July 08, 2002 12:00 PM

She spent almost half a century guiding Americans through every crisis known to man (and woman), but Eppie Lederer—better known as Ann Landers—approached each day with a smile. “I think people who aren’t positive don’t succeed,” the twin sister of fellow advice columnist Pauline Phillips (“Dear Abby”) told The Washington Post in 1996. “That is the way I have lived my life. I don’t look back, I don’t care what was, I care what is.”

Lederer, who died on June 22 at age 83 of multiple myeloma, was determined to make her 90 million readers feel just as sure of themselves. In her syndicated column she counseled them on problems ranging from office squabbles to adultery, ill-behaved pets to drug-addicted kids. Couching her wisdom in a wry, no-nonsense tone and such trademark catchphrases as “Wake up and smell the coffee,” she had “an instantly recognizable voice,” says Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene. Noted one fan: “If you had spent your life following her advice, you’d have worked out pretty well.”

Born in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1918 to Russian immigrants Abraham Friedman, who owned movie theaters, and his homemaker wife, Rebecca, Esther Pauline arrived 17 minutes ahead of her twin sister Pauline Esther. The twins, nicknamed “Eppie” and “Popo,” dressed alike and shared a bed. At Sioux City’s Morningside College they collaborated on a gossip column, “The Campus Rats,” before dropping out in 1939 for a double wedding—Eppie to Jules William Lederer, who later founded Budget Rent a Car, and Popo to liquor tycoon Morton Phillips.

For 16 years Lederer focused on raising daughter Margo Howard, now 62, who writes an advice column, “Dear Prudence,” for the Web magazine Slate. The family moved eight times as Jules built up his business, but Lederer got a taste of public service during their seven years in Eau Claire, Wis., where she comforted hospital patients as a Red Cross worker.

She decided to cast a wider net after settling in Chicago in 1955. Then 37, Lederer called the Chicago Sun-Times and volunteered to assist the newspaper’s advice columnist (Ruth Crowley, writing under the pseudonym Ann Landers), only to discover that Crowley had recently died. Lederer tried out as her successor and landed the job by calling on pals like Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas to bolster her replies to the application’s sample queries. The column quickly became a hit. As she later recalled to the Chicago Tribune (to which she jumped in 1987, after 32 years at the Sun-Times), “I had the whole field to myself.”

But not for long. Lederer had recruited her sister to help sort Crowley’s backlogged mail, but Phillips soon left to start the “Dear Abby” column for the San Francisco Chronicle. The move opened a rift between the pair, who didn’t speak for years. They gradually patched things up and became friendly rivals. As Phillips, who changed her name to Abigail Van Buren, told PEOPLE in 1998, “There’s more than enough for both of us.”

For all Lederer’s skill at solving other people’s problems, one of her own stumped her. In a 1975 column she revealed that she and Jules were divorcing after 36 years (he was having an affair with an English nurse). “How did it happen that something so good for so long didn’t last forever?” she wrote. “The lady with all the answers does not know the answer to this one.” In response, more than 35,000 letters of support poured in, the only reader mail Lederer ever kept.

She never remarried, though she freely admitted to having an unnamed “gentleman friend.” Besides, her column remained her chief love. Lederer once boasted that “they’re going to find me slumped over the typewriter, writing the last column.” Indeed, she kept up her daily routine almost to the end, rising at noon and working until 2 a.m., sorting through some 200 letters a day, often in the bathtub of her 11-room Chicago condominium overlooking Lake Michigan. She also took care to buy the rights to her pseudonym so that no one could follow in her footsteps. “When I go, the name goes with me,” she said. “There will never be another Ann Landers.” She was right, as usual. There never will.

Jason Lynch

Barbara Sandler and Grant Pick in Chicago

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