Wake up and smell the coffee, Akron.
If you didn’t heed the advice of Ann Landers, you deserved 10 lashes with a wet noodle.
At the peak of her career, the syndicated columnist was one of the most influential women in the United States, appearing in more than 1,200 newspapers and enjoying a daily readership of more than 90 million people.
When Landers first visited Akron in 1957, though, she was still honing her craft. She had been on the job for only 17 months, starting out with 26 newspapers, when she accepted a speaking engagement at Trinity Lutheran Church at 50 N. Prospect St.
The blue-eyed brunette, 5 feet and 108 pounds, wore a Parisian suit and diamond jewelry, and made a lasting impression when she sat down for an interview with Beacon Journal women’s editor Betty Jaycox and columnist Kenny Nichols.
“She’s pretty, this Ann Landers, as pretty as her picture,” Jaycox wrote. “And more than that, she has crackling wit and deep perception that crops out to spice her column.”
Clearly smitten, Nichols added: “She has the face — rimmed with raven hair — to match the eyes. Going on from there, she has … I mean there’s … Or rather, she is … Well, to wrap it up — WOW!”
Esther “Eppie” Lederer, 37, a native of Sioux City, Iowa, was hired at the Chicago Sun-Times after winning a writing contest when original Ann Landers columnist Ruth Crowley died unexpectedly in 1955.
The Ask Ann Landers column was so popular that McNaught Syndicate had Lederer’s twin sister, Pauline Phillips, write a similar column called Dear Abby in 1956 under the name of Abigail Van Buren, creating a long rift between the siblings.
Ann Landers preferred to be introduced as “Mrs. Lederer” in those early years. Her husband, Jules Lederer, was a Chicago businessman who later co-founded Budget Rent a Car.
So tiny that she had to stand on a crate to see over the podium, Landers spoke against teenagers going steady, interfaith couples marrying and married couples divorcing.
“I believe and hope that a person who makes a success of their personal lives is qualified to advise others,” she said. “How could I tell others how to hold their marriages together if I couldn’t make a success of my own?”
She was against teenage relationships for two reasons: Boys and girls who go steady exclude themselves from others, and going steady “breeds an intimacy that is not healthy.”
“Don’t marry for looks or money, but rather for understanding, companionship, sincerity and potential,” she told young people. “Look for someone who is interested in you, and know that love is sharing not taking.”
Although she acknowledged that some mixed marriages worked out, she cited 1950s studies that found children were more likely to live in broken homes if their parents were from different religions.
Landers warned that there were three risky stages in a marriage when couples were more prone to split up.
“The first is eight or nine months after marriage when young couples have had the first blush of romance wear off and haven’t yet adjusted to each other,” she said.
“The second period, for some reason, is after they are married seven years …
“The third period is the ‘dangerous 40s,’ and the dangerous 40s usually last until the middle of the ‘flashy 50s.’ ”
Usually, husbands with wandering eyes were to blame, but wives also were partly at fault, Landers said.
“In her middle 40s, a wife occasionally withdraws from her husband, lacks interest in what he says and does, and for physiological reasons loses her interest in appearance, in her reading, in her home,” she said. “So the husband looks for companionship elsewhere.”
Over the next few years, Landers returned repeatedly to Northeast Ohio to give lectures. She spoke at Old Trail School, Wadsworth High School, the Akron City Club, Portage Country Club, the University Club, Polsky’s Department Store and Sheraton Mayflower Hotel.
“I’ve got a warm spot in my heart for Akron,” she admitted.
As her readership grew to 300 newspapers, she received 16,000 letters per month and had five secretaries. It cost $25,000 a year for postage and phone calls to answer letters.
Landers peppered her talks with humor, citing excerpts from some favorite letters:
• “My parents are driving me nuts. They don’t realize that at 15 I’m a grown woman.”
• “My husband hasn’t kissed me in seven years, but he just shot a man who did.”
• “Why don’t you mind your own business? My girl and I were getting along fine until she wrote to you and you advised her to cut down on the smooching.”
During a 1961 lecture at the Mayflower Sheraton, Landers spoke out against a “one-eyed monster called television that threatens to produce a generation without vocal cords.”
She worried that “our Madison Avenue, sex-oriented culture” with its “relentless barrage of provocative pictures and slogans” was creating premature desires in adolescents.
Landers urged parents not to be too lenient. She said it was a mistake to give kids everything they wanted.
“Pay attention to your children,” she said. “They are this nation’s hope for tomorrow.”
Landers returned to the Akron area several more times over the next two decades.
By the late 1970s, she had more than 60 million readers and was packing in crowds at E.J. Thomas Hall in Akron and Malone College in Canton. She also knew more about divorce since she and her husband had split up in 1975.
Her thinking had evolved since her first lectures in the 1950s. Her column, which she described as “a mirror of life,” reflected topics such as birth control, impotence, women’s liberation and gay rights.
However, she said the column that produced the most responses was on the proper way to hang toilet paper. Families still debate that one.
“Are kids any worse today than they were 25 years ago?” she mused in Akron. “They are different. It’s a different world. It is not fair to judge kids by 25-year-old standards.”
Still, she thought parental permissiveness had been damaging to a whole generation.
“Our kids have been become polished debaters, arguing their cases. Parents don’t say, as ours did, ‘You can’t because I said you can’t’ to close an argument.”
Speaking before the Akron Press Club at Tangier restaurant in 1979, she said she had no plans to retire.
“But I hope when I get addled and out of touch, people will let me know.”
After dispensing generations of wisdom, Ann Landers died in 2002 at age 83. Today, the Beacon Journal publishes Dear Abby, written by Abigail Van Buren’s daughter Jeanne Phillips. Her mother, Pauline, died in January 2013 at age 94.
After you wake up and smell the coffee, enjoy these final thoughts culled from Ann Landers’ local lectures:
• “Don’t envy the family next door. You don’t know what’s happening there. They may be envying you.”
• “If you’re ever mugged on the street, don’t yell help; yell fire. Nobody is interested in going to a mugging, but a lot of people like to go to a good fire.”
• “We’re all destined to be unhappy at some time during our lives. Anybody who is happy all the time is nuts.”
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.