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Advice columnist Ann Landers dead at 83
Frank, feisty, funny, with a voice as brash as her advice, Eppie Ledererbetter known as Ann Landers, advice-giver to the worldhad a ready answer for people who wondered why strangers turned to her for help with their most intimate problems.
Well, they dont consider me a stranger, she once explained, with sacks of letters to back her up on the matter. Im the lady next door, their best friend, the mother they couldnt communicate with before, but they can now. Most of all, Im a good listener.
For over 40 years, Ann Landers was the worlds best read and most widely syndicated newspaper column, a fixture in 1,200 newspapers, offering a daily snapshot of a society in transition to an audience of some 90 million readers. Since 1987, her home base was the Chicago Tribune.
She died in her East Lake Shore Drive home Saturday afternoon, June 22. She was 83, and the cause was multiple myeloma.
Lederer is survived by a daughter, Margo Howard of Cambridge, Mass., three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and her sister and competitor in the advice column business, Pauline Esther PoPo Phillips, also known as Abigail Van Buren, author of the Dear Abby column.
She was like Americas mother, and Im not alone in my sadness, said Howard, who pens her own column, Dear Prudence, for the online magazine Slate. She was about fixing the world. She really wanted to make things better. She really cared about the people.
A World Almanac poll once named Ann Landers as the most influential woman in the United States. Millions of her newspaper readers, wanting more, bought copies of her six books, from Since You Ask Me in 1962 to Wake Up And Smell The Coffee in 1996.
Her column had a finger on the popular pulse, noted David Grossvogel, a Cornell University professor who did a computer analysis of 10,000 of her columns for his 1986 book, Dear Ann Landers: Our Intimate and Changing Dialogue with Americas Best-Loved Confidante.
Using word searches, Grossvogel tracked topic changes, starting with sex, a matter that was virtually non-existent in Landers columns when she started in 1955. Later, he found it came to dominate her letters, along with frank advice about masturbation, penile implants and homosexuality, topics editors would have axed if shed mentioned them 30 years before.
Over the decades, Grossvogel also reported, Landers readers became much less concerned with matters of appearance and acceptancehow they looked, how popular they wereand began to run head-on into such tougher problems as smoking, drinking, drugs and sexual diseases.
There was also much said by Ann Landers about the changing structure of the American family. On her watch, it shifted from the Father Knows Best paternalism of the 1950s to an often-chaotic linkage of people of differing ages, many of them writing to her for direction.
Over four decades, her readers shared everything from infidelity to incest, domestic violence, obnoxious children, panic attacks, animals stuck in toilets and adult bed-wetting.
She once did a rare book plug, for Fighting Cancer, published by the Bloch Cancer Foundation of Kansas City, Mo. In the first three days after her column appeared, some 876,000 people tried to reach the foundations 800 number, swamping the phone lines.
A woman of tiny physique, Eppie Lederer added four inches or so with high heels, plus bouffing her hair, a style she never changed. With much panache, she tooled around Chicago in a navy blue limousine with license plates AL 1955, to mark her column-birth. She often dined at the International Club in the Drake Hotel where a brass nameplate marked her regular table.
I see myself as a listener, she once told a friend, when asked for the secret of her success. Just getting people to write problems down is part way to solving them, she said. They can think about the problem, then they cope with it in a more objective way.
Over the years, she herself admitted, Ive changed my mind about a few things. Early on, I knew nothing about homosexuality. Later, I became sympathetic because I understood they were born that way. I believe I helped them in their struggle for acceptance.
Along with facing up to people she called the gun nuts, she backed a womans right to have an abortion, stood against the death penalty, discouraged adopted children from tracking down biological parents who did not wish to be found, and suggested that suicide, as a way out for incurably ill patients, was not an option to be universally condemned.
In recent years, with people living longer, her mail brought more letters from senior citizens, writing about illness, loneliness, estrangement from their kids, she said.
One piece of advice she frequently gave was simpleget a pet.
I look for letters that teach something. Or that people can relate to. Or that are very offbeat, she explained, when asked how she picked from among the 2,000 letters delivered daily to her office on the fifth floor of the Tribune building, at 435 N. Michigan Ave.
The result was a telling and important body of work, said Rick Kogan, her editor for the last five years. I think that 200 years from now, if an anthropologist really wants to know what life in these United Statesall of these United Stateswas like, all he or she might have to do is read every one of Ann Landers columns, Kogan said.
