A Woman in White Finds a Gentle Biographer in Peggy Anderson, and Now 'nurse' Heads for Tv

updated 04/14/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/14/1980 01:00AM

As a child, Peggy Anderson swore she'd never become a nurse like her mother. So when she decided to write a book about nursing, her friends teased her. Call it Scar Wars, one of them suggested. Anderson persisted, and her profile of an RN in a Philadelphia hospital, titled simply Nurse, became a hardcover best-seller in 1978 and was on the paperback list for 16 weeks. In all, 1.7 million copies have been sold, and new sales are sure to follow an upcoming two-hour TV adaptation of the book starring The Waltons' mother, Michael Learned.

The book's success surprised no one more than Anderson. When the paperback rights were sold for $137,000, the 41-year-old author cried. "I realized that my struggling days were beginning to be over," she says. "I had been so desperate for money that once I went to a VA hospital that was looking for depressed people to go on a drug program for $20 a week. Some dear friends had the sense to talk me out of that."

Anderson spent a couple of months searching for the right woman as her model. "I wanted an RN who was on regular duty and rotating shifts," she explains. "I soon discovered that being a nurse in a city hospital is so hard people don't stay long in the job. So I was meeting a lot of 21-year-olds." She finally settled on a 29-year-old married head nurse, who insisted on anonymity; Anderson calls her "Mary Benjamin." They began meeting three times a week to discuss the often harrowing experiences of the women in white. "I was astonished," Anderson says, "by all the things nurses have to cope with that have nothing to do with medical care. For instance, handling a patient who is trying to trick them into gratifying him sexually. Most of these women are 20 to 23. Where do you get preparation for something like that?"

Mary Benjamin disarms readers with her frankness. "There are a lot of bitches in nursing," she admits, "just as there are in other professions." She herself comes across as a tough, compassionate, dedicated woman. She admits sometimes bending the rules and "snowing" (drugging) terminally ill patients to ease their pain, and she tearfully recalls hitting an angry woman patient who was striking out at her. The woman later died during surgery.

For her 60 interviews, lasting from two to six hours, Mary Benjamin received $2,000 up front and draws five percent of the book's profits. She has left full-time nursing to care for her doctor husband and 20-month-old son, and has steadfastly protected her identity. Another nurse was hired to make the rounds promoting the book.

Peggy, meanwhile, encouraged by a six-figure advance, is working on two manuscripts. One focuses on a children's hospital, and the other is an account of the grief and anger she felt after her father was murdered during a 1970 holdup of his Chicago plumbing and heating company.

He had been a toy buyer for Montgomery Ward when Peggy, the oldest of three children, was growing up in Chicago. A graduate of Augustana College, she taught English in Togo, West Africa as a member of the Peace Corps. After her boss from those days, Charles Peters, founded the Washington Monthly, he persuaded Peggy to join the magazine as a reporter.

In 1972 she was a feature writer on the Philadelphia Inquirer when she quit to write a book about the Daughters of the American Revolution, with a meager $2,500 advance. It was a critical success and financial flop. "Peggy had no money," recalls her agent, Jay Acton. "She lived on bean soup and used to count how many squeezes she could get out of a toothpaste tube."

Anderson can afford a grander life these days. She bought an elegant Philadelphia townhouse and has taken up hiking in New Hampshire. "Now that I don't have to worry about the rent," Peggy says, "I would like to turn my energies to the social side." She has a number of male friends but no plans to marry. "I never wanted children," she says, "and while I don't want to live alone for the rest of my life, I don't want to marry just anybody."

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