Landers, Ann

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Ann Landers

Esther "Eppie" Lederer (1918–2002) was better known as the American syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers. For over 45 years, millions of readers turned to her straightforward and often funny column for both solace and entertainment. Widely considered to have brought the genre into its contemporary form, Lederer drew on a retinue of powerful friends, an abiding interest in people, and a gift for a snappy comeback to turn her column into one of the world's most popular. Thus, it was no surprise that her daughter was not the only one who felt orphaned upon Lederer's death.

Child of the Midwest

Lederer was born Esther Pauline Friedman on July 4, 1918, in Sioux City, Iowa. She was the third of four daughters born to Abraham and Rebecca Friedman, the fourth of whom was her twin, Pauline Esther Friedman (later to become advice columnist Abigail Van Buren). Her parents had come to the United States from Vladivostok, Russia in 1908 in order to escape the czarist pogroms. Although he initially spoke no English, Lederer's father's innate intelligence enabled him to progress from employment as a chicken peddler to owning movie theaters in three states. His business sense also made him one of the first theater owners to get into the lucrative sideline of selling popcorn at the movies. Lederer always credited her stable upbringing as having kept her grounded in life. Margalit Fox of the New York Times quoted Lederer's comments from a 1996 interview with the Chicago Tribune as, "I owe a lot to my parents and to my Iowa heritage. I think that middle American values have helped me tremendously—the principles, the morality."

Lederer and her twin, respectively known as "Eppie" and "Popo," were inseparable growing up. They wore matching outfits and shared a bed as little girls. As teenagers, they hung around one of their father's theater's that had burlesque acts, picking up some colorful tips. "That's where we got our sex education, talking to the chorus girls," Lederer later told Jon Anderson of the Chicago Tribune. After high school, the twins attended Morningside College in Sioux City, where they presciently collaborated on a gossip column called the "Campus Rats." However, the sisters were more interested in dating than studying. So, it was really no surprise when both dropped out of college after three and a half years to get married, on the same day, in identical gowns, to men who became the closest of friends.

Started Career

After her marriage to Jules W. Lederer, a hat salesman who went on to found Budget Rent–a–Car, the new bride moved to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. For the next fifteen years, she concentrated on domestic activities and volunteer work. Lederer's efforts with such organizations as the Red Cross and the local Democratic Party got her elected chairperson of the Eau Claire County Democratic Party, which, in turn, helped her to amass a network of important contacts that would eventually prove invaluable to her.

When Lederer, her husband, and their teenaged daughter, Margo, moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1955, Lederer began to look for something new to occupy herself. Although the prosperous housewife had never held a job, she had been intrigued by a train conversation she had had with a journalist from the Chicago Sun–Times. At the time of the family's move, the newspaper had an advice column called "Ask Ann Landers," which Lederer had read. With typical decisiveness, she called the paper to volunteer to help the columnist with her mail, only to find that the writer (Ruth Crowley) had passed away the week before. A contest was being held to find a replacement and Lederer threw her hat into the ring.

The contestants were given sample letters to answer, and Lederer lost no time in plumbing the considerable resources of the impressive social circle she had begun cultivating in her Wisconsin days. For a question of law, she consulted her old pal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas; a problem concerning religious intermarriage went to the president of Notre Dame; a medical query was posed to a famous doctor at the Mayo Clinic; and so on. Once the contest editor was assured that Lederer was not leaving the paper open to a lawsuit by making up quotes, she was hired on the spot. Her first column was published on October 16, 1955.

Found her Voice

Although thrilled with her new position, Lederer had to rely on compassion and quick wittedness to help her in the early days. Years later, she recalled that time for Elizabeth Taylor of Time. "You don't have to have lived through an immense amount of agony and pain in order to relate to people who are suffering. I really care about what happens to people, and when I first began to read those letters, it was an eye–opener. I came from a very solid Midwestern Jewish home. You see, I led a very sheltered life. I had never seen a man hit his wife. I had never seen any drunkenness. I had never seen any poverty . . . The mail grew me up in a hurry."

