The play is named “The Lady with All the Answers.” The teaser I received touting it promised to reveal the one and only time that Ann Landers couldn’t help someone with a problem, because the problem was her own.
I wasn’t teased; I already knew what that problem was. Back in late June 1975, I read the column in which America’s leading adviser to the befuddled revealed that she was totally befuddled herself: Jules Lederer, her husband of more than 30 years, had taken up with a woman as young as the couple’s daughter. The one who had been writing for years about ways to save every marriage at all costs couldn’t save her own.
I remembered that I wrote about Ann Landers and her new life status myself, soon after that, in the Illinois newspaper I worked for at that time. I even recalled that I had started my column with something about poaching fish in the dishwasher. I’ve always been big on making connections between things that don’t seem connectable at all, but what I couldn’t remember was what the connection here could have been. So I went to my files to find out.
“Files” puts it kindly! Those were pre-computer days, and I’d clipped and saved them — one column per week for close to 10 years. Do the math! Visualize the box overflowing with dog-eared, yellowed newsprint! But I found it, published in July 1975 under the title “Of Poached Fish and Broken Marriages.” I had to read it to learn what kind of glue I’d used to stick those two disparate things together. And I found that, too. But first…
Ann Landers, born Esther Pauline Friedman in Sioux City, Iowa, used a combination of brains and chutzpah to become America’s leading advice columnist. Her nom de newspaper belonged to the Chicago Tribune, and “Eppie” Lederer was in the right place at the right time with the right approach when the first “Ann” had to be replaced. Her winning technique was asking experts for advice before she gave any herself. Soon enough she was challenged by her identical twin, Pauline Esther Friedman, nicknamed “PoPo,” who struck out on her own as “Dear Abby.” After that, the sisters were never quite as close as they had been before.
The play, staged by One Thirty Productions at Dallas’ Bath House Cultural Center, was a one-woman tour de force. Equity actress Gene Raye Price worked from a script liberally laced with bits of Jewish lore and non-religious learning. She brought the late icon to life using excerpts from real readers’ letters, punctuated by musings on the marriage that Ann had honestly, but mistakenly, thought would last “’til death do us part.” In conclusion, she read the entire brief column in which Landers touchingly revealed her personal pain to all her readers, ending with a plea: “Just wish us both well.” And then moved right on with another letter, to solve another problem.
So what was that elusive connection I couldn’t remember? Well, I’d just learned a strange-sounding fish-cooking technique from a neighbor, and since my column ran on what in those olden days was always called The Women’s Section, it seemed logical to me to pass on the “recipe” while at the same time noting that Ms. Landers “had gone down the drain, just like dishwater.”
So now you know about the new play. And now, here’s how to do that poaching: Take a nice-sized slab of some firm fish (salmon is good), lay it on a large piece of aluminum foil, season it as you wish, fold the foil to make a tight seal, place the packet gently on the top rack of your dishwasher, and run it through the entire cycle. Without soap and dirty dishes.
I ended my column with a snide suggestion: Ann Landers “might do well now to fish up some help for herself from Dear Abby!”