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Advise and Conquer

In an era of the feel-good, 12-step, Venus-Mars approach to life's crises, getting advice from Ann Landers is like chatting with a neighbor across the back fence. Wake up and smell the coffee, baby.

September 09, 1996|MEGAN ROSENFELD | THE WASHINGTON POST

CHICAGO — Infidelity, incest, domestic violence, adult bed-wetting, panic attacks, obnoxious children, animals in the toilet--Eppie Lederer has seen it all for 40 years.

In 2,000 letters a day from all over the world, people heave their weirdness or tragedy or confusion into the mail room of the Chicago Tribune, where it enters the world of Ann Landers.

Two men open the envelopes and sort the letters into categories, and then take them to a staff of four women upstairs. Once a day (when Lederer's in town), her chauffeur brings over new columns--written on a typewriter--and takes a stack of mail back to Lederer's palatial apartment overlooking Lake Michigan. She reads them in her specially contoured bathtub, she reads them at her desk, she takes a shopping bag full of them with her whenever she gets on a plane.

When she's traveling anywhere in the United States, a box of letters is delivered every day by express mail, a box of travail, disease, despair and amusement. Seven days a week Ann Landers dispenses advice in 1,200 newspapers, and that has made her one of the most influential people in the world.

The advice is usually pretty pithy and down-to-earth:

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

Getting advice from Eppie / Ann is like talking to a neighbor over the back fence. You wouldn't ask if you didn't want a direct answer--you're crazy, you're right, you're making too big a deal out of it--from someone happy to give you the news. She has a quintessentially American, live-and-let-live philosophy, a way of simplifying the most tortured situations into familiar platitudes. "Would you be better off with him or without him?" or, as she has titled her new retrospective book, "Wake Up and Smell the Coffee!" (Villard Books).

For 40 years, she has confidently told people what to do. Her mail is an index of American sociology. Her famous surveys have told us that most women prefer cuddling to "the act," that many of us would not have children if we had it to do over, and that most people think you should hang your toilet paper so it runs over the top rather than against the wall.

With the notable exceptions of her own divorce 20 years ago and the death of her mother-in-law, Lederer has given no indication of her personal troubles over the years, or even if she has any. And yet, readers know what she thinks about almost anything. And they seem to like her: Despite declining newspaper circulation, the volume of her mail has stayed the same.

"The gun nuts are on my case," she says. "I am pro-choice, so the pro-lifers are on my case. And that's about it. Those two groups don't like me very much. And it doesn't matter to me. I have my position and that's it, I'm not going to back down."

Dames and Degrees

She wears 4-inch heels, and the loft in her hairdo adds another 2, which combine to make her somewhat less than tiny. The hair is perfectly in place, the chin and neck are noticeably wrinkle-free, and the back is very straight. Lederer turned 78 on July 4, and is in excellent health.

"I am, knock on wood."

She talks like that. Her speech is full of old-fashioned slang, as when she describes people as "classy" or calls her assistants "dames," as in: "Any of you dames got a copy of Time magazine?" (She was referring to a recent issue. The issue that did not list her as one of "America's 25 most influential people." Not that she cares. None of them had a copy, she says. None of them actually reads Time, she says.)

Her living room is so big the grand piano looks small. There's an envelope-shaped needlepoint pillow on the sofa that says "Ann Landers Chicago Ill." with a return address: "The Jesuits." Every surface has its share of tchotchkes--porcelain flowers, silver bibelots, crystal shapes. Each wall is hung with elaborately framed pictures: paintings in the public rooms (including a grand portrait of her), cartoons in the back hallway.

Her favorite collection is in her office--framed honorary degrees. She has 33 of them, from big ones like Meharry Medical College to small ones like Barry University in Miami.

Lederer never graduated from college, which she regrets. She left after 3 1/2 years at Morningside College in her hometown of Sioux City, Iowa, to marry Jules Lederer in 1939. She was 21, and gave birth to her daughter, Margo, the next year. (Thrice-divorced Margo--her last husband was actor Ken Howard--has three children and three grandchildren.)

For 16 years, Lederer was a happy homemaker and active citizen in eight different towns, while her husband built up Budget Rent a Car. Eventually they moved to Chicago, and at the age of 37 she applied for an opening as an advice columnist at the Sun-Times and before too long was both rich and famous.

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