Dear Ann

An energetic self-promotor, Eppie Lederer was a natural as the wise and wisecracking Ann Landers, advice maven to millions. But her own family problems were harder to solve.

(page 6 of 17)

 

Eppie’s new success led to a bitter split with her twin. In the earliest months of her job, Eppie started sending readers’ letters to Popo, who was then living in California with two children and a staff of servants. Popo wrote answers in a voice that mimicked the one that Eppie had been coached to adopt, and she did it so well that no one knew. When Fanning found out, he explained to Eppie that running Popo’s responses under Ann Landers’s name was unethical. Eppie stopped collaborating with her sister, but by then Popo was hooked. She marched over to the San Francisco Chronicle and sold the editors on a competing column. For years afterward, the twins didn’t speak. “I brought up her sister once, and she said, ‘I don’t want to talk about her,’” recalls Marshall Field V, whose family owned the Sun-Times and Eppie’s syndicate. “That was the end of that, so I never brought it up again.”

Represented by competing syndicates, both sisters would loudly claim to be carried in the most newspapers. Eppie could not stand the stalemate and would do almost anything to sign another paper. Field recalls the staccato click of her high heels, which presaged an avalanche of ultimatums. “Usually she was mad because her column wasn’t in some paper in Aardvark, Arkansas. She was only in 400 papers, and her sister was in 401. She’d complain that our syndicate was doing a lousy job of getting her in every paper in the world, or that she wasn’t getting enough money. She was famous for being pushy, so everybody would just sort of stand there, and if you yelled back at her as loud as she yelled at you, you were generally fine.”

Eppie insisted on writing seven days a week so that there was no chance an editor could stick in a potential rival on an off day. She worked hard and with soaring enthusiasm as she realized how big an impact she could have. As the years passed, she began to advance favorite causes, mostly political, such as gun control and later abortion rights. A staunch Democrat, Eppie became a regular in Washington, usually without Jules.

Her focus on issues distinguished her from her sister, who was far less serious and political. At one point, Eppie urged readers to write their representatives and tell them to support more funding of cancer research. “If this great country of ours can put a man on the moon,” Eppie wrote, “why can’t we find a cure for cancer?” Members of Congress were deluged with mail, and readers sent thousands of her columns to President Richard Nixon in the White House. In late 1971, with Eppie present, Nixon signed the National Cancer Act.

If he imagined he was winning Eppie’s affection, he was mistaken. A friend was in her office at the Sun-Times when Henry Kissinger, then Nixon’s Secretary of State, called. “What’s a nice Jewish boy,” she asked him, “doing in a place like that?”

* * *

With both parents absorbed in their work, the Lederers’ only child had grown up indulged and directionless. Margo left Brandeis University without graduating to marry a Bostonian, John Coleman, who went on to develop such small but sophisticated Chicago hotels as the Tremont and the Whitehall. Seven years and three children later, the marriage broke up.

That same year, 1970, with an assist from the film critic Gene Siskel, who had been impressed by Margo’s wit when he was her dinner partner at a wedding, she began to write a column for his paper, the Chicago Tribune. Margo was pretty, stylish, and bold, with a sharp and sarcastic tongue. She soon switched to the Chicago Daily News, then edited by Larry Fanning. The column, entitled simply “Margo,” sparked “a lot of griping at the features desk,” recalls Lois Wille. “Eppie’s daughter was given a plum job.” Margo’s quip-filled columns were clever, but as another of the paper’s feature writers recalls, she often leaned on others for help. She would arrive in the newsroom in Gucci jeans, a fur jacket, and gorgeous jewels and ask the assembled, “Have you got any story ideas?”

 

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