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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

Books

Rose Mula reviews A Life In Letters; Ann Landers' Letters to Her Only Child by Margo Howard. Landers not only earned a very lucrative living by writing letters in her syndicated column, she also used letters to motivate and control (or at least attempt to control) her daughter.

Susanna Moore's One Last Look is not only a commentary on the first fading of the British Empire but how the sensuality of a country can claim those who find themselves even temporary inhabitants.

Books

A Life in Letters
Ann Landers' Letters to Her Only Child
by Margo Howard

Warner Books, 417 pp

The author's byline of A Life in Letters is misleading, since most of the copy was written by Eppie Lederer, known to the world as Ann Landers, in the form of letters to her daughter, Margo Howard. As Howard herself acknowledges on the jacket copy, "My mother wrote this book. It took her forty-four years."

Howard's participation comprises a general introduction, plus comments preceding most of the letters in the book explaining some of the situations that prompted the correspondence, identifying many of the people mentioned, and translating her mother's Yiddish references.

Howard's greatest contribution was saving this staggering collection of letters in the first place-from the time she was fifteen years old, until her mother's death forty-four years later. The sheer volume of correspondence is overwhelming. Mother and daughter would sometimes write to each other two or three times a day, even when they lived within a few miles of each other and phoned each other constantly. Strangely, in many of her letters, Landers apologizes for not writing more often. The fact that Howard saved all the letters, through four marriages and several cross-country moves, is mind-boggling. Could she have had a future book in mind? Doubtful, since her mother wasn't yet famous when Howard started saving the letters. There are some gaps of a few months from time to time; but it's not clear if there were no letters during these periods (hard to believe) or simply that Howard chose not to include them for some reason.

Ann Landers not only earned a very lucrative living by writing letters in her syndicated column, she also used letters to motivate and control (or at least attempt to control) her daughter. Though she often asserted that she would never offer unsolicited advice, such proclamations were inevitably followed by large doses of admonitions. Her letter of September 29, 1961, to her daughter (who was a Brandeis student at the time) was typical:

"Don't make the mistake of spending every waking hour with the Boston guyI hope you'll keep the neurosurgeon on iceAnd of course you know the importance of making this a banner year in schoolYou have the ability and you must produce something on your ownDon't fail yourself."

When she wasn't lecturing her daughter ("Just get to work and hack that math coursedon't tell me the math teacher told you it was too tough for you"), she was praising her extravagantly, repeatedly tell her that she was "gorgeous," "bright," and "a wonderful writer."

Though Landers was a strong advocate of fidelity and life-long union, she took her own divorce in stride when her husband left her for another woman after 36 years of marriage. She spoke of him generously when she announced her divorce to her readers: "Jules is an extraordinary manI will always cherish our many wonderful years together" And, somewhat wistfully, she added, "How did this happen?the lady with all the answers does not know the answer to this one."

Landers was supportive of her daughter throughout Howard's four marriages, always embracing and praising the husband of the moment and never blaming Howard for any of the break-ups (at least not in any of the letters Howard chose to include in the book).

Landers enjoyed a loving relationship with her grandchildren (whom she also advised, of course); and like all grandmothers, she bemoaned the loss of closeness as the children grew older, complaining that the only connection they seemed to have when they became teenagers was through gifts she sent them; but, philosophically, she decided that a gift relationship was better than nothing.

She did not hesitate to advise President Ronald Reagan that the concept of the MX missile "is loony, self-defeating and is lousing up your chance to balance the budget in 1984" In addition to President and Mrs. Reagan, Landers enjoyed a personal relationship with a myriad of Hollywood stars, as well as with Chicago's Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and Father Theodore Hesburgh, a long-time president of Notre Dame. Many names are dropped throughout the book; and one must wonder if Landers would have preferred Howard to be more circumspect in repeating comments such as David Brinkley's remark to Landers about Walter Mondale: "this jerk is going to get creamed. He is a horse's ass." Such unflattering references to many public figures are sprinkled liberally through Landers' letters. Unfortunately for the curious readers, other identifications are missing, including the real name of Mr. X, a married man with whom Landers carried on an 18-month affair, behavior of which she disapproved on the part of her readers.

Though Ann Landers was one of the country's most widely read columnists, she wasn't a "writer." People read her for the advice she dished out, not for her literary style. Her letters to her daughter were no exception-high grades for the advice she dispensed, low marks for imagination and originality. She had an affinity for corny phrases. For example, she closed one letter with "Write when you can, and if you can't can, buy frozen foods."

Throughout the years, it was obvious that Landers was her daughter's strongest cheerleader, her harshest critic and, above all, a very loving mother, though they did have periodic squabbles. After one such set-to, Landers wrote Howard that "I don't believe I deserved to get landed on that wayI am not a meddlesome, interfering mother. I think I have stayed out of your business pretty goodI was stunned when you fell on me-outraged and insulted" But they always mended their fences and remained unusually close. Unfortunately, Landers' relationship with her twin sister, Pauline ("Popo"), writer of the "Dear Abby" column, was less successful. Many of the details of their strife are also chronicled in the book.

A Life in Letters is not great literature, and much of it can even be characterized as boring. However, as a chronicle of a mother-daughter relationship and a commentary on a by-gone era, it's well worth a read.

Susanna Moore's One Last Look>>

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