To come up with good answers, she had to read her letters alone, she noted.
Its just strictly instinct, she said. It comes from my gut. Something catches my eye that says this is good material.
Often, her replies were quite snappy.
Mid-50s is too young to settle for ashes if theres still fire in the furnace, she once advised Cheated and Angry in Missouri.
A father who diapers his daughter at the age of 12 has a geranium in his cranium, she once barked at another reader who seemed to be asking her permission.
On occasion, she shared her own sorrows with her audience, notably in 1975 when she announced the end of her marriage to her husband, Jules Lederer, the builder of the Budget Rent-A-Car empire, after 36 years. At her request, it ran with the bottom third of her daily space left blank, in honor of a great marriage that never made it to the finish line. The column drew 50,000 supportive responses.
Lederer did not remarry, though she talked, in recent years, of a serious flame, a prominent lawyer in Washington, whom she coyly declined to further identify.
Home was an 11-room apartment on Chicagos East Lake Shore Drive which she and her ex-husband had bought after she saw a picture of it in a newspaper.
It belonged to the French consul-general. I called up to see if it was available. Eventually, it was, she said.
There, wandering, pondering and gazing over Lake Michigan, she did most of her work. One favorite spot for reading and writing was a contoured bathtub with a rubber pillow where she soaked until the water got cold, once staying in for an hour and 15 minutes.
Yes, Ive dropped bundles of letters in the water, she once admitted. I just shake em out and hope the ink doesnt run.
Later, she typed out her column on an IBM electric, never using a computer (hate them) and eschewing e-mail (Migod, I get enough mail already.).
The woman who became Ann Landers was born Esther Pauline Friedman in Sioux City, Iowa, on July 4, 1918. Her twin sister, Pauline Esther Friedman, later to be known as Abigail Van Buren (Dear Abby), arrived 17 minutes later. There were two older sisters.
Her parents, fleeing czarist pogroms in Russia, had emigrated from Vladivostok in 1908, speaking no English. Her father started out peddling chickens, then got into the movie business, owning theaters in Sioux City. One also booked burlesque acts.
Thats where we got our sex education, talking to the chorus girls, she said.
She also picked up smarts from her father who, she noted was one of the first theater owners to install popcorn machines. Those machines took in more money than the box office.
It was a lesson in spin-offs that Ann Landers put to good use, later using her column to sell a myriad of booklets on everything from alcoholism to Necking and Petting And 10 Ways to Cool It.
All of her books were best-sellers.
At 15, she made a firm decision to never use either alcohol or cigarettes. There was, she insisted, no horror story involved.
I just thought these are things I dont have to get involved with. That decision has served me well, she said, on the eve of her 80th birthday. I look around at people my age and, well, they look a lot older.
Lederer attended Morningside College in Sioux City, majoring in boys, as she put it. She dropped out in her senior year, along with her sister, when both found husbands. At age 21, the twins were married, on the same day, in matching gowns, to two men who became best friends.
The Lederers moved to Wisconsin. Eppie Lederers volunteer work got her elected head of the Eau Claire County Democratic Party. She also developed an index of important phone numbers, a communications aide that was to stand her in good stead in her career as a columnist.
In 1955, she arrived in Chicago with her husband and a teenaged daughter, Margo. She had never held a job, but was intrigued by newspaper work after she met a Sun-Times executive on a train from Wisconsin and whiled away the hours talking about the business.
I had absolutely no experience, she admitted, talking of the day she landed in the office of Larry Fanning, managing editor of the Sun-Times. It was a propitious moment. The previous writer of that papers Ann Landers column had died.
She was a nurse, Ruth Crowley. Did three columns a week, mostly problems facing young mothers, Lederer recalled. I said, Im no nurse. I wouldnt have any idea what I should write about. Larry said, Well, expand it.
Fanning gave her five sample letters. One had to do with walnuts falling from a tree onto a neighbors lawn. What, worried the neighbor, could he legally do with them?
Lederer rang up Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an old friend.
He chuckled, assigned a clerk to work up a quick opinion, then called me back, Lederer recalled. The neighbor could do anything she wanted with the walnuts, except sell them.
