I kept all the letters from readers pertaining to the divorce-more than 35,000 of them. Why? I`m not sure. