We will always be bosom buddies An appreciation for the lives of Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren and the warring twins who kept America on the straight and narrow laughing the while:
by Dr. Jeffrey Lant.
We will always be bosom buddies An appreciation for the lives of Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren and the warring twins who kept America on the straight and narrow laughing the while. Author’s program note. In 1955 when I was just 8 one of the happiest of books hit the best seller lists… and launched a glittering palace (it was far too lucrative to be considered just a “cottage”) industry that continues to this very day. The book was Patrick Dennis’ delicious confectionery “Auntie Mame”, and in our house as so many others it quickly became the most effective treatment for whatever ails you.
Its mantra, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death”, became the litmus test for whatever we did… wherever we went… whoever we knew. Was the task life enhancing… was the destination exciting… and were the people the kind Auntie Mame would have at her ultra chic Beekman Place soirees on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, bright, fun, a bit off center, nary a fuddy duddy amongst them?
You may have supposed such a larger-than-life personality could only exist between covers or on the silver screen… but you’d be wrong… For there was not merely one, there were two — and twins at that. Born Eppie and Popo Friedman in Sioux City, Iowa July 4, 1918 just 17 minutes apart, you, me, and the rest of the world came to love them as Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren…
… and they were, quite simply, box office magic from the very first moment they sat down to listen to America, its problems and secret angst… only to provide even more than a sympathetic ear; rather, a response that was at once practical, shrewd, trenchant — and funny.
It was an art form which in its concise brilliance rivalled Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), Renaissance master craftsman of breathtaking jewels. Had the sisters known him, they would most assuredly have called him “Bennie” and told him to sit down and take the load off. It was their winning way.
To accompany their felicitous story of massive influence, wise cracks and hand-holding sympathy, I’ve selected two tunes, one entitled “Drifting” by Bronislaw Kaper from the 1958 film starring my personal favorite Auntie Mame, Rosalind Russell; the other (“Bosom Buddies”) from the first Broadway show I ever saw on the Great White Way, “Mame”, (1966) music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. How the sisters Friedman must have loved them…
It all began in… Russia.
Father Abraham Friedman was born a Russian Jew, at a time when anti-Semitic execration was the least of his problems; humiliation and pogroms were far worse, deadening, demeaning, dealing death and destruction. Amidst so much bleakness and despair, there was one great hope… and that hope was America, the happy ending to every story.
Thus did Abraham Friedman do what was necessary to escape the calculated oppressions of the tsars and breathe free. And so, by laborious stages, did he shake off Russia and embrace the Promised Land of America, its Great Republic, and the immemorial vastness of its great plains, Iowa in particular.
There out of the freedom that never lost its luster, hard work and… chickens… he prospered, moving up, moving up again, moving up some more with sweat and gratitude until itinerant chicken peddler no longer he owned a string of movie theaters.
God and America had shed their grace… and the twins were thereby born into bounty and liberty. That they were born on Independence Day only confirmed their privileged position. There was only one problem… Each had a sister who had to be beaten, put in her place, and triumphed over. This rivalry, in time celebrated, aggravating and embarrassing, was crucial to understanding everything that came next.
To begin this chapter of their story, a tune from the musical “Mame” will help. It’s the barn burning rendition of “Bosom Buddies” in which Vera Charles (Bea Arthur) and Auntie Mame (Angela Lansbury) tell it like it is… hilariously… but upfront, personal and honest to a fault. It takes no trouble to imagine the ultra competitive sisters belting out this tune to each other… each claiming at the end that her rendition was markedly superior, so there. Here is just a sample of the delectable lyrics which you’ll find in any search engine.
“We’ll always be bosom buddies/ Friends, sisters and pals/ We’ll always be bosom buddies/ If life should reject you/ There’s me to protect you…
(Vera) If I say that your tongue is vicious. (Mame) If I call you uncouth. (Vera and Mame) It’s simply that who else but a bosom buddy/ Will sit down and tell you the truth?”
Who else, indeed? And so these supremely skilled sisters, with torments and tortures both exquisite and refined available at all hours, delivered their home truths to each other with enthusiasm, gusto and complete certainty that she and she alone was right. It was a pattern which started with birth and shaped their entire lives. Thus, in 1939 when Popo dropped out of college to marry Morton Phillips, an heir to a liquor fortune, Eppie wed Jules Lederer, who later founded Budget Rent A Car.
Thus did money marry money, twice, in a lavish double ceremony in which the flamboyant twins flaunted their stuff, for their well-heeled hubbies –and, in every one upping way, for each other. But marriage was never enough, for either. They, both of course, wanted Something To Do… and with “Ask Ann Landers”, they (both) got it.
“Ask Ann Landers.”
Since there have been newspapers, there have been advice columns. Why? Because we just cannot get enough of other people’s problems or (cheap) solutions to our own. Such columns, of course, had to be short, punchy, informative and capable of making readers laugh (or cry) on command.
One unheralded mistress of the genre was Ruth Crowley, Chicago nurse, who in 1941 started writing a child-care column for the “Chicago Sun-Times”. When she diversified into the general advice business she selected, at random, the pseudonym. She kept her actual identity strictly secret until her death, aged just 48, on July 20, 1955. Eppie entered the contest to find a replacement… and won. She was a rank beginner, no experience, biddable, buried by all the mail she got; unsure how to respond to every complaint known to humans.
Swamped, overwhelmed, she called on Popo for assistance. In two shakes of a lamb’s tail she (naturally) concluded she could do the job better. And called “The San Francisco Chronicle”, identifying herself as a local housewife who thought she could do better than the current advice columnist. The editor genially told her to drop by when next in the neighborhood. Next day, she donned a Dior original and took the astonished editor up on his invitation. She left her chauffeur-driven Cadillac idling while she went in to make history.
To get this obviously determined woman out of his office, he gave her a stack of letters to answer. She did… dropping off her characteristically blunt responses the next day. She was hired at once for $20 a week… and the greatest sister feud of American journalism (including long periods of complete estrangement) was launched; Eppie as “Ann Landers”, Popo as “Abigail Van Buren” (a name that was a combination of the Bible and old money). Their arch rivalry made for good copy and the kind of white-hot competition that brought out the best; each one, after all, was “better”… and they meant the world not only to know so… but to say so.
Thus the ladies who didn’t have to work worked even harder, building empires worth hundreds of millions. They liked the money, of course, but they liked beating sis even better. And so America learned about how many did housework as God made them; the proper way to position the toilet roll; and the shocking statistics on how many would not marry their mate again and get rid of the children they didn’t like and wished they had not conceived. In the process they enriched the language with phrases like “MYOB”; “Wake up and smell the coffee,” and “The sample was ample.”
“Dear Abby: I’m a twin. My sister has been a thorn in my side for our entire lives. What can I do to solve the problem and show her who’s boss? Had It In San Francisco.”
“Dear Had It, pick up the phone, call her and beg her pardon. It’s what I should have done years ago. I’m dialing your number right this minute, Eppie. I love you, Popo”.
Eppie Lederer died in 2002 at 83. Popo Phillips died January 16, 2013, aged 94. As for me, I’m Inconsolable in Cambridge… Special for “Lovers in Las Vegas, Doyle & Casey. Don’t stop the magic. You’re an inspiration to a glum and dreary world and a joy to me.”