Is Amy or Annie an Ann?

By the light of day it makes no sense for the national media to have lined up last week to interview a woman hired to write an advice column in Chicago. But that was a klieg light and not the noon sun shining on Amy Dickinson. The Today show started calling the Chicago Tribune about Dickinson last February, when the New York Times reported that she was the likely choice to succeed Ann Landers. On July 9, the same day the Tribune announced the appointment to its readers, Today had Dickinson on.

Here’s how Katie Couric introduced her: “Eppie Lederer, better known to her millions of fans as Ann Landers, was the world’s most widely read newspaper columnist….And when Lederer died last year, it left a huge void. Well, now, after a year of searching, her home newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, has announced its new advice columnist.”

Later in the day NPR was talking to Dickinson. The first question: “How do you take on a job like this, a job that your predecessor did so famously for 50 years?”

The AP story began, “Newspaper readers who once turned to Ann Landers for advice can now ask Amy,” and went on to say that “Dickinson’s new column will fill a void created by the death” of Lederer.

Seth Mnookin interviewed Dickinson for Newsweek. On-line, the interview was headlined “Ask Away: Amy Dickinson is the new Ann Landers.” Mnookin asked her, “How did you end up getting this job, anyway? It’s not like you can just decide to be the world’s most powerful advice columnist.” (In print, this question was changed to read, “How did the Chicago Tribune choose you to replace the legendary Ann Landers anyway?”) Dickinson didn’t dispute the description, though she had yet to publish a single word of advice in the single newspaper, the Tribune, that will begin carrying her on July 20.

The new Ann Landers? I say to Mnookin.

“If this was simply the appointment of a new advice columnist for the Chicago Tribune,” he explains, “she would not be on the Today show, or The O’Reilly Factor, or any of the other outlets on which she appeared.”

But that is all this is.

No, says Mnookin. He points to the Tribune’s July 9 story introducing Dickinson and reads what editor Ann Marie Lipinski had to say: “Eppie’s passing was a painful loss for readers. Her death created a void and we spent a great deal of time talking with readers about how to, or even if to, fill that void. It didn’t take long to realize that this was something that readers wanted from the Tribune and we were determined to deliver it with a new and distinctive voice.”

Dickinson is that voice, says Mnookin. She’s the “heir” filling the void. “Can you name other major newspapers that have their own advice columnists?” he says. “Historically, the advice columnist at the Chicago Tribune has been a very important position.”

Actually it hadn’t been–until the Tribune lucked onto Ann Landers 15 years ago. But if the Tribune has the world convinced a hallowed torch was just passed, props to the Tribune.

To use the word Dickinson used when I talked to her, it would be “disingenuous” to insist that Ann Landers and Ask Amy have nothing to do with each other. But what line visible to anyone but a publicist can actually be drawn from Ann to Amy?

True enough, the Tribune was once Lederer’s home paper and now it’s Dickinson’s. That’s important to Dickinson, who can be taken seriously by the media as the advice game’s next big star because of the Tribune Company’s promotional muscle. But Ann Landers was huge long before the Tribune took her in; the Tribune was just a place for Lederer to hang her hat. “She had a home paper so her staff would have office space,” says her friend Rick Newcombe, who syndicated her. He points out that Dear Abby, the column Lederer’s twin sister wrote, hasn’t had a home paper for decades.

In the beginning, when a home paper did matter to Ann Landers, home was the Sun-Times. Marshall Field’s paper owned the name and the feature, and hired Lederer in 1955 to keep the column going when the nurse who’d been writing it died. Lederer succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest dreams, and the Field Syndicate was soon peddling her column to newspapers across the country.

Lederer became so completely identified with the Ann Landers name that in 1986 she was able to buy it. That accomplished, in 1987 she took her column across the street to the Tribune.

