1918 – 2002
For over forty years the Ann Landers advice column helped lovelorn teens, confused parents, couples on the brink of divorce, grieving widows and a myriad of others who were in need of counsel. Translated into over twenty languages, Esther Pauline Friedman Lederer, known professionally as Ann Landers, reached millions of readers with her clear, witty and sometimes sarcastic column.
Her parents, Abraham and Rebecca Friedman, were Russian Jewish immigrants who arrived in the United States in 1908. They moved to Sioux City, Iowa, in 1910, where two daughters, Helen and Dorothy, were born. Like many Russian Jewish immigrants of that time, the family slowly earned enough money to leave the poorer section of the city, first by peddling chickens from a pushcart and then, by 1911, by amassing enough earnings to buy into a grocery store. When Esther Pauline was born on July 4, 1918, her parents owned a small house in Sioux City. When she was in her early teens, her father became part owner of a movie and vaudeville theater. Active in the Jewish community of Sioux City, Abraham Friedman’s civic stature grew as he acquired other theaters and diversified his business interests.
Nicknamed “Eppie,” Esther Pauline was born only seventeen minutes apart from her twin, Pauline Esther (later known as columnist Abigail Van Buren). The two girls experienced many important events simultaneously, participated in similar activities, and shared the same interests. The twins attended Central High (during their four years there they were refused admission to an all-girls club because of their religion), graduated in 1936, and matriculated at a small college nearby. After her twin became engaged to Mort Phillips, Esther Pauline met her future husband, Jules Lederer. She and her sister had a double wedding in their Sioux City synagogue on July 2, 1938. The Lederers had one daughter, Margo, and were divorced in 1975. Ann Landers made her impending divorce public to her readership on what would have been her thirty-sixth wedding anniversary.
Because Jules Lederer was a salesman, the family traveled a great deal. They lived in New Orleans until Lederer was offered a job in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. There, Esther Lederer became active in politics, serving as Democratic Party county chair. After moving to Chicago, she contacted family friend Wilbur Munnecke, the executive and business manager of Field Enterprises, in order to inquire whether Sun Times columnist Ann Landers needed any assistance. Fortuitously, the Sun Times was in the process of searching for Ann Landers’s replacement. Esther Lederer offered the Sun Times a unique departure from its traditional advice column. Because of her extensive political and volunteer contacts, she was able to request advice from experts in all fields, to which she then referred in her responses. When she became the new Ann Landers, the column had already been in existence for twelve years.
As Ann Landers, Esther Lederer acted as both counsel and advocate for her readership. Openly opposing racism and antisemitism, she devoted many columns to fighting injustices in urban, rural, and national settings. Liberal in her politics but conservative in her morality, Lederer’s understanding of the public and private roles of women changed over time. While in the 1950s she encouraged women to stay at home and to accept, if necessary, their husbands’ infidelities, by the 1970s she was urging women to find worthwhile occupations and was a champion of liberalized abortion laws.
Three months after Lederer assumed her position at the Sun Times, her twin began her own advice column, “Dear Abby.” While the sisters attempted to curb any acrimony between them, their competition intensified after Esther Lederer signed a one-year contract with the Sun Times and appeared on What’s My Line?. In 1956, her sister allegedly offered “Dear Abby” at a reduced rate to the Sioux City Journal, as long as it promised not to run “Ann Landers.” Life magazine informed the public of their acrimony in April 1958. While the sisters publicly reconciled in 1964, their competition continued.
By 1959, “Ann Landers” had already received 1,004 speaking invitations and made 101 appearances in thirty cities, and had visited China. Active in national and local causes, such as the Christmas Seal Campaign of which she was national chair in 1963, Esther Lederer championed the rights of children and women. Because of her professional and volunteer work, and her diverse and loyal readership, she succeeded in publicizing issues that were of concern both to Jewish and non-Jewish women.
Esther Lederer died on June 22, 2002, at her home in Chicago, of multiple myeloma. She was eighty-three years old.
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