A fast study, Lederer soon found her voice, however, and it was a far cry from the ladylike tones of her predecessors in the advice trade. She cracked wise, addressed correspondents as "Honey" and "Bub," and refused to shy away from controversial topics. Indeed, in her column's very first year, Lederer responded to a question on the then taboo subject of homosexuality. A newspaper in St. Joseph, Michigan refused to print the column, thus dramatically spiking sales of a rival paper that ran the piece. "From then on, boy," Fox quoted Lederer as saying, "that St. Joe paper printed every . . . word I wrote."

Early on, Lederer often sought input from her twin, then Pauline Phillips, about the new vocation. That changed when Phillips developed a taste for the same business and started writing a rival column for the San Francisco Chronicle under the name Abigail Van Buren. The move did not amuse Lederer, and the sisters did not speak for five years.

Most Popular Column

Throughout the years, Lederer addressed issues from the frivolous (how to properly hang the toilet paper roll) to the deadly serious (AIDS, incest). Her frequent advice to seek counseling helped remove some of the stigma of entering therapy. She wrote six books, including 1962's Since You Ask Me and 1996's Wake Up And Smell The Coffee. Her outspoken views in favor of gun control, abortion rights, and the use of animals in medical research earned her the wrath of the National Rifle Association, pro–life outfits, and animal rights organizations, much to Lederer's delight. "Those three groups really despise me, and I'm very proud of it," Fox quoted her saying.

In 1975, Lederer publicly displayed her own fallibility by running a column that revealed the ending of her 36–year–marriage. In response, she received over 35,000 letters of support. Touched by the outpouring, the letters were the only reader correspondence Lederer ever kept. All other reader mail was destroyed because, as daughter Margo Howard quoted her mother to Katy Kelly of U.S. News & World Report in 2003, "I don't think anybody should know that Myrtle in Oklahoma City is getting free faucets because she's sleeping with the plumber."

Lederer changed home base to the Chicago Tribune in 1987. By that time, her column was the world's most widely syndicated, printed in 1,200 papers and read by an estimated 90 million people. Her staff sorted through some 2,000 letters a day, choosing between 200 and 500 for Lederer to read. Lederer did that reading at home, very often in the bath, picking the ones to print by instinct and writing all the replies herself. But she never found the work a chore. As Anderson quoted her, "I still enjoy it. It's never a bore. Every batch of mail contains surprises, excitement, fun(,) and some new sorrow."

Lederer owned the rights to the Ann Landers name. She once offered to turn it over to her daughter, who had also become an advice columnist, but Howard declined. Lederer thus decided that the name would die with her, and so it did.

Touched Millions

Lederer died of multiple myeloma in her Chicago home on June 22, 2002. At the time of her death, the diminutive lady with the big heart and sharp wit had accumulated honorary degrees from 33 colleges and universities. She had been the first journalist to win the Albert Lasker Public Service Award for her success in gaining governmental funding for cancer research and referring her readers to myriad health care agencies. In 2001, Lederer and her twin were the first non–editors to be inducted into the Features Hall of Fame. She had also served on boards and committees for such prestigious institutions as the Harvard Medical School and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Important as all those contributions and accolades were, however, none was her true legacy.

What mattered most to Lederer was her connection to her readers. "I would rather have my column on a thousand refrigerator doors than win a Pulitzer," she confided to Fox. Indeed, as millions of everyday people mourned Lederer's passing, Howard recognized the unique position her mother had filled. "She was like America's mother, and I'm not alone in my sadness," she told Anderson. "She was about fixing the world. She really wanted to make things better. She really cared about the people."

Perhaps equally telling about the woman whose words touched so many was the way she approached her own life. Jason Lynch of People Weekly cited Lederer's philosophy as quoted in the Washington Post. "I think people who aren't positive don't succeed," she said. "That is the way I have lived my life. I don't look back, I don't care what was, I care what is." That positive attitude was reflected in her remarks about the state of the human race, made shortly before she died and quoted by Anderson. "The world is getting better," Lederer confidently noted. "People are better educated. And their handwriting is easier to read."


Chicago Tribune, June 22, 2002.

Editor & Publisher, October 15, 2001.

Guardian (London, England), June 24, 2002.

International Herald Tribune, October 29, 2003.

New York Times, June 24, 2002.

People Weekly, July 8, 2002.

Time, August 21, 1989.

U.S. News & World Report, October 20, 2003.