The Sun-Times and the Field Syndicate had been whiplashed by three owners in three years, one of them Rupert Murdoch. Many of Lederer’s Sun-Times friends had disappeared. The Tribune represented stability. But “the Sun-Times was more of a home to Eppie than the Tribune,” says a former assistant, Kathy Mitchell. “The Tribune has more of a corporate atmosphere. She didn’t come into the office as much. It wasn’t the same as the good old Sun-Times.”

The 1,200 other papers that carried Ann Landers dealt with Creators Syndicate, not the Tribune. Lederer and Newcombe, the son of a former Sun-Times executive, were buddies, and she wanted him to represent her. So in 1987 Newcombe founded Creators with one asset, Ann Landers, which was all he needed to get his company off the ground. When Lederer died in June of last year, it was up to Newcombe to satisfy those 1,200 clients. For the price of Ann Landers he offered them a package of three features: Annie’s Mailbox, a daily advice column written by Mitchell and Marcy Sugar, who’d each worked for Lederer more than 25 years; Dear Prudence, a biweekly advice column written by Lederer’s daughter, Margo Howard; and a weekly “classic” Ann Landers rerun.

Newcombe tells me that Annie’s Mailbox now runs in 700 newspapers (the Tribune carries it on-line), Dear Prudence in 200, the classic in about 100. “That’s 1,000 sales, which is phenomenal,” says Newcombe, whose job is to ballyhoo his own features and defend them against all comers. “Annie’s Mailbox is attracting 10,000 letters and E-mails a week, the same as Ann Landers. That tells me they’re doing everything right. It won’t be long before they’ll have a thousand papers.”

Visit the Creators Syndicate Web site, and you’ll find Annie’s Mailbox touted as the legitimate heir. “One year ago, the nation bid farewell to a beloved icon: Ann Landers. Today, Annie’s Mailbox fills the void….Those are no small shoes to fill….Kathy and Marcy, the longtime Ann Landers editors, are giving [readers] what they crave. ‘They are the perfect pair to continue the tradition of sound, sparkling, tell-it-like-it-is advice,’ said Ann Landers’ daughter, Margo Howard.”

So why isn’t Annie’s Mailbox being celebrated by Katie Couric for its lineage? Sugar says of the Tribune and Amy Dickinson, “They had an empty space, they hired a new advice columnist, and I’m happy for them. We could use more advice in the world. But it has nothing to do with Ann Landers.”

Up to a point, Dickinson agrees. She says she’s not the next Ann Landers and “it’s silly” to think she ever will be. But that said, “this was a very promotable experience. The whole Ann Landers thing is shorthand for ‘We’re launching a new advice column.'” And unless it’s a complete dud in Chicago, Ask Amy will soon be offered to other newspapers by the Tribune Company’s own syndicate, Tribune Media Services, probably in September. Then the game will truly be on.

“My instinct would have been exactly like theirs–to promote her as the next Ann Landers,” says Newcombe. “But upon reflection, I would have thought, uh-oh, this is not right. This will hurt in the long run. People will expect Ann Landers, and they’re not going to get it. They’ll get Amy Dickinson, and you really have to promote Amy Dickinson.”

Tribune features boss James Warren hired Dickinson and has been her friend for years. “We made it clear what we were doing,” he says. “We made it clear that this was only the Chicago Tribune. There was no false advertising. If those guys [the national media] wanted to promote her before she showed up [in the Tribune], it had nothing to do with us.”

The Tribune’s own profile of Dickinson, which was written by Rick Kogan, showed admirable restraint. Eppie Lederer and Ann Landers weren’t even mentioned until the fourth paragraph. The fifth brought the passage that so moved Seth Mnookin, Ann Marie Lipinski’s description of the Tribune’s “painful loss” and decision to fill the “void.” Further along was a reference to the other 1,200 newspapers that carried Ann Landers, and it wasn’t quite made clear that “Ask Amy” won’t start out in any of them.

Late last month Margo Howard got wind of an imminent announcement and wrote Warren. “There was a time I thought Warren and I were friends,” she tells me, “when we used to send each other E-mail signed with two Xs. I sent him a friendly E-mail, because the name belongs to me.”