The next day, Lederer, one of 30 candidates, came in with her answers, quoting everyone from Justice Douglas to a fabled specialist at the Mayo Clinic. Fanning was aghast.
He told me, You cant just make up these quotes. I said, I didnt. And he said, OK, then, youre hired.
On the job, Lederer proved to be a quick study. One editor told her how to avoid burn-out in a field with considerable emotional drain.
He told me, Baby, you gotta remember what they tell you is happening to them, not to you, Lederer said. He told me, You have to learn how to separate yourself from the people who have the problem. She also learned to answer every letter.
These people depend on meand it only costs 32 cents to get my attention, she later liked to say. And she kept on quoting experts.
Ive always made it a point to be with people smarter than I am. Thats how I learn. If you hang out with people not as smart as you are, you wont learn anything, she explained.
In 1987, after a change in ownership of her syndicate, Lederer left the Sun-Times, moving her home base to the Tribune where she was greeted as a longtime Chicagoan who built a magnificent career, making her the best-read columnist in Chicago and grande dame of Chicago journalism, said then-Tribune editor James D. Squires.
I think she had more spirit than just about anyone Ive ever dealt with in the editorial area. She was just unique in that respect, and loved what she did, loved the people that she worked with, said John Madigan, president and CEO of Tribune Co., the parent company that owns the Chicago Tribune. She was unquestionably the best at her craft. In the end, everybody knew she was the best.
Even in later years, Lederer never slackened her pace in ministering to those described in a New Yorker magazine profile in 1995 as the lorn, the afflicted, the battered, the disenchanted, the lonely, and the confused.
As she put it, in 1998, I still enjoy it. Its never a bore. Every batch of mail contains surprises, excitement, fun and some new sorrow.
Each day, at her office in the Tribune building, two clerks opened 2,000 or more envelopes, sorting the letters into categories. Four longtime women staffersKathy Mitchell, Marcy Sugar, Barbara Olin and Catherine Richardsonselected anywhere from 200 to 500 for her to read. A chauffeur conveyed them to her co-op apartment a dozen blocks to the north. If Lederer was on the road, as she frequently was, a box was delivered by Express Mail.
From the pile, she chose letters to print, editing them to extract the guts, correcting grammar, cutting out profanity. She wrote all the answers herself.
She served as a board member, trustee or committee member for many of the nations most prestigious educational and medical institutions, among them the Harvard Medical School, where she served for more than 20 years on various visiting committees; the Yale Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, of which she was a life board member.
She received honorary degrees from, at last count, 33 colleges and universities. In 1985, she was the first journalist to receive the Albert Lasker Public Service Award, for pressuring Congress to approve millions of dollars for cancer research and referring her readers to a wide variety of health-care agencies.
But awards are not what Im proudest of, she said, referring to a deeper satisfaction, one that came from her job.
Ive been in a position to help people, she began, talking of relationships she forged with people who have been writing to me for years.
One girl in Iowa, for example, started writing in junior high school. Got engaged. Married. Had a baby. A second child. Now shes a grandmother. And still thinks of me as her surrogate mother.
That womans initial problem, Lederer recalled, thinking way back, was with her in-laws, who were of a different faith. And I just told her, Carry onand ignore them.
As to Lederers own faith, I am very much aware of my Jewishness, she said. My heritage is important to me. I was brought up to be proud of my Jewishness.
"Ive always felt Ive been blessed, and the Lord been good to me. Im not devout, but I do light Sabbath candles every Friday at sundown and say a Hebrew prayer. I havent missed a Yom Kippur service since I was 18. I feel close to my God and feel that I am a religious person.
There will be no new Ann Landers, a point about which she felt quite strongly.
That name is worth at least a million dollars. Ive been offered that, but its important to me that the name be connected to meand nobody else, she said, in a 1998 interview.
Among her friends, Eppie Lederer wore her fame lightly, often turning conversations around to themtheir triumphs and challenges. Nor is anyone likely to replace her on the Chicago social scene where, she admitted, people often came forward to press their personal concerns.
I am very recognizable. I expect it. Its OK, she said. I say, Just write me a letter. And they did. Theyd say, You remember me? I was the person with the red dress and the curly hair. I met you at a party...
As for humanity as a whole, she also had her hopes. The world is getting better, Eppie Lederer said not long ago. People are better educated. And their handwriting is easier to read.
Tribune staff reporters James Janega and Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.