On this day in 1955, Esther “Eppie” Lederer wrote her first “Ask Ann Landers” column in the Chicago Sun-Times. By the time she composed her last column, 47 years later, the syndicated feature appeared in more than 1,200 newspapers worldwide, with an estimated readership of 90 million.
Esther Pauline Friedman and her twin sister, Pauline Esther Friedman, were born in Sioux City, Iowa, on July 4, 1918, the children of Russian-Jewish immigrants to the United States who had made good. (Their father went from selling chickens from a wagon to being the owner of three cinemas.) The two sisters attended the same school, Morningside College, in Sioux City, where they jointly wrote an advice column for the Collegian Reporter. The twins also married in a joint ceremony in July 1939, Eppie to Julius Lederer (one of the founders of the Budget car rental company) and Pauline (“Popo”) to Morton Phillips.
In July 1955, Ruth Crowley, who had created and written the “Ask Ann Landers” advice column (the name “Ann Landers” was a pseudonym) for the Sun-Times since 1945, died, and the paper began trying out different writers – 29 altogether to succeed her. They decided on Lederer. The following January, Popo, now living in San Francisco, proposed a similar column to the San Francisco Chronicle. She took on the pseudonym “Abigail Van Buren,” and called her column “Dear Abby.”
Lederer didn’t beat around the bush in responding to readers’ appeals for advice – “kwitcherbellyachin,” she would tell correspondents she felt were whining -- and she was not reticent about expressing her usually liberal opinions on moral issues ranging from gun control to abortion to homosexuality (which she came to accept as natural). She also was open enough to share with readers in 1975 that she and her husband were getting a divorce. But though she made a living telling people how to rise above themselves, the rivalry between her and her twin sister led to a feud that kept the two advice-givers from talking to each other for a period of years.
She was famous for using her extensive social connections to undertake high-powered consultations on many of the topics on which she was questioned. For example, during her tryout, she was asked to respond to a reader who owned a walnut tree whose nuts fell into her neighbor’s yard, causing a dispute between the two over who owned the nuts. Lederer reached out to someone she had known from her days as a Democratic Party activist in Chicago – William O. Douglas, by then a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. (Douglas told her that the neighbor could do anything with the walnuts but sell them.)
Eppie Lederer decided that “Ann Landers” would retire when she did, and when she died, in 2002, the column died with her. Her daughter, Margo Howard, however, did write an advice column, “Dear Prudence,” for several years for Slate magazine. As for Popo Phillips, when she began a decline into Alzheimer’s disease in the 1990s, her daughter, Jeanne Phillips, began co-writing “Dear Abby” with her. Phillips continues with it to this day.
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