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Defeating 12,000, Odd Couple Diane Crowley and Jeff Zaslow Win Ann Landers' Old Job

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Dear me. The two new advice columnists, freshly chosen in a nationwide contest to replace the legendary Ann Landers in the Chicago Sun-Times, are being photographed in a fancy-shmancy New York hotel, and it is going b-a-a-dly. In front of two huge, blank screens, Diane Crowley, a controlled woman of 47, stands nervously in her stocking feet, and Jeff Zaslow, a carefree man of 28, goofs around in shirtsleeves. Both are tired and struggling, in diametrically opposed ways, to find the proper chemistry for their new roles.

“Hold hands,” the photographer commands. “I don’t think that’s really necessary,” sniffs Crowley. Trying to be helpful, Zaslow offers a suggestion: “Do you want us jumping?”

“Are you nuts?” says Crowley.

As this moment suggests, the latest rookies in the advice game, who will appear in the Sun-Times on alternate days starting next week, seem to have little in common except the write stuff. Diane Crowley is the picture of self-discipline. Jeff Zaslow is spontaneous. She is middle of the road. He is sometimes off the map. She is divorced, has two sons 23 and 22, and has been a teacher and lawyer. He is about to marry glamorous Detroit anchor woman Sherry Margolis and has put in just seven years as a feature writer for the Orlando (Florida) Sentinel and the Wall Street Journal’s Chicago bureau.

But the biggest difference may be in their motivations. Crowley has family tradition behind her new assignment: Her mother, Ruth, was the original “Ann Landers,” from whom Eppie Lederer inherited the pen name she has taken with her to the Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Times’ rival. Zaslow entered the contest for Lederer’s replacement largely as a lark. It seemed to him and his Journal editors a fun way to cover the three-month selection process, which included interviews, background checks and sample columns.

The two from whom thousands of Chicagoans—and millions of Americans, if syndication gets big—will seek advice promise to be as different in print as they are in life. Diane will use the traditional question-and-answer format in her columns, to be called “Your Problems.” “I’m going to use my life experiences as a professional, a mother and a wife,” she says. Zaslow’s column will be called “All That Zazz,” because, he says, “all the men in my family were called ‘Zazz’.” He adds, “I’m going to approach the column like a good reporter would. I’m going to be out in the street, not just sitting behind a desk waiting for letters.” A spokesman for the Sun-Times, which chose the two from 12,000 contenders, says the pairing will be “dynamic.”

Born in Illinois, Crowley was just 15 when her mother died in 1955 and Eppie Lederer took over the Landers column. “Diane is very much like our mother, a very warm and caring person,” says her brother Bill. Diane graduated from St. Mary’s College in Indiana in 1961 and a year later married Raymond Ratkowski, an FBI agent. She took her law degree at the University of Connecticut in 1982. Divorced in 1980, she still lives in Longmeadow, Mass., where she spent the last 11 years of her marriage, and plans to rent a place in Chicago in a few weeks.

Zaslow, the son of a real estate broker, was raised in Philadelphia and picked up a B.A. in creative writing in 1980 from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie-Mellon University. “His compassion for others is not window dressing,” says his mother, Naomi, a publicist. “When he was in high school his grandmother was in her last days, and he took a part-time job in her nursing home so he could help with her meals.”

The woman Diane and Jeff are replacing is uncharacteristically mum about her successors, possibly for competitive reasons: Lederer has taken an estimated 85 million readers of her syndicated column with her. That’s a pretty good head start, but Zaslow and Crowley are undaunted. “We don’t intend to beat her right away,” he says. “But in time, we will.”

Then, posing for the photog again, he waves his arms over his head.

“Being cute,” sighs Diane, “is very exhausting.”