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Lois Libien, Who Found a Readership With Household Tips, Dies at 87

Oct 11, 2023Oct 11, 2023


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As a journalist she covered issues affecting women, then turned to writing about housekeeping in handbooks and a syndicated newspaper column.

By Sam Roberts

Lois Libien, who broke ground in the 1960s as a female journalist in a largely male field but who attracted her widest readership by providing household hints in books and a nationally syndicated newspaper column, died on July 25 in River Vale, N.J. She was 87.

Her death, at an assisted living center, where she had been treated for Alzheimer’s disease, was caused by renal failure, her daughter, Jenny Libien, said.

In a varied career that included the authorship of two sexy novels and then, at age 62, a professional shift to psychotherapy, Ms. Libien (pronounced LIH-bee-en) was probably best known for a practical though often witty handbook first published in 1976 as “Super-Economy Housecleaning.” (Later editions were published with Margaret Danbrot, under the name Margaret Strong.)

The handbook inspired a column, “How,” which the two women wrote for The Daily News in New York and which was syndicated in papers across the country.

Reviewing the handbook, The San Antonio Express-News said it provided “breezy advice on how to maintain appliances, make your own inexpensive cleaning solutions and what to do if your toaster smokes, your iron drags and your coffee tastes lousy.”

While most women’s magazines described products without evaluating their performance or cost, the How column and the handbook delved into the details of maintaining a household.

Readers learned to concoct a homemade grease remover (hot water, liquid dishwashing detergent and ammonia); why ammonia and chlorine bleach should never be mixed (they release noxious fumes); not to seal butcher block counters with polyurethane (it can be absorbed by food during chopping); the best way to care for silver (use it every day); and how to make use of expensive china (leave the washing and drying to friends and relatives).

“They used to joke that they were like the Dear Abby of household cleaning,” Jenny Libien said of her mother and Ms. Strong.

Ms. Libien’s advice extended to personal grooming. She wrote “The All-in-One Diet Annual” (1970, with Peter Wyden) and as early as 1973 was warning about the “irresponsible folly” of cultivating a suntan because it increased the risk of skin cancer.

As a freelance journalist in the 1960s, Ms. Libien wrote two articles that were ahead of their time, both because of the subjects they addressed and because they appeared at a time when women in journalism were typically confined to writing about fashion, society and homemaking.

One, in The Chicago American in 1965, appeared under the headline “What Happens When a Single Woman Tries to Adopt a Baby.” It began: “Your chances of becoming an unwed mother any way but nature’s way are slim. Just try it. I did.”

Only one adoption agency agreed to interview her, Ms. Libien wrote. The rest, she said, assumed that she was “lonely, desperate or deeply troubled.” One suggested psychiatric counseling.

The other article, in 1967 in Cosmopolitan magazine, explored an emerging technical field that heralded enormous promise for women: computer programming.

“It’s just like planning for dinner,” a woman who had helped develop the first electronic digital computer was quoted as saying. “Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.”

Saying the field required “a keen, logical mind,” Ms. Libien declared, “This is the age of the Computer Girls.”

Lois Jean Mandel was born on Sept. 7, 1935, in Chicago. Her father, Morris Mandel (he was born Mendle Potovsky in Ukraine), was an insurance salesman. Her mother, Molly (Lavin) Mandel, was secretary to a music publisher and died when Lois was a teenager.

“A lot of Lois’s life was driven by the loss of her mom,” Jenny Libien said by phone. “My mom had told me that she felt like she never learned housekeeping or cooking but had to start taking care of her dad and sister, so she researched and learned how to do things.”

She earned a bachelor’s degree in art history in 1960 from the University of Chicago, where she wrote for the college magazine. She moved to New York in 1966 to write for The New York Herald Tribune. She wrote her column for The Daily News from the mid-1970s until the early 1980s.

In New York she met and married Myron (Mike) Libien, an accountant, and lived in Manhattan and later in Glen Rock, N.J. He died in 2022. In addition to their daughter, she is survived by their son, Matthew; five grandchildren; and her sister, Judy Cohen.

After her column ended, Ms. Libien made a career change, earning a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University in 1992 and later training at the National Institute for Psychotherapies in Manhattan.

She practiced as a psychoanalyst in Manhattan and was a social worker for Jewish Family Services of Northern New Jersey until 2004, when an abdominal infection, related to breast reconstruction after treatment for cancer in 1998, kept her hospitalized for six months.

Her other books included “Paint It Yourself: The Complete Indoor House-Painting Book” (1978, with Ms. Strong), and two erotic novels under the pen name Susan Lois, “Personals” (1986) and “Reunion Affairs” (1989, with Susan Thaler).

Despite being known as a cleaning expert, Jenny Libien said of her mother, “She was messy.”

“One of my most distinct memories I have from the late 1970s was of having a TV crew come to the house in Glen Rock to interview her about housecleaning, and we had a housekeeper come over the day before to give the house a good clean,” she recalled.

“She knew how to do everything,” she said of her mother, “but I think would rather spend her time doing other things than cleaning.”

Sam Roberts, an obituaries reporter, was previously The Times’s urban affairs correspondent and is the host of “The New York Times Close Up,” a weekly news and interview program on CUNY-TV. More about Sam Roberts