Stage Play on Ann Landers' Life Opens This Week

By: Leanne Italie How do you turn a twangy Texas blonde into a stylish, Midwestern media superstar?

It's all about the hair.

When Judith Ivey takes the stage as Esther Pauline "Eppie" Lederer -- better known as Ann Landers -- at the Cherry Lane Theatre on Wednesday, she takes it with the legendary advice columnist's black bouffant firmly in place.

"The hair's right," Ivey assures us.

So is the distinctive cadence of Lederer's native Iowa, her home study on Chicago's swanky Gold Coast, and the mammoth IBM Selectric typewriter that serves as Ivey's only costar in "The Lady With All the Answers."

It's the two-time Tony winner's reprise as the 50-something Eppie during a professionally precarious moment in 1975 -- how to break the news to millions of readers that she's divorcing Budget Rent-a-Car mogul Jules Lederer. This a decade after Eppie first began to soften her "cure it, don't kill it" advice to married couples in crisis, driven by the home-fires discord of her only child, four-times-married Margo Howard.

On stage, Lederer describes herself as once being "so anti-divorce, my dateline could be Vatican City," but what to do when your husband of nearly 36 years falls in love with a woman younger than said daughter?

"Her husband reveals to her that he's been having an affair for three years, and she didn't pick up on it, and she said, 'That's it.' That was the end of the marriage," Ivey said, "but they remained friends."

Only rarely did Lederer write of herself or her family as Ann Landers. A notable exception was her 1969 tribute to her one and only husband for their 30th wedding anniversary. Another was the divorce column that CSI writer and co-producer David Rambo took hold of with Howard's blessing in this one-woman play, first done in regional theater in 2005.

Lederer received 32,000 letters of support in response to the divorce column. She offered her readers few details, praising her hard-drinking ex as a loving, supportive, and "extraordinary man."

"How did it happen that something so good for so long didn't last forever? The lady with all the answers does not know the answer to this one," Lederer wrote. She promised not to comment further and asked her editors to leave white space at the end of the shorter-than-usual column "as a memorial to one of the world's best marriages that didn't make it to the finish line."

In more than 47 years of writing Ann Landers in syndication, Lederer built her empire to more than 1,250 newspapers. At her peak, her readers numbered 90 million. The immensely well-connected and well-dressed Eppie, who died in 2002 at age 83, was the identical twin of "Dear Abby" creator Pauline Esther Phillips. The two had some rough years of estrangement as they competed. But it was Lederer who first tapped the marrow of the human psyche, starting in 1955.

Her primary predecessor as Ann Landers wrote anonymously, but Eppie thought it better for business to go public as the person behind advice. She did it in March 1956 on What's My Line? as she signed in as Mrs. Jules Lederer, and through near-constant speaking engagements that had her traveling the country for much of her life.

An active Democrat, Lederer won a letter-writing competition to become the new Ann Landers after she moved to Chicago from Eau Claire, Wis. As Landers, she took on teen sex, suicide, gun control - and the proper way to hang a roll of toilet paper - in responses to letters she hand-picked from 2,000 or more that poured in daily.

For years, her home newspaper was the Chicago Sun-Times, but she and many others defected to the Chicago Tribune after Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times in 1984.

Writing seven days a week, Lederer often called on experts she knew personally in a variety of fields -- religion, medicine, politics, the law - to hone her responses. She worked "vampire" hours, often reading her mail as she soaked in the bathtub, using a wide ledge she had specially built for the task.

"She was all about service. This meant something to her," said her daughter, Margo Howard, who has been married since 2001 to a Boston cardiac surgeon and took up advice-writing herself.

Jules Lederer suffered huge financial losses after selling off Budget, and Eppie supported him after the split, Howard said. He died in 1999 at age 81, having fathered a child with the woman for whom he left Eppie.

"He wanted both of them. He wanted the young chickie, and he wanted Eppie," Howard said. "He was crazy about Mother until the end, and she had warm feelings for him. She always looked after him."


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