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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Father Hesburgh and His Close Friendship with Ann Landers

The late Notre Dame president was a confidante of the famous Chicago advice columnist.

Fr. Theodore Hesburgh in 2006.  Photo: Kuni Takahashi

In 2002, when I was writing a profile of the late Eppie Lederer (a.k.a. Ann Landers), one of the top ten people on my interview list was Father Theodore Hesburgh, then president emeritus of Notre Dame University and an old friend of the famous Chicago advice columnist. I drove to South Bend and found Hesburgh, once the best-known university president in America, in a tiny office adjacent to the library stacks. He shared with me his memories of Eppie, had who died a few months before. Some of those memories, occasionally quite personal, appeared in the Chicago profile published the next February. 

I thought about that long and revealing conversation when I heard that Hesburgh, who was president of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987, had died Thursday at age 97.

She was Jewish, he was among the most famous Catholics in the country—he was a year older than she—and they talked about everything, including sex (premarital in particular), a subject on which her attitudes became more liberal as she aged. (Hesburgh was famously liberal on social issues, as well as a staunch advocate of civil rights, immigrant rights, and aggressive development in third-world countries.)

Born Esther Pauline Friedman to Russian Jewish immigrants, Eppie was drawn throughout her adult life to Catholicism. “Curiously,” Hesburgh told me, “ many of her good friends were priests.” The two had met more than 50 years before, at a meeting of the Young Presidents Organization. Hesburgh, at age 35, had just become president of Notre Dame. Eppie and her husband, businessman Jules Lederer—during the height of his success he founded Budget Rent a Car—were also members.

When Eppie, who had no real journalism experience, had her tryout to take over the advice column, then at the Sun-Times—she later moved to the Tribune—she was given several questions to answer. For the question on education, she consulted her new friend, Ted Hesburgh. She also consulted with a Supreme Court justice, a famous physician, and others. Hesburgh told me that the owner of the Sun-Times warned her that that they couldn’t use the answers because the paper would be sued. He thought that she had just made them up and attached the famous names.

“Whenever she got into what she thought was a moral problem, she would call me to talk about it,” Hesburgh recalled. On the subject of abortion, the Jew and the Catholic agreed to disagree. “The beauty of it was that we were honest with each other.”

They were both night owls who worked until two, three, or four in the morning. She would often call him to chat at those “ungodly” hours, he joked.

There were few subjects that they didn’t discuss. “She was always very frank with me about her own life, and I think I probably know her better than anybody. Because as a priest she knew she was talking to a dead stone. I’m never gonna talk about what we talked about. She was a very good friend. Even now I’m going to be quite careful in what I say.”

Then he told me about the night she had her driver take her Notre Dame to talk to its president. “`I just learned from Jules…that he has been seeing a lady in London. I’m devastated. I just gotta talk to you,’” he recalled her saying. “Two or three hours later she came in and she had written a column about her feelings on the way down.”

Hesburgh persuaded her to put the column “under wraps” for three or four weeks, reread it, and then release it. He also advised her to write at the end of the column, “This is the last thing I’m going to say on this.” Otherwise, he told her, “You be deluged with letters you’ll feel you have to answer. People will assume that the lady who gives advice needs some herself.”

The news of the breakup of her marriage made headlines all over the world. In thinking about the marriage, Hesburgh told me, “In one way, you hate to say it, but she probably outgrew Jules in a way….If you’re married to a lady who’s one hundred times more known than you are, you start getting introduced, `This is Eppie Lederer’s husband.’ She was a skyrocket going up, and while he had been up pretty well when he was younger, she outclassed him as time went on.”

There were unfounded rumors about their friendship being more than platonic, which no one close to them believed but didn’t stop the two of them from joking about it. When I talked to Eppie’s longtime friend Eugene Kennedy, he recalled Eppie once saying, “I’m flying to Israel with Ted Hesburgh. It’s a long, long flight. If he makes a pass at me, I’ll be delighted.”

The two were so close that when she lay dying in her East Lake Shore Drive apartment, he was one of the last people she called to her bedside. (A month or so before, Hesburgh had just missed running into another of Eppie’s adored male friends, Bill Clinton.)

She had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma and decided against chemotherapy. She was administered big doses of morphine, but still experienced excruciating pain, and when the pain was at its most intense, she grasped the rosary that Hesburgh had left her. “I’m going to leave you rosary beads so that at least there’s something physical you can hang on to,” he recalled telling her.

She told Hesburgh during that visit that she wanted to be cremated. “Can I be cremated? ” she asked. He responded, “I’m not your rabbi, but I assume if the Catholic church allows cremation, the Jewish faith does too.” After telling him that she didn’t want a “big funeral” and wanted her ashes tossed in the lake outside her building, Hesburgh promised her “a few requiem masses. You can count on that.”

“So it wasn’t like she was going to be dropped down a dark hole with nothing,” he told me.

After her death, when I was able to get in her apartment—see the profile for all kinds of interesting details about that—I saw a list at her bedside of the people she considered closest to her and their telephone numbers. Father Hesburgh’s name was on it.

I asked Hesburgh if they had discussed her converting to Catholicism, and he said no. “I never found her wavering in the slightest bit from the fact that she’s from a Jewish family. She was Jewish and that was that. We’re in the good dying and good eternity business, I guess you could say. You don’t push someone for the sake of gathering scalps or something. That would have been totally inappropriate.”

​The priest and the advice columnist had what Hesburgh described as a confidential partnership. “People would write her things that were pretty bad, the kind of the things I hear all the time in confessions. People don’t come to confession to tell you their virtues. Most of them come to tell you their sins…. Quite often she would get letters from people who were on the fringe and didn’t know a priest they could talk to, so they’d write her. She would , with the greatest secrecy, put that letter in an envelope and send it to me and say, ‘I think we can help this person.’ I always did [often by calling on his network of priests around the world]. I’d write her a note at the end and say, ‘case solved.’”

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.


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