When Ann Landers went on vacation for two weeks this summer, my own volume of mail suddenly zoomed. Nobody was writing me for advice, though.
After Landers reran a couple of her favorite columns, which just happened to contain urban legends, dozens of readers mailed me clippings with notes attached.A Dallas woman guessed, "No doubt you've been inundated with the enclosed." Right, since hers was about the 50th clip I got of Landers' classic "$50 Porsche" column.
I received copies from all over the United States and Canada. I got word of it in electronic mail messages, and I got copies from relatives, colleagues and neighbors. My dentist even sent me the column, and it wasn't even time for my annual checkup.
Landers' column, published on Aug. 24, told the urban legend about the man who responds to a newspaper ad for a "nearly new" Porsche that's being sold for a mere $50. Since the car and price are exactly as advertised, he buys it.
The woman selling the car explains, "My husband ran off with his secretary a few days ago and left a note instructing me to sell the car and the house and send him the money."
Unfortunately, Ann Landers prefaced the story by saying that "truth is stranger than fiction," and she concluded by quoting her editor: "The incident did happen as reported."
And some people actually believed this!
A woman in White Rock, British Columbia, wrote, "When my daughter showed me Ann's column, she was vehement that it must be true because the paper said so. I showed her the Bargain Car section of `The Vanishing Hitchhiker.' Enough said."
In that 1981 book, I traced the history of "The $50 Porsche" to an English story from the mid-1940s in which the terms of a man's will are to "Sell the Jaguar, and give the money to my mistress."
The angry English wife, according to the story, sells the Jag for 5 pounds sterling. As the story traveled by word of mouth and in print, variations developed on details such as the husband's request and the price and model of the car.
Ann Landers' only distinctive touch, based on a reader's letter, is the request to sell the house as well. But, hey, she's right about one thing: The story is a good one, and it probably deserves an occasional rerun.
Just when my mail flow started to ebb back to normal, Ann's Aug. 30 column appeared with a repeat of another favorite, her notorious nude housewife column.
This one tells the tale of a woman who is doing her laundry while wearing nothing but her son's football helmet (that's another story!). The meter reader accidentally walks in on her and comments, "I hope your team wins, lady."
My files show that Ann first published that one in a column in 1975 and reran it in 1980, '86 and '88. But a 1966 book called "Family Laugh Lines" quotes her as telling it even then.
The same story ran earlier in the 1960s in both Reader's Digest and Saturday Review, but it has been told by thousands of people before and after these publications as if it had really happened to some friend of a friend.
And who am I to complain that Ann Landers repeats stories? After all, this is the fifth time I've mentioned the nude-housewife legend in a column since I began the series in 1987.
I just wish other columnists would identify well-known urban legends so readers wouldn't assume they're unaware of this.
One reader, sending me the latest batch of Ann's urban legend reruns asked, "If you sent Ann copies of your books, with paper clips on the appropriate pages, do you think she would read them?"
Heck, I did that back in September 1987, and I received a nice thank-you note from Ann Landers that concluded, "I've been fooled in the past and am sure it will happen again."
"Fooled again?" This time I doubt it, for I'm sure Ann Landers was, as she claimed, simply repeating one of her favorite stories, just as millions of other people do every day.