The world knew her as Ann Landers, but to her only child, Margo, Eppie Lederer was a cherished correspondent whose heartfelt guidance and practical advice saw her through college, marriage, divorce, motherhood, and a journalistic career of her own. Spanning four decades, the letters included here capture both Eppie Lederer’s remarkable zest for life and her keen observations about an America caught up in sweeping political and social change. Here's an excerpt.
I was fifteen when Mother became Ann Landers. The excitement of a burgeoning career was still new, so her letters to me at college reveal the exhilaration of adding client papers, making speeches, and becoming a big-deal newspaperwoman. People have asked me — for decades —how I felt about my mother suddenly taking on a demanding, high-profile job. The truth is that it was like a gift from the gods. Finally, some of her focus was deflected from me. I was never one of those kids who could later complain I received short shrift in the attention department. On the contrary, my mother had always zeroed in on me like a laser. Probably because I was an only child, I was overprotected and the primary object of her concerns, hopes, and fears. I periodically rebelled ... though in reasonably ladylike ways. I was considered “sophisticated” even as a high school girl. I smoked and I drank scotch on the rocks; I was well traveled and a magnet for men. It was all restrained and decorous enough, however, so that Mother never felt she had to lower the boom.
It is fair to say that my mother was ambitious for me, in the sense that she was, in spirit, a stage mother... without the stage. She wanted me to do well and to shine. She was similarly supportive of my father and his business endeavors. He loved to travel, and she never leaned on him to do less of it and spend more time with her. She was positive and optimistic. And when it came to me, she had an all-involved and unstinting love. Starting in college, and all throughout my life, those who knew us best and saw us together would remark that they’d never seen a mother-daughter relationship as close as ours. That closeness is the underpinning of the letters that follow.
In the late ’50s Brandeis was a school for intellectual heavy-hitters. That would not have been me, but I suspect my lack of seriousness was counterbalanced by quite strong board scores, a really good interview with the dean of admissions, and recommendations from Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and then-Senator Hubert H. Humphrey.
This is the last paragraph of a letter from Senator Humphrey to Mother, dated January 24, 1958:
When are you coming to Washington? Tell Margo that I have written a recommendation for her to Brandeis University. She will not only be permitted to enter as a result of that recommendation, but most likely become the Dean of Women or Campus Queen on the day of registration. When Humphrey recommends they are recommended.
Hubert H. [hand-signed]
Hubert H. Humphrey
It worked! There was no offer of Deanship, or reign as Campus Queen, but I was accepted. My academic career can be tracked in the following four years’ worth of letters. Well... not quite four years... and not always having to do with academics. What I now find most interesting is Mother’s sliding scale of supportiveness, acceptance, or motivational browbeating about my various approaches to school. I was going to graduate; I wasn’t going to graduate. Good grades didn’t matter; they did matter.
Mother wanted me to date lots of different people — not choose a special one — but when such a person periodically appeared she was encouraging. She wanted me to take advantage of the social possibilities of the Ivy League, but she also endorsed putting schoolwork first. When it came to my college career, therefore, she was inconsistent and contradictory... but these approaches were indicative of her wish to be supportive. She was, I suspect, more involved with the social aspects of my college life than other girls’ mothers. What I did not understand, at the time, was that my love life was being quarterbacked by a world-recognized expert in Chicago.
SEPTEMBER 20, 1958
Your letter from Boston was wonderful. Yes, I am saving this “gem” for Daddy. He will be home tomorrow morning. He couldn’t get home on an afternoon flight so he must fly all night. (His arms will sure be tired. I told him next time to take a plane.)
I was struck by the neatness and accuracy of your typing. This made me very happy, as I am delighted you are a far better typist than your mother. Also, your phraseology was excellent. I guess it has been a long time since I have read a letter written by you. The last ones were from the camp days, and you have really grown up girl!
