Dear Ann Landers:
How does a divorced woman with three small children tell her mother, who has always trumpeted the sanctity of matrimony, that her second marriage has failed? I have dillydallied for days, even though I’m prepared to promise her I will never marry again.
Sheepish in Splitsville
Kwitcher stalling, buttercup. She won’t be shook up. And don’t make dumb promises. Just maybe you’ve been looking for the wrong things in a mate. It’s those lousy movie magazines—don’t delude yourself that you will meet a movie star and life will be wonderful.
That exchange captures the spirit of the conversation that actually took place between Margo Furth and her real-life mother, Ann Landers, in 1976—and so much for sound advice. Not long afterward Margo met a movie star named Ken Howard. Three months later she married him. Ever since, Margo’s life with Ken—who became an even bigger star on TV’s The White Shadow—has been, yes, wonderful. His hit series has bought them a 60-acre farm in northwest Connecticut, where they enjoy the bucolic life. And now Margo has a top billing, too, as author of a peppery biography of her mother, Eppie, the Story of Ann Landers. “My mother thinks Ken saved us all, and he may have,” Margo says.
When they met, she was a Chicago Daily News columnist with a reputation for biting profiles. She was assigned to interview Howard, who was starring in a local production of Equus. She took a long look up at him—he’s 6’6″, she’s 5’4½”—and “His first words were, ‘How ya doin’?’ I thought, ‘Great—a big, dumb ballplayer.’ ” He was more impressed: “Margo was very, very glamorous—her hair, nails, her jewelry.” They chattered through a four-hour lunch. After the chicken hash, Ken suggested she pocket her notebook, and they continued on until show time. “The real beginning,” says Margo, 42, “was when he said, ‘You’ve got a beautiful mouth,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I kiss good too.’ That was our foot in the water of risqué.” “I’ve always been attracted to independent, outspoken women,” says Ken, 38.
Three weeks later, after he had been checked out by Margo’s children, Abra, now 19, Adam, 16, and Cricket, 14, he offered her a gold buckle ring with three tiny diamonds. “I said, ‘It’s beautiful. What is it?’ ” she remembers. “And he said, ‘It’s a ring,’ and I said, ‘Yes, but what kind of ring?’ and he finally said, ‘It’s an engagement ring, you dummy.’ ” They were married beneath a tree at the Chicago Art Institute where Ken had strolled each night after Equus.
“People say having three children is a liability for a woman who wants to remarry, but I really think the kids were quite an attraction,” Margo observes. “Ken loved dealing with their problems, saying this gives life texture. So anytime I have trouble with them, I say, here’s the texture.” The children were immediately won over and dubbed Ken “Mr. Mother.” “Whatever Margo and I share romantically, intellectually or in humor is all very crucial,” he notes, “but it’s a tough life on relationships these days, and kids are glue.”
After his Equus run Ken hauled his instant family to L.A., where he and producer-director Bruce Paltrow (Mr. Blythe Danner) created The White Shadow series, based on Ken’s experiences as a high school basketball star. For three TV seasons, while he toiled from 6 a.m. until dark, Margo dithered at her typewriter and finally produced her mother’s biography. “This is not Mommie Dearest,” she explains. “My life wasn’t like that. This is as close as anyone will get to a book about our family.”
In it she traces the entwined lives of identical twins Esther Pauline “Eppie” and Pauline Esther “Popo” Friedman of Sioux City, Iowa, who shared the same bed, toys and chums, at 21 married in a lavish double ceremony, and even honeymooned together. Then Eppie debuted as Ann Landers, Popo became Dear Abby, and their celebrated feud began. Margo also poignantly chronicles her parents’ 1976 divorce after 36 years. “It was the saddest thing I’ve ever had to live through,” she says. “My own difficulties pale by comparison.” A week after the split, her father married a 28-year-old English nurse. “We essentially have not spoken in six years,” says Margo. “But I don’t grieve over it because my first 35 years with him were wonderful.”
Her father, Jules Lederer, started in the millinery business, went on to sell pots and pans door-to-door—the family had lived in eight cities by the time Margo was 7—and wound up founding Budget Rent-a-Car. He and Eppie pampered their precocious only child. “My mother thought I was perfect, or would be,” Margo says. “Whether or not she knew it, she was raising me to be a geisha, which is what makes me happy.”
Margo briefly let her carefully coiffed hair down while at Brandeis University, where she dabbled in American history and rubbed shoulders with radicals, but she dropped out before graduation to marry investment banker John Coleman. It lasted eight years. “I went into psychotherapy to get out of the marriage,” she says, “and learned that I was not as fragile as I thought, that I could work and pick a suitable husband.” Not quite: Her second one, undertaker Jules Furth, was another Mr. Wrong.
The eldest son of a stockbroker and a Southern belle, Ken was a super-achiever in Manhasset, Long Island: He sang in the church choir, shone in school musicals, and was so fleet in basketball that one sportswriter tagged him “the White Shadow” (though Ken says he was better known as “Stork”). In his first audition, at 22, when asked to sing something light from his repertoire, he warbled I Enjoy Being a Girl and earned a summer at the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport, Long Island. At Amherst he won a fellowship to the Yale School of Drama, and by 26 he had made his Broadway debut in Promises, Promises, starred opposite Liza Minnelli in Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, and won a Tony for Child’s Play. In 1973, on his way to his first TV series, the short-lived Adam’s Rib, he married actress Louise Sorel. They divorced three years later. “Obviously, I wasn’t emotionally ready to get married again,” he observes. “But after two years of therapy I learned that I truly wanted to be with a woman and have a family.” Says Margo: “He was very brave to marry the Zsa Zsa Gabor of Lake Michigan.”
Now, Margo says, “Our biggest problem is that I sleep late [noon]. In the morning he likes to cuddle, pat me and snuggle, and I can’t sleep. Would the women of America think this is a problem—to have this wonderful man who touches you too much?” Ken says he turned down three series offers to settle his family in Connecticut. He recently wrapped the film Second Thoughts with Lucie Arnaz, due this fall. He’s also doing some summer stock and has been offered the NBC miniseries lead in Sidney Sheldon’s Rage of Angels. “I’m sure I’ll do another series, but not until we’re ready,” he says. “I mean, it’s like going to war.”
On any battlefront, Margo plans to be his ally. “We came from different places, but we are very much alike,” she says. “We each wanted one perfect other, and we had a collection of clinkers between us, but we found it.” Or, as she had it inscribed on a key-chain presented to Ken the night he gave her the ring: Equus, Schmequus—I owe the horse a lot.