Advice Columnist Known for Her Wit and Wisdom


Ann Landers, whose newspaper column dispensed advice to millions of Americans on everything from adultery to adult bedwetting, from parental difficulties to pet adoption, died Saturday in Chicago. She was 83.

The cause of death was multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow, her family said.

Landers, whose real name was Eppie Lederer, was one of the world’s most widely read columnists. For 46 years, she offered compassionate and blunt counsel to lonely wives, philandering husbands and frustrated teenagers, among others. Her columns chronicled the nation’s attitudes, preoccupations and worries for more than 90 million readers.


She expressed support for a woman’s right to abortion and acceptance of homosexuality but also preached the importance of the traditional family. In shaping her advice, she consulted outside experts including U.S. Supreme Court justices and a Mayo Clinic physician, and she often referred readers to counselors and attorneys.

Lederer, who also wrote six books, regularly appeared in rankings of the nation’s most influential women.

She often read her letters--some of them stained with coffee and bourbon--in a bathtub in her 11-room apartment on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive with dramatic views of Lake Michigan.

“I look for letters that teach something. Or that people can relate to. Or that are very offbeat,” she once said.

“She was like America’s mother,” her daughter, Margo Howard of Cambridge, Mass., told the Chicago Tribune, “and I’m not alone in my sadness.

“She was about fixing the world,” said Howard, who writes an advice column of her own, “Dear Prudence,” for the online magazine Slate. “She really wanted to make things better. She really cared about people.”

Lederer was born to Russian immigrant parents in Sioux City, Iowa, on July 4, 1918. Her identical twin, Pauline Esther Friedman Phillips, also became an advice columnst--known as Abigail Van Buren, or “Dear Abby.”

Lederer enrolled in Morningside College in Sioux City and dropped out during her senior year. At age 21, the twin sisters were married in matching gowns on the same day.

For the first 16 years of her marriage to Jules William Lederer, a founder of Budget Rent-A-Car, she was a homemaker, a volunteer with the Democratic Party and active in civic affairs.

When the couple lived in Wisconsin, her volunteer work got her elected head of the Eau Claire County Democratic Party. The couple and their teenage daughter, Margo, moved to Chicago in 1955. On a train from Wisconsin, she met and talked at length with an executive at the Chicago Sun-Times.

Soon after, she was one of 30 people invited to apply to take over the Sun-Times’ Ann Landers column after its creator died.

Lederer, the only candidate who was not a professional writer, was given five sample letters and asked to write responses. One of the letters was from a homeowner who wondered what legal rights he had to walnuts falling into his yard from a tree on a neighbor’s property.

She called Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, whom she knew from her civic activities. Douglas told her the neighbor could do anything with the walnuts except sell them. Lederer quoted the justice in her tryout column, along with a Mayo Clinic doctor she had consulted about a medical question.

Lederer later recalled that when she submitted her work to Sun-Times Managing Editor Larry Fanning, “He told me, ‘You can’t just make up these quotes.’ I said, ‘I didn’t.’ And he said, ‘OK, then, you’re hired.’ ”

Her first column was published Oct. 16, 1955, in 26 papers. By 1993, Ann Landers appeared in 1,200 newspapers worldwide, including the Los Angeles Times. She worked at the Sun-Times until 1987, when she switched syndication companies and moved to the Chicago Tribune.

In offering advice to “Anxious in Akron” or “Wrong Side of the Tracks in New York,” Lederer was both brash and compassionate as she advised sexless singles, harried husbands, nosy neighbors and teenagers with drinking problems, among others.

She received 2,000 letters a day. A staff of seven culled 500 of those for examination by Landers. She wrote her columns on an IBM electric typewriter because she hated computers. She hoarded typewriter ribbons against the day when they were no longer sold.

Her advice was snappy and to-the-point:

“An unwilling groom makes a poor husband.”

“A father who diapers his daughter until the age of 12 has a geranium in his cranium.”

Masturbation, she once wrote, “is a normal part of growing up.”

Replying to a teacher in Mississippi, she used cows to explain communism. “You have two cows. Give both cows to the government, and they may give you some of the milk.”

Frequently, she advised the lonely, sick and bereaved to “get a pet.”

Readers’ letters and Lederer’s advice changed with the times. David Grossvogel, a Cornell University professor, did a computer analysis of 10,000 Ann Landers columns for his 1986 book, “Dear Ann Landers: Our Intimate and Changing Dialogue with America’s Best-Loved Confidante.”

Using word searches, Grossvogel tracked changes in topics, starting with “sex,” which was virtually nonexistent in the early columns. Later, it came to dominate the column, along with frank advice about masturbation, penile implants and homosexuality, topics editors would have deleted if she’d mentioned them 30 years before.

Over the decades, Grossvogel reported, Landers readers became much less concerned with matters of appearance and acceptance and more often sought advice about smoking, drinking, drugs and sexual diseases.

Her work was not free of controversy. In 1982, it was revealed that she had recycled material in her columns. In 1995, in an interview with the New Yorker magazine, she referred to Pope John Paul II as a “polack.” She later apologized.

She did not shy from revealing details of her personal life to her readers. News that the popular columnist and her husband were planning to divorce after 36 years of marriage created a stir in 1975. Landers announced the decision in what she said was “the most difficult column I have ever tried to put together.

“How did it happen that something so good didn’t last forever? The lady with all the answers does not know the answer to this one.”

Lederer never remarried, but spoke of a relationship with a prominent Washington lawyer.

Lederer’s relations with her twin sister, who lives in Beverly Hills, were strained for a time. Soon after Lederer began her column, her sister began writing “Dear Abby” for the San Francisco Chronicle. It, too, became a huge success.

This led to a rivalry and an estrangement between the sisters that, by some accounts, lasted seven years. Lederer then sought a reconciliation, and the two renewed their close friendship.

In an interview marking her column’s 30th anniversary, Lederer said: “I learned early in this work to take the problems seriously but not to take them too personally. I have to separate myself from the readers and realize what’s happening to them is not happening to me.”

Lederer owned rights to the name Ann Landers and said that the column would die when she did.

“That name is worth at least a million dollars. I’ve been offered that, but it’s important to me that the name be connected to me--and nobody else,” she said in 1998.

As of Saturday, it was not known whether the columns Lederer had already written would be published.

Lederer served as a board member, trustee or committee member for many of the nation’s most prestigious educational and medical institutions, including the Harvard Medical School, the Yale Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

She received honorary degrees from dozens of colleges and universities. In 1985, she was the first journalist to receive the Albert Lasker Public Service Award for lobbying Congress to approve millions of dollars for cancer research and referring her readers to a wide variety of health-care agencies.

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by three grandchildren, four great-grandhcildren and her sister.

Tribune news services contributed to this report. The Ann Landers column that appears on Page E4 in today’s Southern California Living section went to press before her death.