Nothing new. I am working like a little beaver... and the house is quiet... and clean. Too quiet — and too clean, if you know what I mean. I have already taken your old leopard flats... maybe for sentimental reasons. Anyway, they are comfy!
Bob the doorman asked if you had left... and when I said yes he expressed real sorrow at not having had the chance to say goodbye. Marshall [the other doorman] is still talking about your nice farewell. Miss Margo is a lovely lady he tells everyone.
Write when you can, doll, and so will I. Fill us in on what’s going on. I am glad you find the roommates congenial. Bravo... and love,
In the following letter, “Martin” is Marty Peretz, a Brandeis senior when I arrived as a freshman. The proverbial “Big Man” on Campus, he was editor of the Justice, the school newspaper, as well as a cause-oriented provocateur. We met during orientation week (of which he was chairman), dated briefly, and maintained a lifelong friendship. Himself the protégé of Max Lerner, a syndicated liberal columnist and an author, Marty essentially made me his Eliza Doolittle, involving me, for the first time, in things intellectual. When I mentioned in my first book that he’d played a big part in my education, he responded in the New Republic (which by then he owned and edited) that he could live without the honor and wanted no credit for my education! This referred to my social pose as a dumb blonde, a persona that later carried over into some of my writing. He was one of my friends who, while we were at school, met my mother and stayed in touch with her over the years.
“Larry” is Larry Fanning, the gifted Sun-Times editor-in-chief for whom Mother first went to work. He became her close friend and, in effect, her journalism school. “The Fan,” or “Lare Bear” as we called him, polished her innate writing skills, helped her shape the column, and made her a star.
Drew Pearson was a famous (and famously gruff) syndicated investigative reporter and muckraker.
Milt Caniff drew the comic strip “Terry and the Pirates.”
OCTOBER 20, 1958
I am at the paper... and wanted to get this note off to you today. Your letter (the long one) was excellent, and showed real thought. I think you are reasoning things out well. I like particularly the notion that you are NOT pushed to make any decisions.
Marty’s piece on the beat generation was excellent. I asked Larry to read it for an objective evaluation and he said the boy is brilliant without a doubt. He also said if he is interested in newspaper work to drop him a line. So, pass it on for all it’s worth — which may be nothing.
I am leaving for Canton and Akron on Thursday... and will be at the Mayflower Hotel Thursday night... Akron... and Friday and Saturday in Canton, Ohio at the Soaper... Last night Drew Pearson called me at home and Daddy answered. He said “This is Drew Pearson. Is Eppie home?” Daddy said “Of course it is. This is President Roosevelt!” Some joke. We didn’t get to accept Drew’s dinner invitation, as we had to go to a party for Milt Caniff. But it was good to talk with him on the phone. He wrote a new book called USA Second Rate Power. Get it. I’LL PAY... LOVE YOU... and am proud of your ability to think things through in a mature and patient way. Also, am very happy that you write to us so often. This demonstrates real consideration for us which is one of the great rewards of being a parent. There is no substitute... and you’ve got it.
I have no idea, now, of what the “jolt” was, but clearly it was of the college-girl-calamity variety. And I have no specific recollection of the professor being sacked, but I was always an enthusiastic acolyte to Marty’s antiauthority actions. He involved me in campus politics, usually opposing the university president, Abe Sachar; the civil-rights movement; and Sane Nuclear Policy, which at first I thought was a group honoring Saint Nuclear. (I’ve had a lifelong proclivity for hearing things wrong.) Although my mother, pre-column, was involved in Democratic politics and anti-Joe McCarthy efforts, before Brandeis I had no real interest in or particular knowledge of public-policy issues.
Hubert Humphrey, from Minnesota, became a family friend when we lived in Wisconsin and Mother was a player in Democratic politics. They first met when she was in the Senate gallery listening to him deliver a speech and sent down a note asking to meet him.
Excerpted from “A Life in Letters” by Margo Howard. Copyright © 2003 by Margo Howard. Published by Time-Warner Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.