By Sue Rochman
Dear Ann Landers
New research has led to the approval of drugs that are helping patients live longer lives with multiple myeloma—a cancer that took the life of a beloved advice columnist less than a decade ago
By Sue Rochman
Virtually everyone needs help or advice at some point—and, thanks to the internet, finding words of wisdom has never been easier. Google a question and you’ll invariably find someone has asked it before. Post a question on Facebook and you’ll get opinions galore. Tweet your dilemma and your followers will certainly weigh in.
Prior to this easy access to encyclopedic and instantaneous information, before Oprah and Dr. Phil brought personal problems into America’s living rooms, newspapers and the nationally syndicated advice columns they carried served as the town hall of guidance. And for 47 years, arguably no columnist addressed the topics of the day with more wit, style and flair than Ann Landers.
An estimated 90 million readers in more than 1,200 newspapers read Landers’ column, which she wrote from 1955 until her death from multiple myeloma in 2002. “She had an unusual common sense, which was not so common, and she attributed her ability to being a Midwestern Jewish girl,” says Landers’ daughter Margo Howard, who writes the “Dear Margo” column for Women on the Web and Creators Syndicate. “Mother had a keen sense of mission to educate people, and she had the opportunity to do it as a newspaper woman.”
An Auspicious Beginning
Landers was born Esther Pauline Friedman on July 4, 1918, in Sioux City, Iowa, 17 minutes ahead of her twin sister, Pauline. Growing up, Esther, nicknamed Eppie, and Pauline, nicknamed Popo, were rarely apart. After high school, both stayed in Sioux City to attend Morningside College, where they co-authored a gossip column for the school paper. At their double wedding on July 2, 1939, when Eppie said “yes” to Jules Lederer and Popo took the hand of Morton Phillips, they wore matching wedding gowns.
As Rick Kogan details in his book America’s Mom: The life, lessons and legacy of Ann Landers, the Lederers settled in Chicago in 1954, where they became avid readers of the Chicago Sun-Times and its popular column “Your Problems,” written by Ann Landers—a byline the paper had created and trademarked.
The first Ann Landers, Ruth Crowley, started the column in 1943. When she died in 1955, a select group of women were invited to try out for her job. The group included Eppie, Kogan explains, because she had befriended the newspaper’s vice president a few years earlier. To answer her sample questions, Eppie drew on the vast array of connections she had made through her husband’s business ventures and her own political interests. After she impressed the editors with an answer on a legal issue provided by a Supreme Court Justice and one on marriage provided by the president of the University of Notre Dame, the job was hers.
Eppie’s first Ann Landers column was published on Oct. 16, 1955. Landers thought it was her duty to respond to every person who wrote, and she ultimately required a staff of 13 assistants. First, though, she asked her sister to help out. Landers’ editor quickly stopped the arrangement, but Popo wasn’t eager to put down her pen. She contacted the San Francisco Chronicle, pitching the concept of an advice column written under the pseudonym Abigail Van Buren. The Chronicle loved the idea, and in January 1956, just three months after Eppie had become Ann Landers, Phillips was writing her own column, “Dear Abby.” The twins’ columns competed for syndication, resulting in a longstanding semi-feud that provided fodder to gossip columnists for decades.
Landers’ column didn’t shy away from controversial issues, and sociologists who have studied her work say it both reflected and informed the country’s moral zeitgeist. Similarly, when Landers asked her readers to take action, they responded. A December 1971 column urged people to write their senators in support of the National Cancer Act. It resulted in a record-breaking 300,000 letters being delivered to Capitol Hill. In 1975 she was awarded the American Cancer Society Medal of Honor, and five years later, President Jimmy Carter appointed Landers to a six-year term on the board of the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
(photo, top: © AP Photo / Mark Elias; photo, bottom: © Declan Haun / Timepix / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images)