Columnist Ann Landers — a friend and voice of reason

NEW YORK — Ann Landers, who died Saturday at the age of 83, was a Jewish mother who "really wanted to make things better," her daughter said.

Ann Landers, whose real name was Esther "Eppie" Lederer, wrote the most widely syndicated advice column in the world for more than 40 years and felt a strong connection to the Jewish faith.

"I am very much aware of my Jewishness," she once said, "I was brought up to be proud of my Jewishness. I've always felt I've been blessed.

"I'm not devout, but I do light Sabbath candles every Friday at sundown and say a Hebrew prayer. I haven't missed Yom Kippur service since I was 18. I feel close to my God, I am a religious person," Lederer said.

She died in her home outside of Chicago of multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow, a disease she was diagnosed with in January.

One of a pair of advice-giving twins — her sister, Pauline, is the columnist known as "Dear Abby" — Lederer was born in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1918. Her father immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1908.

She married Budget-Rent-A-Car corporation founder Jules Lederer and moved to Eau Claire, Wis. in 1939, where she pursued an interest in politics and was elected chair of the county's Democratic Party.

Lederer, who would draw on a vast array of political contacts throughout her career, used these contacts in 1955 to become Ann Landers — a column that already existed at the Chicago Sun-Times.

Asked to respond to several letters after she applied for the job, Lederer contacted Justice William Douglas for a legal quote and Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, the president of Notre Dame, in regard to a question on marriage to win her first, and only, job in journalism.

Her career began with the Chicago Sun-Times; since 1987, she worked for the Chicago Tribune.

Lederer's acclaimed, no-nonsense column was consistently printed in 1,200 newspapers with a total of 90 million readers.

"She was like America's mother, and I'm not alone in my sadness," her daughter, Margo Howard, said, "She was about fixing the world. She really cared about people."

Lederer reportedly spent as many as 14 hours a day reading the thousands of letters asking her advice, doing most of her work and contemplating in her 11-room apartment overlooking Lake Michigan.

She once said of her loyal readers, "They don't consider me a stranger. I'm the lady next door, their best friend, the mother they couldn't communicate with before, but they can now. Most of all, I'm a good listener."

Lederer seldom let her audience into her personal life, but in 1975, in the wake of her divorce, Lederer gave readers a glimpse into her emotions, and drew 50,000 supportive responses.

Her divorce has been given some degree of credit for a liberalization in her attitudes — until that time, she had advised couples to stay together for the sake of the children.

She was known for a no-nonsense approach — "MYOB" (Mind Your Own Business) and "40 lashes with a Wet Noodle" were two of her classic bits of advice.

"Strong opinion, quick wit. She was a friend and voice of reason, not only to Chicago, but people throughout the nation for many decades," Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said.

Constantly in the public eye, she had a few scandals. In 1982, she admitted to using some recycled letters in recent columns, and a 1995 interview in which she called Pope John Paul II a "Polack" drew widespread criticism. She later apologized for the comment.

Aside from her work as a journalist, Lederer served as a board member for the Harvard Medical School, the Yale Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago — in 1985, receiving the Albert Lasker Public Service Award for pressuring Congress to approve millions of dollars in funding for cancer research.

President Carter appointed her to a six-year term on the board of the National Cancer Institute in 1980, and President Reagan appointed her to the President's Commission on Drunk Driving the following year.

Lederer and her sister had a celebrated rivalry, but they reconciled somewhat in recent years.

In addition to her sister and daughter, Lederer is survived by three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.