Her friendly E-mail said, “Jim–I thought if I got to you before the lawyers, things might be simpler. You really need to find a way to promote Amy without the name Ann Landers. You would apparently be using a copyrighted/trademarked name (owned by a trust) as a sales tool.” She included a “snippet” of a memo from her lawyers assessing the concept of a new Ann Landers in terms of trademark infringement and false advertising.

“I guess he went berserk in the newsroom,” says Howard. “I hear he was shouting ‘She’s not going to tell me what to do!’–as if I was the mother person in this and he was the teenager.”

Warren says he passed Howard’s note on to the Tribune legal department.

Did it color the subsequent publicity?

“Nope,” he says. “Nope, nope. Unequivocally no.”

When the Tribune announced it was adding Ask Amy it simultaneously announced it was dropping Howard’s Dear Prudence. Was this punitive?

“No. No. My relationship with Margo has always been terrific,” says Warren. “This was, this was largely–it was editorially driven. Space driven.”

But Howard didn’t know you were dropping Dear Prudence until she read it in Kogan’s article in the Tribune.

“Well,” says Warren, “maybe in the best of all worlds I might have personally given her a call. But it’s not exactly as if, by the note she sent here, she had deeply ingratiated herself with me or anybody else. We informed her syndicate.”

Then the note angered you?

“I’d say I found it more amusing than anything else.”

(Dear Prudence was immediately picked up by the Daily Herald.)

Dickinson knew about Howard’s note to Warren, though she hadn’t read it. “I’m aware that she’s upset,” says Dickinson. “She’s been very forceful, obviously, since her mother’s death, about trying to protect that name. I’ve got a daughter. When I’m dead I want her out there on my behalf swinging a bat. Good for her.”

Nevertheless, Dickinson thinks it’s natural and inevitable that stories about her new column pair her name with Ann Landers. “You can’t not make a reference to the name.”

But would you have taken the job, I ask, if it had meant inheriting the name Ann Landers?

Dickinson thinks about that. “Well, I was out of work at the time,” she says, joking on the square. “I think I might have had a problem with that. I was very clear I didn’t want any pseudonyms. Even though my own name, Amy, fits all too neatly. We were concerned my name was too perfect in a way. Abby. Ann. Amy. Ee-ew. And we kicked around ideas. But I actually think Ask Amy is kind of elegant.”

Eliot Wald

Eliot Wald arrived in Chicago in 1968 to write for the Movement and move it along. Summoned by his old East Village roommate, Abe Peck, he’d dropped out of grad school and joined the Seed, Chicago’s bristling voice of insurrection. Wald wasn’t perfectly suited for the work. Years later he would tell Peck–by then a Medill professor and writing the cultural history Uncovering the Sixties–“I always felt that I wasn’t quite adequate, because I didn’t want to take up the gun and didn’t analyze everything in terms of the Revolution. I was just too loose for a Revolution that was real, real tight.”

The day came when Wald admitted to me that he no longer thought of himself as any sort of insurgent trumpeting at the walls of the establishment.

Why’s that? I asked.

We are the establishment, he said, reminding me of our ages.

The last time Wald arrived in Chicago was this April. He flew in to join his friend Charlie White for an annual rite–the spring draft of their Rotisserie baseball league. The importance of this draft can’t be overstated, and Wald and White were the defending champions. White’s wife, Ellen Hunt, recalls: “Charlie had taken the day off to get ready for the draft that night, but Eliot was so chatty–wanting to give his opinions on guys while Charlie was trying systematically to compute the final stats–Charlie had to tell him he had to go to work so he could work on the draft from his office.”

During that visit many of Wald’s friends gathered with him for dinner at the restaurant they’d known as Riccardo’s when all were young roustabouts. “He came back glowing about the wonderful week,” says his wife, Jane Shay.

Wald felt a little under the weather during the trip. An aching back had nagged at him, and when he got back to Los Angeles he asked a doctor to look at it. Last weekend he died of liver cancer. He was 57.

