It has been a month since the death of her mother, Eppie Lederer, known to millions as advice columnist Ann Landers, and Cambridge, Mass., writer Margo Howard is doing what her mother would have wanted: answering all the sympathy cards and e-mail she can.
She has penned dozens of thank yous _ to Bill Clinton, the Crystal Cathedral's Rev. Robert H. Schuller and investment mogul Warren Buffett and his wife, Susan, who sent Howard chocolates and a tape of music to soothe her frazzled nerves. Then there were the e-mail messages, hundreds of them, to "Dear Prudence," the saucy weekly advice column Howard writes for the Web site slate.msn.com. For days, Howard sat at her laptop and typed 1,000 notes by e-mail, thanking people _ most of them strangers _ for their kind words.
"You think I'm compulsive?" Howard asks, hand on hip, gazing at the letters stacked on the cream rug of her home office. "This I got from the old lady. You know, get it done. She always used to say, "If you want something done, ask a busy person.' "
The irony is that Howard famously prides herself on being the opposite: not disciplined, not industrious, not ambitious. The only child of two business titans (her father, Jules Lederer, founded Budget Rent a Car), Howard, 62, calls herself a "good-time girl" who has always been more interested in socializing and traveling than buckling down to work. When her mother asked if she wanted to take over the Ann Landers column after she was gone, Howard turned her down flat.
"Honey," she told her mother, "I don't want to work that hard."
And so today, after nearly half a century, the Ann Landers column, a staple of 1,200 newspapers nationwide, will grind to a halt as the stock of columns that Landers wrote before she died June 22 runs out.
Yet Howard may still assume her mother's mantle _ in her fashion and on her terms. Her "Dear Prudence" is part of a syndicated package now being offered to newspapers as a replacement for "Ann Landers." Two-thirds of the papers that carried her mother's column have signed on. The St. Petersburg Times is not among them.
At this point, the distributor of the package, Creators Syndicate, says there's no way of knowing how many papers will run "Dear Prudence." The package also includes the daily "Annie's Mailbox," written by two of Lederer's longtime associates, and reprints of original Ann Landers columns. But even if only a fraction of the papers decide to publish the package, the deal could introduce Howard's cheeky take on etiquette (what to do when Dad moves in with your twentysomething best friend), romance (to fake an orgasm or not to fake?), and office politics (what to do about a shoe-sniffing co-worker) to an audience of millions.
But will Middle America welcome _ or even want _ Howard's brash brand of postmodern advice? And will newspapers, scrambling to attract younger readers with edgier writing and features, see "Dear Prudence" as a way to achieve that goal?
"Middle America was actually stretched by her mother," says New Republic editor in chief Martin Peretz, who has known Howard since both attended Brandeis University. "I'm not going to say Eppie was a revolutionary, but she legitimized certain sensible positions."
Howard, he says, could have a different allure: "Her wit will stretch people."
Legacy and controversy
Howard says she doesn't care about newspaper deals or syndication packages. She says she will keep writing for Slate, the online magazine bankrolled by Microsoft, just as she has for the past three years. The syndicate, she says, can take it from there.
But if she claims to be laissez-faire about her career, she is fiercely protective of her mother's legacy _ and turf _ as revealed in a recent well-publicized dustup with her cousin, Jeanne Phillips.
Phillips is the daughter of Lederer's twin sister, Pauline, a.k.a. Abigail Van Buren, whose competing "Dear Abby" column ignited a bitter decadeslong feud between the sisters _ one that ultimately led to the estrangement of their daughters as well.
The latest skirmish began when Jeanne Phillips, who has worked on "Dear Abby" since the mid 1980s, appeared on Larry King Live in the wake of her aunt's death.
While the cameras rolled, she took issue with Lederer's decision not to reveal to readers that she had cancer, calling it "a tragedy." The battle further intensified when Phillips distributed a "Farewell to Eppie" letter free of charge to newspapers nationwide, including those that run Ann Landers rather than "Dear Abby."
Infuriated, Howard roared back in the press, calling her cousin's move a "land grab" for new clients. (Phillips would not comment for this story.)
