What would Ann Landers say about the feud between her daughter and advice columnist Amy Dickinson?

Media criticism.
Feb. 5 2009 6:15 PM

What Would Ann Landers Advise?

Ann's daughter, advice columnist Margo Howard, gets ugly with advice columnist Amy Dickinson.

Ann Landers. Click image to expand.
Eppie Lederer, aka Ann Landers

Syndicated advice columnist Margo Howard slapped syndicated advice columnist Amy Dickinson with an open letter yesterday, accusing her of exploiting her mother, Esther "Eppie" Pauline Friedman Lederer, who wrote a syndicated advice columnist under the name "Ann Landers" for almost 47 years until she died in 2002.

Dickinson started writing an advice column for the Chicago Tribune, Landers' "home" newspaper, in 2003 and drew barbs from readers.

Howard accuses Dickinson of having "allowed people, if not encouraged them," to consider Dickinson "the new Ann Landers" during recent appearances on Good Morning America and The View. Howard writes:

Well, you are not the "new" Ann Landers because there is no "new" Ann Landers. It is a copyrighted name and trademark, and what that means is that no one else can use it—not to write under, and not to promote themselves.

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Dickinson tells Editor & Publisher's Joe Strupp that she's never billed herself as the "new Ann Landers" and cringes when she's introduced that way. "I can't correct the lead-in."

Dickinson sought to distance herself from Landers from the beginning of her entry into the advice racket. In a 2003 interview with the New York Times' Deborah Solomon, Dickinson fielded the opening question—"What's it like to be called the next Ann Landers?"—directly and competitively:

It is true that my column is replacing the Ann Landers column, but it's a whole new venture. It's the same format, but it's funnier and snappier and might be more fun to read. Without a doubt, it will be more entertaining.

Dickinson continued in this vein. "I always found the entertainment value came more from the questions than the [Landers] answers," she said. Declaring that she had nothing in common with Landers, Dickinson said, "I've been leading a really average life. She had a chauffeur. She lived in this palatial apartment, like 14 rooms, on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. She was the first diva ever! But I am a single mother who grew up on a farm in upstate New York. I ride the bus to work."

Landers fans took umbrage. How could they not? One letter-writer to the New York Times spoke for them by informing Dickinson that it was "gauche to dis her predecessor, especially when she is no longer with us."

I have no advice columnist in this fight. I've met Dickinson a couple of times, but I've never read her column. Howard authored Slate's "Dear Prudence" advice column for a number of years, but I didn't read it, either. Howard and I never worked together directly, but whenever we bumped into each other at Slate retreats and parties, we got along like nitro and glycerin. Many innocent bystanders were injured in the blasts.

As Howard and Dickinson work toward a resolution of their dispute, I would like to add a relevant debate point. Howard concludes her open letter with this shot:

By law, the only person who would have been able to become "the new Ann Landers" was me. And that was nothing I chose to do. You see, dear, even I knew that there could only be one Ann Landers.

Only one Ann Landers? Howard knows full well that Eppie Lederer was the second Ann Landers. The first Ann Landers was a registered nurse named Ruth Crowley, who was writing the syndicated Ann Landers column for the Chicago Sun-Times at the time of her death in 1955. * Rick Kogan, author of the 2003 book America's Mom: The Life, Lessons, and Legacy of Ann Landers,gives Crowley her due. He writes:

In the late 1940s, some newspaper syndicates had stopped offering advice columns altogether, and those columnists who remained in the field were far from being household names. One of the few who was well-known was Ann Landers, whose real name was Ruth Crowley.

Many Lederer obituaries (New York Times, Independent, Chicago Tribune, Associated Press) acknowledge that she was the second Landers. According to the obituary that appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Lederer's first paper, Crowley "originated the 'Your Problems' advice column under the pseudonym Ann Landers in the Chicago Times in the 1940s." When Crowley died in 1955, Lederer won a competition to become the newspaper's new advice-giver. She hit big. The Sun-Times reports that under Crowley the column never ran in more than 26 newspapers. Within the first 18 months of her tenure, Lederer boosted the number to 110.

Lederer was less hung up on the whole "Ann Landers" identity than her daughter is, if a column Lederer wrote in the early 1990s is any guide. In the 1990s, when a longtime reader of "Dear Ann Landers" sent a letter criticizing some decades-old advice that had appeared in the column, Lederer wrote, "I started writing this column on October 16, 1955. That was 37 years ago. The 'Ann Landers' who answered your letter was Ruth Crowley, who died in 1955."

******

I read only one advice column: "What's Your Problem?" If you know of any better advice venue, send the link to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Ann in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Correction, Feb. 6, 2009: The original verison of this article misidentified the newspaper in which Ruth Crowley's "Ann Landers" column appeared. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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