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Edith Kunhardt Davis, Author of ‘Pat the Bunny’ Sequels, Dies at 82 January 19, 2020

Edith Kunhardt Davis had an idyllic childhood, growing up on a big, if run-down, estate in rural New Jersey. Her mother, Dorothy Kunhardt, was a famous author of children’s books and wrote “Pat the Bunny” (1940) — a novelty in that it contained movable parts and invited young readers to touch and feel the textures on its pages — just for her. It remains one of the best-selling children’s books of all time.

Edith followed in her mother’s footsteps as an author of children’s books and extended the “Pat the Bunny” franchise. But she didn’t start writing those innocent tales until she had climbed out of the dark well of alcoholism.

And long after she had become sober, she was confronted with the possibility that her excessive drinking while she was pregnant had led to the death of her son when he was 27.

His death from heart disease in 1990 became the subject of Ms. Davis’s 1995 memoir, “I’ll Love You Forever, Anyway.” An account of her grief made all the more anguishing by her guilt, it stood in stark contrast to the cheerful children’s tales for which she was known.

Ms. Davis was 82 when she died at a hospital in Manhattan on Jan. 2. Her nephew Philip B. Kunhardt III said the cause was acute pneumonia and lung failure.

She had stopped drinking in 1973, after which she produced more than 70 children’s books, some of them nonfiction. She also illustrated more than a dozen of them.

Getting sober, Mr. Kunhardt (pronounced KOON-hart) said of his aunt, changed her life. “She came alive in a new way,” he said in an interview. “Her eyes brightened; she lost the heaviness and sense of despair that was there before.”

He said she talked freely about her experience: “She didn’t want to be ashamed of herself and wanted people to know there was help out there.”

As she wrote in her memoir, her son, Edward S. Davis Jr., whom she called Neddy, attributed his weak heart to her drinking and smoking during her pregnancy. He died of a heart infection.

“An important component of my particular story was the guilt that I carried because I was an alcoholic parent who lived in an era when doctors did not restrict drinking during pregnancy,” she wrote. “My fears that I might possibly have caused Neddy’s heart illness — and his dyslexia — through drinking while pregnant haunted me and complicated the mourning process.”

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Kirkus Reviews called her memoir “a raw outpouring,” adding, “Only John Gunther’s ‘Death Be Not Proud,’ an account of his son’s death, rivals it in the literature of parental grief and recovery.”

Edith Turner Kunhardt was born on Sept. 30, 1937, in Morristown, N.J. Her father, Philip B. Kunhardt, was a textile executive.

In addition to writing children’s books, her mother revered Abraham Lincoln, a passion she inherited from her father, Frederick Hill Meserve. Their house in Morristown was filled with Lincoln and Civil War memorabilia. Over the decades, her father amassed one of America’s greatest private collections devoted to Lincoln, with about 73,000 items, including a snippet of Lincoln’s hair.

By now, five generations of the family have been absorbed in Lincoln, and many, including Dorothy Kunhardt, wrote books about him. On a trip to Springfield, Ill., she bought lamps from the parlor where Lincoln was married and used them to light her own house. Little wonder that Edith would eventually write her own account, a children’s book called “Honest Abe” (1993).

In a later memoir, “My Mother, the Bunny and Me” (2016), Edith recalled her eccentric childhood between the Depression and World War II and the creative household in which she was raised, with her mother’s literary friends, like Carl Sandburg and Isak Dinesen, coming and going. Dorothy Kunhardt wrote 43 children’s books before she died in 1979.

Edith also described her feeling of shame when it was revealed that her mother had written school papers for her, as well as a speech she delivered, for which Edith was censured.

She graduated from Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Conn., in 1955 and from Bryn Mawr College in 1959, with a degree in art history. She married Edward Shippen Davis in 1959; they divorced in 1971.

In addition to her nephew, Ms. Davis is survived by her daughter, Martha K. Davis, as well as other nephews and nieces.

When she stopped drinking, she got a job with Golden Books, the children’s publisher. It was her first paying job. In 12 years, she worked her way up from editorial assistant to senior editor.

She also wrote, churning out 10 books in one year, some of them under pseudonyms and, because she was on staff, some without extra pay. She said she didn’t care. She loved the whole process. She often incorporated her children’s names into her books: “Ned’s Number Book” was one, “Martha’s House” another.

Her next move was to write and illustrate sequels to “Pat the Bunny,” her mother’s signature work, which The New York Times said in 1991 — 51 years after its publication — was the second-best-selling children’s book in America, after Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” (1902).

Edith’s oeuvre included “Pat the Cat,” “Pat the Puppy” and “Pat the Christmas Bunny.” Like the original book, they were interactive; the dog’s tail could be wagged, and when a story mentioned the aroma of brownies filling the kitchen, a reader could scratch a tuft of fabric and smell a whiff of chocolate.

She wrote like a house afire, producing 56 books in seven years. Her stories, like “Pompeii — Buried Alive!” (1987), took her on travels around the world. She also crisscrossed the country on book tours and found that she enjoyed them. “Autographing was a far cry from passing out in my apartment,” she wrote.

Because she had found release and satisfaction in writing, that is where she turned when her son died. She started a diary a few days later, and it provided the basis for her memoir.

“Slowing down and feeling the pain,” she wrote, “was the most important lesson I learned about grieving.”

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