Dear Ann Landers


By Kira Albin, interview conducted in 1997
Photograph courtesy of Ann Landers

For 41 years, seven days a week, Eppie Lederer aka Ann Landers has dispensed advice as reliably as the sun rises and sets.
Ninety million readers worldwide take Lederer's counsel like a tonic. Two thousand readers a day send letters, hoping for answers from the revered sage herself.
Lederer-who turns 79 on July 4-is a keep-your-chin-up, common-sense gal who has managed to stay relevant and contemporary for four decades. Her secret, besides sagacity, wit and abundant energy, is an army of assistants that includes her staff, her family, and well-connected friends.
Lederer's daughter Marco Howard-smart and hip-reads Mom's column in the Boston Globe. "And if she doesn't like my answer to a particular question," says Lederer, "she'll call and say, 'I thought you were out to lunch today.'" Then there's the granddaughter in Minneapolis, the granddaughter in New York, and the grandson in Californiačall extremely bright and perceptive, of coursečwho read and call and keep Grandma on track. Most important is Lederer's list of friends, a Who's Who roll call, and it is these folks she has so brilliantly relied upon since Day One.
It all started in 1955, when Lederer and her family moved to Chicago. The local newspaper carried a thrice-weekly column called "Ask Ann Landers," written by a nurse who for the most part addressed health issues. Lederer liked the column but would cover up the answers and concoct some of her own.
"Most of my answers were at least as good as hers, and I thought some were better," said Lederer in a 1996 article in the Chicago Tribune Magazine. So she picked up the phone, called her friend Will Munnecke, a Chicago Sun-Times executive, and told him she wanted to help Ms. Landers answer her mail. She then learned the columnist had died just a week before, and the Sun-Times was holding a contest in search of a replacement.
One of 29 contenders, all of whom were professional writers, Lederer was given 15 letters to answer. She started pulling strings like a puppeteer. For the answer to a legal issue about who owned the walnuts that fell from one neighbor's tree into the other neighbor's yard, she called her friend, Justice William O. Douglas of the United States Supreme Court. Another friend, Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame, served as the authority for a question on interfaith marriage.
And so it continued with each letter. The Sun-Times editor was astonished and sent her home with another batch of letters and a deadline of the following day. The next phone call came from Marshall Field, publisher of the paper at that time.
"'Good morning, Ann Landers,' he said, and that's how I found out that I had won the contest," Lederer recalls in the Tribune Magazine article.

Hopeful for the Woeful
The questions posed to Ann Landers are rarely unique but rather variations on such oft-repeated themes as in-law conflicts, bratty children, domestic violence, and drug abuse. For the most part the questions reveal human woes, strange obscenities, and sad frailties.
In spite of all the world's problems laid at her feet, Lederer is eternally hopeful. Unflappable. Optimistic. "Things are going to be okay," she remarks. "It's going to work out. It's going to be fine." This upbeat attitude keeps her popular with her readers and helps her maintain her morale. "If I allowed these tragic letters to affect me, I'd be a wreck," says Lederer, "because I get many heartbreakers, and I just have to separate myself from the problems of these readers. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to help them."

Counsel for the Advisor
And to whom does the Premier Advisor turn when she needs to rap? According to Lederer, "knock on wood," she doesn't really have any personal problems. Everyone knows she is divorced, but commentary about the incident is restricted. In 1975, after much deliberation, Lederer announced her divorce to her readers, poignantly admitting, "The lady with all the answers does not know the answer to this one."
Today she remarks, "I'm happily involved in other things that marriage would've taken the time and energy for." No grieving or mourning, just new opportunities.
On only two other occasions has Lederer shared her personal life with her readers. In 1969 she wrote a letter commemorating her thirtieth wedding anniversary. And in 1973 she wrote about the death of her mother-in-law, Gustie Lederer, whose affectionate nickname for Eppie was "Eppeleh with the Keppeleh," Yiddish for "Little Eppie with the good head." Wrote Lederer, "For 34 years, we never exchanged one unpleasant word."

Double Trouble
A much probed topic is that of Lederer and her twin sister Pauline Phillips, the other famed advice columnist known as Dear Abbey.
After starting her new columnist job, Lederer sent a few letters along to Phillips, hoping her sister would answer them. Phillips loved the work, and approached the San Francisco Chronicle about her own column.
Besides holding the same occupation, the twins were married in a double ceremony to men who were best friends. Laughs Lederer of their July 4 birth date, "We were 12 years old before we realized that all the celebration wasn't for us."
Despite rumors of some past negative feelings between Lederer and Phillips, Lederer says, "We have no problems at all. We fax each other almost every day. There's no competitiveness. She does her thing, I do mine. We don't compare notes or compare columns."

