The centennial of advice columnist Ann Landers' birth is Wednesday. I figured, if I'm ever going to share this story, now is the time to do it.
The limousine she sent to collect me had custom license license plates: "AL 1955."
The "AL" was for Ann Landers, obviously, the owner of the limo. What writer owned a private limo? She did.
And "1955" was the year she stepped out of obscurity and started her column at the Chicago Sun-Times and, shortly thereafter, 1200 other papers. I knew that too, because I had written her obit. I knew everything about her. Or so I felt.
In 1955, she had been a 37-year-old well-to-do housewife and mother who had never held a job or published a word when, new to the city, she walked into editor Larry Fanning's office, looking for work. Her timing was good. Nurse Ruth Crowley, who originated the "Your Problems'' advice column under the pseudonym Ann Landers in the Chicago Times in the 1940s, had just died. The paper was looking for a replacement.
Fanning gave her a series of questions to answer. One of the questions she answered involved walnuts dropping onto a lawn from a neighbor's tree, and in her reply she quoted Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, commenting on the walnut issue.
See here, Fanning said, you can't just make a thing like that up. She told him she hadn't. She knew Douglas, a personal friend, and phoned him. She got the job, and had to go out and apply for a Social Security number, because she had never received a paycheck before.
I don't remember why I wrote her obit. It seemed something worth doing. She was, after all, among the most significant journalists of the 20th century, whose compassion and humanity helped nudge America toward being a more tolerant place. She left the paper just after I arrived. Her office was still painted the same Pepto Bismol pink she must have preferred.
But after you gather that much information about a person, it's hard to keep it contained. Bits of information kept leaking out into my own column.
In 1998, the newspaper asked me to write the story marking the Sun-Times' 50th anniversary, and I tucked in a few sentences about Ann. How she won the job by doing research, consulting experts and writing well. How she didn't always run columns of Q and A, advising husbands whose wives can't cook and wives whose husbands can't be faithful. When Robert Kennedy was shot, she began her column, "Bobby Kennedy is dead. I still can't believe it'' and called for gun control and reduced violence in TV and movies. She marked her 1975 divorce by leaving half the column blank.
So I occasionally let loose a fact or two about her, where appropriate, and she noticed. Which is kinda incredible, because she was famous, her column syndicated to around the country, the world. She started sending me little notes. I remember looking at one, her head floating on the stationery, disembodied like the Wizard of Oz, and thinking, "This is an opportunity."
I didn't realize she wrote those little notes to everybody.
So I wrote her back, thanking her for her kind words, suggesting we have dinner.
A few days later the phone rang. Her secretary.
"Ann doesn't go on dates with strange men," the woman said—she really got her back into that word, "dates," the way a pitcher puts a spin on a ball. "But you may come over for tea."
The Sun-Times was still in the grey trapezoidal barge at 401 N. Wabash. The limo ride to her apartment, immediately east of the Drake Hotel, was a brief one. The doorman waved me in, and I took an elevator to her apartment. I was shown in by a maid, and found myself alone.
The decor was high fashion circa 1964. There was a bronze Dali bust of John F. Kennedy on a plinth. A grand piano in the French Revival style—I had never seen one before, nor have since. A framed front page of the Sioux City Journal from July 4, 1918, the day Esther Paula Friedman—her birth name—was born and, 17 1/2 minutes later, her twin sister. Pauline, who would follow her sisters footsteps and start her own hugely successful advice column under the pen name "Dear Abby."
Eventually Ann showed up, a tiny woman with the best plastic surgery I have ever seen in my life. She was in her 80s, and her cheeks looked like a baby's ass.
We sat on the sofa. I said something, and she replied, in a slightly dentured lisp, "Speak more slowly and come sit by me." She wanted every shred of newspaper gossip I could offer. The tea arrived, with a slice of chocolate cake so fantastic it seared in my memory. It was so moist, it was if it had pudding in it. "This," I thought, "is the cake rich people eat." I asked her about it, and she praised her private chef.
At one point she looked at me closely.
"Why are you here?" she said. Candor seemed the best option.
"I wrote your obit, Ann," I said, explaining that I was interested in the truth of her rocky relationship with her sister, which some portrayed as close, some distant. She told me.
Before I left, she gave me a tour of the place. There were photos of her and Father Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame and her particular friend. And lots of owls—she was a fan of owls. That week, I would buy a copy of the marvelous children's book, "Owl Babies," and send it to her by way of thanks for her time, and for the cake.
After a couple hours it was time for me to leave, and she walked me to the door, and we had an exchange I always treasured.
"Are you friends with Richard Roeper?" she asked.
I admitted that I was.
"We're drinking buddies," I said.
"Why isn't he married?" she asked, then adding, in a rushed semi-whisper. "Is he gay?"
"I don't think so, Ann," I said, grinning.
"You tell him this," she said. "You tell him Ann Landers has this advice for him..."
I stood up a little straighter. It felt like I was getting wisdom straight from the Delphic Oracle.
"...you tell him to figure out his life before it's over."
Very good advice, for him, me and just about anyone.
I promised her I would. And did, rushing to his office, closing the door, and passing along Ann Lander's remarks with the maximum of emphasis and drama. I never saw her again. She passed away in 2003, and the obit I had written was manhandled so much by a colleague that I took no pride in it, which is why it isn't being reprinted here.
But once was enough to make me very glad to have met her.