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The Ann Landers column, 1955–2002

It was hard to avoid the Ann Landers column. Even people who couldn’t stand it, read it. And like all American institutions in popular culture — Norman Rockwell, Tupperware, Girl Scout cookies — the advice columnist inspired immense affection, which was only heightened by the fact that Landers’s carefully constructed, no-nonsense image often bordered on self-parody or camp. Her snappy rejoinders like "wake up and smell the coffee" and "a hundred lashes with a wet noodle" entered the everyday vocabulary of all Americans, and even Saturday Night Live’s caricature of her was so familiar as to be a form of hyperrealism.

Let there be no doubt: as Ann Landers, Esther or "Eppie" (Friedman) Lederer was an American icon. Yet for all the affection and high praise showered on her in the obituaries, no one has had much to say about her own self-regard as, at bottom, "a nice Jewish girl from Sioux City, Iowa." If anything, her column grew out of a distinctively Jewish-American tradition of compassionate, liberal, and bluntly honest sexual-advice giving. Indeed, of the many gifts imported to American shores through Eastern-European Jewish culture, good, forthright, honest sex advice has to rank right up there with bagels, the Marx brothers, and psychoanalysis.

Any history of modern Jewish sex advice — the Hebrew Bible is crammed with it, of course, as attested by all those "begats" — would have to begin with Freud. More than anyone else, he gave us not just the basic vocabulary and intellectual structures for thinking about human sexuality, but, more important, the permission to talk about what we do — or think about doing — in bed. If Landers was indebted to the Father of Psychoanalysis, with her simple (and sometimes simplistic) Freudian insights, her brittle style and no-nonsense approach came directly from the wildly successful "Bintel Briefs" column that appeared from the turn of the century to the 1940s in the Jewish Daily Forward, New York’s socialist daily Yiddish newspaper. "Bintel Briefs" — literally, "a packet of letters" — chronicled the emotional, romantic, and sexual lives of the Lower East Side’s Jewish immigrants. The letters were often long, complicated affairs — a newly arrived, agnostic, anarchist boarder has fallen in love with his landlady’s older religious sister and is keeping the Sabbath only to continue the romance; is this wrong? — were answered, anonymously, by Abraham Cahn, the paper’s publisher and editor, with straightforward wisdom. This is America, Cahn would say, and we are free to believe what we like, but not free to deceive others about our beliefs. Cahn quoted the Talmud with common sense, warned against capitalists, and understood that figuring out sex and love in this new country was as necessary as finding gainful employment and good borscht.

In the 1930s, when mainstream-Protestant sob sisters like Dorothy Dix (pseudonym of Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer) and Beatrice Fairfield (pseudonym of Marie Manning) generally addressed affairs of the heart by advising proper social protocol — the rule of thumb here is that Jews write about sex and WASPS write about etiquette — Dr. Maurice Chideckel wrote widely syndicated columns about the sexual problems of his patients. A social progressive on race and reproductive freedom, Chideckel believed — along with ’20s-era sexologists Magnus Hirschfeld and Havelock Ellis — that more information about sex was better than none, and that the worst sexual perversion was repression.

Cahn’s "Bintal Briefs" and Chideckel’s sex writings drew on two Jewish-American traditions. The first was the plainspokenness of an immigrant population that had no need for middle-class, euphemistic niceties or conventions. The second was a grounding in Halacha, or Jewish law (though popularized and often nontraditional interpretations of it), which held that tending to the physical body’s demands was as important as addressing moral and spiritual needs.

It was out of these traditions that the "Ann Landers" we knew and loved was born in 1955, when Eppie Lederer took over the pre-existing column and made it her own. Landers gave advice about nosy in-laws and bad manners, but it was her straight talk about sex that made her name and established her popularity. Never one to fear grappling with taboo topics (she wrote about homosexuality in the 1950s) or to ignore the realities of actual lives (family planning and birth control were just plain sensible, by her lights), she responded to her inquiries with honesty, common sense, and — most important — respect for oneself and for others.

Ann Landers often seemed too cute, too mainstream, to be hip, but the reality is that while she honed her style in the 1950s and early 1960s, her generous regard for human sexuality helped give birth to new — far more explicit — sexual-advice givers, such as Dr. David Reuben (Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex) and that spry, grandmotherly celebrant of all-out eroticism Dr. Ruth Westheimer. (This formula was so potent that shortly after Lederer’s Ann Landers columns appeared, her sister Pauline began writing the identical-in-tone, competing "Dear Abby" column under the name Abigail Van Buren.) It is a sorry irony that the latest in this line of Jewish sex advisers is Dr. Laura Schlessinger, whose right-wing stances — and insistence that she simply promotes traditional "Jewish values" — might follow the letter, but hardly the spirit, of Halacha.

Writing in the 1950s, Ann Landers occupied a unique position in American culture. In a country undergoing enormous change, she addressed roiling confusions about sex and eroticism, morality, and decency. And to a large degree, she redefined how the broader culture dealt with such issues. Although she may not always have liked how it turned out, her liberal — if plainspoken — attitudes toward sex made an enormous difference to the lives of millions.

Issue Date: June 28, 2002
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