She was born on July 4, 1918, the older of identical twin sisters, in Sioux City, Iowa. She was named Esther Pauline, and her sister was called Pauline Esther. Their parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants who made good as her father built up a successful movie theater business.
The two sisters were close as children. They graduated from high school together; they both went to Morningside College in Sioux City; and on July 2, 1938, they celebrated a joint wedding ceremony. Then Esther and her husband moved to Eau Claire, Wis., where she became active as a volunteer in Democratic politics.
By the 1950s Esther was living in Chicago. Her husband, Julius Lederer, had founded the Budget Rent-a-Car business, and they were quite well off, but Esther was getting tired of being a stay-at-home wife and mother. She offered to help out in the Chicago Democratic party but was rebuffed. Then she queried a local newspaper, asking if there were any job openings on what was then known as the "women's" page. What she found out was that the woman writing the advice column had just died, and the paper, the Chicago Sun-Times, was looking for a replacement.
The paper held a contest. More than 20 women, mostly employees from the Sun-Times, sent in their entries. But it was Esther who won the contest, largely because she didn't just give her own opinions, but also offered advice from experts, including a judge and a college president who she knew from her earlier days in politics.
Her first column appeared in October 1955. It opened with a letter from a "non-eligible bachelor" who'd been disappointed in love and did not want to get married. Her advice: "You're a big boy now ... don't let spite ruin your life."
So it was that Esther "Eppie" Lederer became Ann Landers, which was actually a fictional name created a decade earlier by Ruth Crowley, a Chicago nurse who had first written a child-care column for the Sun-Times and then expanded it into a syndicated advice column. Crowley had borrowed the name Landers from a family friend, while keeping her own name a secret, even making her kids promise not to reveal her true name.
Eppie Lederer was not so circumspect about her true identity -- everybody in the journalism world knew who she was -- but for the public she was forever Ann Landers. In her column she answered whatever questions readers lobbed her way, taking on a broad range of topics, from dating to drugs, acne to AIDS. She mostly took a practical, common-sense approach, writing in colloquial terms, sometimes offering up a sharp one-liner, while leaning liberal on social affairs and more conservative on personal behavior.
However, she was not a complete stranger to controversy. She was against the Vietnam war. She was pro-choice, pro-gun control, and in favor of legalizing prostitution. She supported equal civil rights for homosexuals -- although she never got on board for gay marriage since, "it flies in the face of cultural and traditional family life as we have known it for centuries." She also shared some of her own struggles, informing her readers of her own divorce in 1975 and airing some personal conflicts in public.
In an odd twist, soon after taking over the column, Landers found herself competing with her own twin sister. Under the name Abigail Van Buren, Pauline began writing the "Dear Abby" column which also gained widespread popularity.
"I felt betrayed," Landers said later, "because she didn't tell me that she was considering it -- she just presented it as a fact." Landers severed ties with her twin, and their estrangement became bitter and widely publicized. The two sisters didn't speak for almost a decade, but reconciled in 1964 in advance of their mutual 25th wedding anniversary.
|Photo: Fred Palumbo, World Telegram - Lib. of Congress|
Eppie Lederer -- who often worked from home, and sometimes in her bathtub -- never received the respect she deserved from the journalism establishment. But in its heyday the Ann Landers column was carried in over 1200 newspapers around the world, with a readership of some 90 million people. The 1978 World Almanac named her the most influential woman in America.
Which for her was great success, for as she once said, "I would rather have my column on a thousand refrigerator doors than win a Pulitzer."