Ann Landers -- between hard covers

Books of the Region

November 02, 2003|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Staff

When Eppie Lederer died June 22, 2002, she took "Ann Landers" with her. The legendary advice columnist had years earlier asked her only child, a journalist herself, if she would continue the column, and Margo Howard had declined.

"I didn't want to work that hard," she confesses in A Life in Letters: Ann Landers' Letters to Her Only Child (Warner Books, 416 pages, $22).

So, the name "Ann Landers," which Landers owned, was retired at her death, and, as was the case with Erma Bombeck, more than a byline is gone. An era has passed.

Advice has a long and colorful history, dating, its practitioners like to say, to the Old Testament and its many guidelines for daily living.

But Lederer, and her twin sister, Pauline Phillips, who wrote "Dear Abby" until Alzheimer's forced her to turn it over to her daughter, spent a half-century perfecting the voice of the stern but loving aunt with whom you could discuss subjects you could not broach with your mother or your spouse.

Their kind of newspaper advice column, espousing traditional values and offering experts' opinions, has been largely replaced by edgy, smart-mouth advice-givers, who dress down their special-interest groups from a variety of pulpits.

Radio has Dr. Laura and TV has Dr. Phil. Christians, Latinos, girls between 13 and 21, the under-30 crowd, African-Americans, fashion heads, gays, the ill-mannered and the financially challenged all have their own advice columnists.

Even Lederer's daughter relented and writes a weekly advice column for the online magazine Slate under the guise of "Dear Prudence."

(Howard calls it "a total harmonic convergence. ... Surprisingly, I loved giving advice." )

As Eppie Lederer's last editor, Rick Kogan, writes in America's Mom: The Life, Lessons, and Legacy of Ann Landers (William Morrow, 272 pages, $23.95), Lederer was a kind of one-size-fits-all advice columnist, able to talk about everything from AIDS to dealing with annoying in-laws.

And she helped Americans talk to each other about these topics, too.

"I'd rather be on a hundred refrigerator doors than win the Pulitzer Prize," she said to Kogan.

Her columns were clipped and then pushed under the noses of husbands, children, wives and neighbors with the admonition: "Here. Read this."

Her readers had so much regard for her opinion that they made her the final arbitrator of a million family disputes.

That's because, from the first letters she answered as part of an audition for the job, Lederer offered not just her opinion ("Wake up and smell the coffee" is her most famous admonition), but the advice of experts as well.

In that tryout, she shocked her future bosses by quoting Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas on who was entitled to the walnuts from a tree on disputed ground and the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, the president of the University of Notre Dame, on how to solve an interfaith-marriage dilemma.

Lederer's use of expert resources was revolutionary in the advice business, and eventually the experts were writing her, offering new research, new ideas or just their opinion on something she had said.

She single-handedly introduced America to mental-health professionals, and she practically invented the self-help movement.

She never relented in her opposition to smoking and was the first to discuss the dangers of second-hand smoke.

She never drank, but Alcoholics Anonymous owes much to her.

She came to admit that homosexuality was not a choice but a predisposition, and she first discussed the dangerous new virus called AIDS in 1983.

Yet, she was able to change with the times and learn from her readers, writes Kogan.

"Each decade would witness her doing an about-face on a number of issues. To her credit, she would always own up to and often explain her changes in heart or mind."

She eventually came around to accept unmarried sex, but she never backed down from her belief that teen-agers were too young to handle its power. Though she avoided politics, she eventually made her opposition to the Vietnam War known and said in the spring of 1974 that President Nixon should resign.

Kogan's father was one of Lederer's early editors, and he first met her when she gave a speech at his high school and then invited him into her trademark limousine (she was a terrible driver) to chat.

Years later, he would take over the job of editing her column for the Chicago Tribune.

"Be tough on me," she would demand in the little Post-it notes she attached to each batch of columns.

Kogan's memoir / biography begins with his arrival at an auction of her many possessions, and his reminiscences are tied to the items up for bid.

In between, he offers the letters and testimonials of a handful of the 90 million readers whose lives were changed by Ann Landers' advice.

It is an intimate portrait, but there is little new here. Many of the details of Eppie Lederer's life -- how she got the job, her feud with her sister, the very public end of her marriage -- have been written about many times over.

Even her daughter's collection of letters reveals little, except the remarkable love of mother for daughter, and Lederer's extremely private death from myeloma, a deadly cancer of the bone marrow for which she sought no treatment.

She spent her last weeks trying to write a farewell column, but in the end she left it to her daughter to do.

"She said most of her life had been on a public stage. This part she wanted 'just for us,' " Howard writes.

But both books are full of the sound of Ann Landers' voice, as well as Eppie Lederer's, and it appears the women were very much alike: Both had great affection for the human race and hearts big enough to share its suffering.

Both books are worth reading to hear that voice once more. I don't think there will be its like again.

Susan Reimer has been the family life columnist for The Sun for 10 years and a journalist for 30. She tells people how to raise their children without waiting for their letters.

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