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A Loss for Words

Ann Landers' syndicated column will cease soon, but her editors will carry on under a different title

June 25, 2002|BEVERLY BEYETTE | And Mary Rourke TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before her death Saturday from cancer at the age of 83, Ann Landers made it clear that there would be no future Ann Landers, a fictional name she owned and for which she'd been offered huge sums of money. But by Sunday, plans were already in the works for two of her longtime editors to carry on. Their daily advice column, Annie's Mailbox, will debut July 28. "We have received an incredible number of e-mails saying, 'You must run the classic Ann Landers or you must continue this column,' " Richard S. Newcombe, president of L.A.-based Creators Syndicate, said Monday.

But Esther Friedman Lederer had made it very clear, said her daughter, Margo Howard, that the Ann Landers column per se would end with her death. "She had invested so much of herself in the column and she would have no control over it. It was a name she was so strongly identified with," Howard said from her home in Cambridge, Mass.

At the urging of Newcombe, however, the decision was almost immediately made to launch Annie's Mailbox in a similar format. He said, "We agreed that upon her death [her] name would not be used and we are honoring that request."

Letters to "Dear Annie," who will have no last name, will be answered by Kathy Mitchell and Marcy Sugar, both in their 50s. Mitchell worked for Landers for 34 years and Sugar worked off and on for 30 years.

Mitchell and Sugar said they had not yet had time to think about the voice of Annie's Mailbox although, Mitchell said, both were so familiar with the style and format that "we could do it in our sleep." Said Sugar, "She taught us everything we know. She was a wonderful mentor."

The last Ann Landers column, written before her death, will run July 27. On Monday, some newspapers carried a tribute to Ann Landers, written by her daughter, to "a gutsy, old-school newspaper dame who believed there was no better job in all the world and who would, if she could have, wished you a fond and grateful farewell herself. And she wanted you to know that hers had been a 'simply wonderful ride.' "

The columnist's death has spurred a discussion about trends in newspaper advice columns, preeminent among which were Ann Landers and the rival Dear Abby, for years written by Lederer's twin sister, Pauline Friedman Phillips--a.k.a. Abigail Van Buren. It is now co-written with Phillips' daughter, Jeanne Phillips, from Los Angeles.

Howard said her mother had once asked if she wanted to continue the column some day. "I said not me, honey. I don't really like to work all that much. And I didn't have her sense of mission. She really cared about these people and she cared about fixing the world." Howard does write an advice column, Dear Prudence, a weekly feature that runs in the online magazine Slate. Creators Syndicate will offer the weekly column to newspapers.

Jay Rosen, chairman of the department of journalism at New York University, said Monday that while the advice column genre is not usually considered journalism, Ann Landers "was a journalist of a very unusual kind" who showed extraordinary discipline and "extreme fidelity to fact" and, because of her high reader interaction, "had to reach standards that meet or exceed the standards of a lot of daily journalism in terms of accuracy."

As for the future of such columns, Rosen observed, "She and her sister began at a time when you could rely on much more social consensus. A lot of the drama of the column had to do with the breakdown of that social consensus and the thousands of problems that resulted. The idea now of that kind of advice for 'the American woman' or 'the American family' is hard to imagine."

Some reading Lederer's obituaries wondered why her twin did not issue a statement. Phillips, who has been in declining health, did not return calls Monday. However, her daughter wrote a "Dear Aunt Eppie" column released Monday by Universal Press Syndicate in which she praised her aunt as "a woman of courage, integrity and loyalty, a "role model." The twins had a famously strained and competitive relationship. They were, said Howard, "rather distant." But, she added, "They faxed some. They were both a little hard of hearing. But I think they had fixed up the difficulties of the earlier years."

Other advice columnists speculate that there will be fewer such advice columns now that readers can get answers to their problems fast on the Internet. And the columns that flourish may be more specialized.

"I have a lot more leeway writing an advice column for Slate than I would for newspapers," said Howard. "I can be risque, I make literary references. I don't want to say e-mail users are smarter, but very accomplished people write to me." She doesn't know whether Dear Prudence would work as a newspaper feature.

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