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Have Gene, Will Advise

Ann Landers she isn't, but Ann Landers' daughter she is. Margo Howard, the wit and wisdom behind Slate's 'Dear Prudence,' has her mother's gift and her own style.

January 10, 2001|CANDACE A. WEDLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For most of her life, Margo Howard was not inclined to give advice or to take it, but she wound up doing both.

Michael Kinsley, founder and editor of online Slate magazine, had known Howard for 20 years when he told her he thought she'd be the perfect match for the advice column in his political zine. Who better than Howard, only child of Ann Landers, to write "Dear Prudence," he figured. "She is extremely witty and funny . . . one of these people you meet at a party and think, she should be writing."

She said yes and has been at it now for more than two years.

Howard, 60, good-naturedly calls herself an "old bag," her mother "the old lady" and her boyfriend "Dr. Pussycat."

Howard did grow up with that thing called common sense--a quality, she points out for the record, that isn't all that common. It seems to run in the family, at least on the maternal side. Ann Landers' twin sister is Dear Abby. Abby's daughter (and Howard's cousin), Jeanne Phillips, runs the Dear Abby business from an office in Century City and has been the column's co-creator since 1987.

"Mother and I joke about the advice gene," Howard says during an interview at the home of old friends Dale and Marc Norman (who co-wrote "Shakespeare in Love" with Tom Stoppard). Howard, who has a duplex on the Charles River in Cambridge, Mass., was in L.A. recently for a brief visit.

Ann and Abby, who turned 82 in July, began their columns ages ago--Ann Landers starting in 1955, Abigail Van Buren in 1956.

Now, Howard finds herself in the same line of work and, fortunately, is used to being asked for her opinion. "People figured if the old lady did it, the kid must have the same thing."

When asked if she would ever consider taking over her mother's column, Howard says never. "It is hers. I don't have any desire to morph into my mother. If it hadn't been Michael Kinsley and online, I wouldn't have been doing it this minute."

While her mother's brand of advice oftentimes is researched and peppered with the opinion of an authority, Howard's style is off-the-cuff and sassy.

When "Uncle Cautious" asked for advice on whether an aunt should take her nieces on a tour of the White House given "the scandalous behavior in the Oval Office" Howard responded with:

Oh, by all means, White House. Prudie feels certain that young tourists are safe from the alleged scandalous behavior. You do not say how old your nieces are, so just a small caveat: If they are in the intern age bracket, simply advise them that the room off of the Oval Office is not on the tour.

--Prudie, prophylactically

Howard says she and her mother have very different styles. "She is a very high-energy girl. I can spend 2 1/2 hours at breakfast."

While her mother was married for 36 years to the same man until their divorce in 1975, Howard describes herself as a "perfect Jewish geisha." She has been married and divorced three times. She refers to her first as a "starter" husband.

Howard said she knew she didn't want to have the same kind of column her mother has, knew she did not want to use her mother's technique of drawing on experts to help answer questions. Although Howard will sometimes consult friends who know a given subject well, she prefers to write off the top of her head, minus a lot of research. She uses her own experience: "I feel like a major old bag who's been around."

While she was accustomed to offering her opinion to those who bothered to ask for it, she wasn't accustomed to being paid for doing so. She wasn't expecting to work at all, for that matter. "I've always had a 'toy' career," she says. "I'm not a worker. I was doing nothing." She may have been doing nothing at the moment Slate approached her, but her career as a writer is actually 30 years strong. She was a feature section columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Daily-News. And she has written for other publications including TV Guide, the Nation, the New Republic and People. She is also the author of a family memoir, "Eppie: The Story of Ann Landers" published by Putnam in 1982.

When Kinsley suggested that she take over the advice column, she talked it over with her 64-year-old fiance, Dr. Ronald Weintraub, who agreed she should do it. Howard calls the Boston-based cardiac surgeon "Dr. Pussycat," adding that, for her, a romantic partnership is of utmost value in her life. She and Weintraub have been together for three years. She wears a wedding band he bought for her, but they're not married.

Howard's column exists in cyberspace, not on newsprint or other paper trails. She works on a laptop in her home office. She had never seen an e-mail until Kinsley showed her one. Her familiarity with it grew quickly as the mail for "Dear Prudence" poured in. "I thought, 'This is amazing. I love it.' Now I'm an e-mail freak."

Slate.com, which reported about 3.5 million users in November, runs "Dear Prudence" weekly (prudence@slate.com). Howard gets to write the way she speaks--straight from the hip, funny, direct. "I'm a short-take girl. Humor, good sense, a little risque. I don't get into long sentences and answers."

Her advice-seekers e-mail back saying they appreciate having an objective person to bounce their concerns off and get some feedback from. "I am a good friend that you never meet," she says.

Candace Wedlan can be reached at candace.wedlan@latimes.com.

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