"I never would have expected or wanted the feud part two," Howard said, sitting on a suede couch in the art-filled Memorial Drive condominium she shares with her fourth husband, cardiac surgeon Ronald Weintraub.
"But what happened with (Phillips) _ it's one of the few times in my life where I have felt righteous anger. She took issue _ on television, yet _ with my mother's choice of how to spend her last days. I find this so audacious. The other thing was, she was using it as a sales tool for her column."
But the most curious issue, Howard says, was Phillips' statement that she has been writing "Dear Abby" since 1987. "So the question is, where's Waldo?" Howard says. "You know, where has her mother been? Nobody has really heard from her or talked to her. So Jeanne has taken this to a place where I don't think she wants to go."
If so, Howard isn't ready to go to that place, either, because she stops short of saying anything more specific about her aunt's health. Meanwhile, a statement released by Phillips' camp after the clash did little to smooth ruffled feathers. Though it explained that Phillips had been scheduled to appear on CNN's Larry King Live before her aunt's death, it went on to lump Howard in with other "Dear Abby" competitors.
No assertion could have been more loaded.
"Maybe it's my personality, maybe it's the reality of the situation, but I am competing with no one," Howard says. "I'm just doing what I do. I write for Slate. I'm a Slate girl. One a week. I'm not a competitor of hers or anyone. I felt I've never had any competitors."
Coy oh boy
If it sounds as though the lady doth protest too much, Howard has plenty of fans (well-known ones, at that) who say that when it comes to her humor and charm, the columnist is indeed without peer.
"She has always been very bubbly, very gossipy, full of fun," says Slate co-founder Michael Kinsley, who was Howard's editor at the New Republic and hired her as advice columnist for Slate. "It makes her column fun to read, irrespective of whether you think it's good advice."
Jodie Allen, who also worked with Howard at Slate, recalls taking her to a garden party in Washington, D.C., a few months ago. "In no time at all, she had a circle of admirers around her," says Allen, now an editor at U.S. News & World Report. "She seemed to know more people than I did. It was so Margo."
The dense photo gallery in her home tells a similar story. In one shot, Howard is pictured between old buddy Peretz and Henry Kissinger. Another is of her youngest daughter (she has three children) standing with Robert Redford. A photo of her third husband, Tony Award winner and TV star Ken Howard (The White Shadow, Dynasty), sits near the back, while one of late Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel, who persuaded Howard to try writing in the first place, has a special place near the front.
Not everyone has been a fan. Before Howard moved to Slate, Boston magazine rather unceremoniously pulled the plug on a breezy column she penned called "Lunch on the Left Bank." But that was nothing compared with the furious response she got to a snarky article she once wrote for TV Guide. The story, written in the mid '80s about her six-week visit to Harpers Ferry, prompted the then-secretary of state of West Virginia to call the piece "idiotic trash" and label Howard a "neurotic bubblehead."
That theme is surprisingly common. Despite her friendships with brainy members of the media elite, Howard has always played up her image as a beautiful screwball. That persona was surely more at home in the 1950s, when Howard was growing up in Eau Claire, Wis., and Chicago, than it is today. Nevertheless, Howard says she can't, or won't, give it up. It has been a far too effective entree.
"It's great fun to be the ditzy blond," she says, grinning. "I sort of can't get rid of it. I like it. And I think it made it easy for me to move to Cambridge because I wasn't intellectual competition for anybody."
Peretz dismisses Howard's conclusion but agrees that her faux innocence has allowed to leap where others fear to tread.
"She was always saying things that in truly polite company you wouldn't say and then seeming to not understand why people were shocked," he says. "Of course, she perfectly well understood."
Howard also understands how to listen to people, including the lovelorn, desperate, annoyed or just plain confused seekers of her advice. The responses in "Dear Prudence," though amusing and tart, are rarely flip. She seems to genuinely ponder all the weird, off-the-wall questions she receives _ especially the questions about relationships, something Howard has had more than a little experience with.
She and Weintraub married in December; she refuses to see her history with men as being littered with failures, only "mistaken alliances." Now that she has found "a quality, wonderful man," she thinks she finally has it figured out.
"If you're my age," Howard says, "with my history and my experience, if you can't figure it out, just forget about it."