A Quip a Day
What keeps Lederer's column entertaining, despite the frequent doom and gloom, is her use of witty, acerbic colloquialisms: "grin and bear it, honey"; "you are in a bad way, dear"; "deep-six the therapist you're seeing"; "your husband has popcorn where his brains belong"; "if I get any beefs, I'm sending them on to you"; "you have every right to blow a gasket"; "resign yourself to his kookiness"; and "give him the heave-ho." She still uses such old-fashioned terms as "boozer," "skirtchaser," "wench," and "buttercup."
And not to be forgotten is her trademark phrase and the title of her new book, Wake Up and Smell the Coffee! (Villard Books, $23). This "best of" book contains Lederer's favorite letters,-heroic and tragic-reprints of her famous surveys, and contemporary comments that provide historical context or indicate her changed viewpoint. Wake Up and Smell the Coffee! is a history book, an encyclopedia, a health manual, and a gossip column rolled into one, a glance at 40 years of advice, wisdom, and uncommon good sense.

Never Out of Date
After 41 years she has changed her mind on several issues, and sometimes her readers have influenced her. "Are you crazy? What's the matter with you?" they inquire from time to time. "And then I might reverse myself," admits Lederer.
For example, she once accepted the early '60s definition of the American Psychiatric Association, that homosexuality was a deviant psychiatric disorder. She now believes authorities who say one is born with this orientation. Regardless of the cause, she is not judgmental and has always urged tolerance.
The subject of divorce hits a personal note. Forty years ago her position was this: "You made a deal, stay with it thick or thin." And if the woman was in an abusive marriage: "Go to your clergyman, go to your doctor, work it out, work it out, work it out." Since then, because of her own divorce, the changing times, and public opinion, Lederer has broadened her acceptance of divorce. While brutality, alcoholism or infidelity certainly warrant divorce, she now also includes marital unhappiness or dissatisfaction: "Some people just don't belong together and it's too bad if they think they have to spend the rest of their lives together when it's not working."
Her 1993 survey, which asked whether her divorced readers regretted their decision and whether they felt their marriage could have been salvaged, elicited 30,000 responses, 23,000 of which came from women. Nearly three times as many readers said they were glad they divorced, and most of them said they wished they had done it sooner. With that sort of feedback, Ann Landers' authority carries a lot of weight.

A Degree of Influence Lederer is "The Most Influential Woman in the United States," says a 1978 World Almanac poll. "The Most Widely Syndicated Columnist In the World," reads the 1990 Guinness Book of World Records. Twelve hundred newspapers carry her gospel. Thirty-two colleges have given her honorary degrees, The American Medical Association presented to her the Citation for Distinguished Service, and in 1985 she was the first journalist to receive the Albert Lasker Public Service Award. She is a board member, a trustee, or an advisor to numerous health-related organizations because one of the most valuable services she provides is information and referrals about medical problems. "I have often joked that one day I might be arrested for practicing medicine without a license," she writes in the introduction to a chapter in her book.
Sometimes, if a letter really touches her heart, she calls upon her miracle-workers. One time, for example, with just two phone calls, she procured first-class airfare and reconstructive surgery for a young man with a double cleft palate. It was a profound experience for everyone involved.
The problem is not being able to help everyone. "And that bothers me," Lederer says to Tribune Magazine writer Norma Libman, "but I do the best I can."

Power and Purpose Her power is legendary. One woman revealed her pain and guilt over physically abusing her son and mentioned the idea of adoption. Hundreds of letters and calls poured in, offering the boy a new home. A businessman who complained that he had not been able to fill six sales jobs, received "two bushel baskets full of letters" and an applicant on his doorstep. When Lederer wrote a column about America's fear of cancer, she asked readers to clip the column and send it to Washington in support of a $100 million cancer-research bill pending before Congress. More than a million readers responded and President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act in 1971.

Meeting Her Mission
Every day, frequently 14 hours a day, Lederer labors at her column while three staff members respond to hundreds of letters that have included self-addressed, stamped envelopes. Readers are referred to lawyers, doctors, clergymen and social service agencies in every city in which the column appears. "I select letters [for the column] that give me an opportunity to teach people something. This was my mission from the beginning."
There is no doubt she has accomplished her goal. Her column gets hung on thousands of refrigerator doors, tucked into lunch boxes, tacked to workplace bulletin boards, and quoted in arguments. One concerned reader has even asked about the future of the column "when you leave this planet for a more celestial life."
Lederer's consolation is that the immense talent out there will result in another great column in her place, "but I'm not ready to pack it in," she adds. "I own the name Ann Landers, and I will never sell it for any amount of money. When I go, the column goes with me."