As columnist Ann Landers, Esther Pauline Lederer (“Eppie” to her friends) this week celebrates 25 years of ministering to the emotional and psychological needs of the country. She dispenses her advice to the loveworn-and-torn in nearly 1,000 newspapers and is read by an estimated 70 million people each day. Yet in 1975 Lederer was faced with a problem even she could not solve. She and her husband of 36 years, Jules Lederer, the millionaire former president of Budget Rent a Car, decided to divorce. The news was announced in what Lederer described as her “most difficult column ever,” in which she admitted, “The lady with all the answers does not know the answer to this one.” According to one friend the breakup left Eppie “dazed and preoccupied.” But over the years, with the support of friends and family, Lederer, now 62, has learned to deal with being single. She was helped particularly by her twin sister (younger by 17 minutes) and fellow columnist (Dear Abby), Pauline Esther Phillips, and her daughter Margo, 40, wife of actor Ken Howard, star of The White Shadow. Eppie Lederer talked about her painful transition and the impact it had on her, personally and professionally, with PEOPLE Correspondent Linda Witt.
I didn’t know how my divorce would affect my career. I felt it might possibly end it. Some editors and readers could have said, “Who is this woman to give advice when she can’t even manage her own life?” I feared that would be the judgment even though I didn’t feel that way. I always thought I could manage my own life very well. The divorce was something beyond me. It wasn’t anybody’s fault.
Whatever happened to my career, I knew I would survive. I said to myself, “Well, if the Ann Landers days are over, I’ll just do something else.” It never occurred to me that I might fold up or break down or not be able to deal with it.
My two older sisters and my twin were wonderful. They didn’t ply me for information or ask me for more than I cared to say. And my twin was especially supportive. She and I grew up in a little world of our own. We were never out of one another’s sight. No one but another twin can understand this kind of growing up—to have someone with you night and day, to be considered one. We even had a double wedding. Because of the twinship I had never been a single woman—until my divorce I had always been part of a unit.
The advice that was most helpful to me, and I think to anyone going through the same thing, came from Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame. He said, “Eppie, don’t look back. Look forward and move forward. Don’t torture yourself with questions like, ‘Where did I fail?’ You didn’t fail.” That’s something everyone needs to say to themselves. I didn’t fail. This isn’t anyone’s fault.
I talked with Ted Hesburgh for 5½ hours and after that, I knew exactly where I was going. I’d always felt it was more important to be a wife than to be Ann Landers. But all the energy and time I used to expend buying his socks and his shorts is now time and energy I have for myself. Because of that positive attitude, there was no awkwardness for me in switching from being a married woman to a single woman. I learned how many good friends I have—Walter and Betsy Cronkite, Barbara Walters, Mary Lasker, Ann and Art Buchwald—everyone invited me to come be with them. I never felt like a fifth wheel.
Everyone wants to know about Ann Landers’ first date after 36 years of marriage. You know something—I don’t even remember who it was. I don’t even recall if he brought me chocolates and that really is interesting because I judge a man by the kind of chocolates he brings me. One highly sophisticated man brought me Hershey’s. Well, Hershey is a good chocolate, but there are better. Another question people ask is, “What kind of man would Ann Landers be interested in?” Only the best. But one does not look for the same things at 62 that one looked for at 21. At 21 you think nothing is impossible. The man I married was a very ambitious, aggressive, bright young fellow. Today I’d need a man with some measure of achievement of his own and one who could tolerate being married to Ann Landers. It is something to put up with. But if I ever got the notion that Ann Landers was more important than Eppie Lederer to a gentleman friend, that would be the end of the friendship. Ann Landers is Eppie Lederer.
I also want a man who can keep up with me. I want a healthy one. This is awful to admit, but one of the first things I notice is, Does he smoke? Is he overweight? How about his drinking habits? I don’t want to waste any time, so I rule those men out immediately. Good looks mean absolutely nothing to me. I don’t care about tall or short. Big deal. He must have integrity, be well informed, be considerate and he must be a gentleman. I’m a tough lady. Hands off. In my pamphlet “Teenage Sex and Ten Ways to Cool It,” I advise “four feet on the floor and all hands on deck.” It applies to 60-year-olds as well. I’m a pretty square old lady.
Despite all these rules I’ve managed to find some surprisingly super men. It’s widely rumored that men don’t like strong, independent women, but I haven’t noticed it. I’m dating three now. None is in Chicago. It’s less complicated that way.
I learned from my readers very early in my Ann Landers career that divorce could be a good thing. Yet if anybody had told me when I was 25 that either I or my daughter Margo would ever be divorced, I would have been absolutely appalled. This doesn’t bother me in the least today.
I consider my Jewishness very important to me and I believe my daughter feels the same way. The irony is that her first two marriages to members of our own faith were not successful. Her third—to a non-Jew—is one of the most beautiful marriages I know of. There’s a lesson there for Ann Landers.
People often ask if I’ve had any therapy. Actually I have not. My “therapists” are my daughter, my twin, my very close friends Ted Hesburgh and Mary Lasker, and another good friend, Washington dermatologist Dr. Robert Stolar. He was the first person to give me a clue to the competitiveness between my twin and me. He made me see there’s always rivalry between siblings and especially identical twins. We had this crying need for separate identities. It was probably inevitable that she would become an advice columnist, following in my footsteps. I was angry about it. I felt that for the first time I had something of my own and here she was cutting into what was mine. The problem grew until there were some years when we didn’t speak. But I missed her. One day she called and said, “Can’t we be friends again?” I felt it was time we were and said yes. The interesting thing is that Ann Landers hadn’t been taking her own advice. If anyone had written me with this problem I would have said immediately “Forgive and forget”—yet I was unable to do it. I know now that life is too short for negative thinking. Perhaps the secret source of my energy is that I refuse to waste it on hostility, anger or grudges. After 25 years, Ann Landers’ best advice is “Be positive and go forward.”