After the Seed, Wald did an assortment of things. He was a producer at WTTW, working on Soundstage and coming up with the idea for the original Ebert-Siskel show, Sneak Previews. He wrote for the old Daily News and was one of the Reader’s earliest Hot Type columnists. He was the TV critic at the Sun-Times when we became friends. A fire in 1982 left my family without a home; Wald and Shay had just gone to New York because he’d been hired to write for Saturday Night Live, and we lived in their Chicago apartment for six months.

From New York they went on to LA, where Wald wrote movies such as Down Periscope and Camp Nowhere. As he got older the business taught him a lesson he didn’t mind repeating: if you want to pitch a movie in today’s Hollywood, it helps a lot to be 25.

Wald had left Chicago on uncertain terms with some of his Reader friends. The reason was a game of charades, which Wald, in a residual spasm of Movement ferocity, played as total intellectual war. That game “probably foretold that Eliot would leave the midwest for New York and then California,” says executive editor Mike Lenehan. “We were too nice for him.”

The charades game was never forgotten, but the sense of grievance was laid aside. When Lenehan heard a couple of weeks ago that Wald had made a “miraculous bounce back” he flew out to see him. “He was home and happy, his jolly old self,” says Lenehan. They went shopping, and though Wald was a little too weak to stand, he wheeled himself around the kitchen in a chair on casters preparing a gourmet dinner. It was the last time he cooked.

“He was in a coma last month,” says Shay. “When he came out of it I said, ‘I told all our friends you were dying.’ He said, ‘You did what?’ I said, ‘It looked like you were dying. The doctor said it was touch-and-go.’ He said, ‘How could you do that? I’m fine. You worried a lot of people for nothing. That’s just like you, to give everyone anxiety.’

“So when he went into the hospital this last time, which was Thursday night, and the next day he was in intensive care–and he was concerned of course–I said, ‘Look, last month you came out of a coma and were fine. You’re not even in a coma now. You’re going to be fine.’ He of course had terminal cancer, but I said, ‘You have more life in you to go.'” When Wald slipped back into a coma Shay lectured him. “I said, ‘Honey, remember, the last time you came back. You’re going to come home with me. We’re going to do more things.’ I really thought he’d come out of it. I thought, ‘This man has the strength of hundreds. He’s going to come home with me.'”

Shay and Wald left a couple of things undone. One was keeping their August 9 reservations at the French Laundry, a celebrated restaurant in the Napa Valley. His oncologist, who’d eaten there, had promised to arrange Wald’s chemotherapy schedule so he’d show up with an appetite. The other one, says Shay, “was to be old together.”

News Bites

You’ve got to hit bottom before you can start back up.

An editors’ note on page A2 of last Monday’s New York Times about a business article a week earlier on TVT Records boss Steven Gottlieb disavowed everything but the color of the ink. “The article’s main premises–that Mr. Gottlieb had lost control of his company and had a reputation for being litigious–were based on fundamental misunderstandings of the subject, scope and status of the legal proceedings discussed,” said the Times. What’s more, “Beyond the inaccuracies arising from the article’s mistaken premises, there were other factual errors.” The article was wrong about when Gottlieb graduated from Harvard Law, where his office was located, how much money he’d spent to start his company, and which volume of Gottlieb’s album Television’s Greatest Hits contained the theme song from The Brady Bunch.

On page A19 of the same paper was a long obituary of jazz great Benny Carter. Aside from a brief introductory paragraph, the obit appeared under the byline of jazz critic John S. Wilson, who, the Times failed to mention, had himself died last year.

A collector’s item–that’s last week’s TV Guide, with its cover pictures of Chicago’s two biggest sluggers and the legend “Clash of the Titans: Will Sammy Sosa and Frank Thomas hit their way to Cooperstown? Our All-Star Game preview sizes up their chances.”

But when the game was played, neither Sosa nor Thomas was in it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David V. Kamba.