said in an interview for the website of Harcourt Books (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) in 2006. “I talk to kids. I try out ideas on them, and I ask them what they like to read. Both boys and girls tell me they love scary stories and funny stories the best, and the boys tell me they love to be grossed out. I’ve tried to put all three things in these books.”

In a 1998 interview with The Times, Mr. Greenburg admitted to missing some of the ego rewards of writing adult fiction, but insisted that writing children’s books had been deeply gratifying.

“It’s the most fun I ever had in my life,” he said. “There’s nothing more fulfilling than hearing that you’ve turned a kid on to books. That’s enough for a career right there.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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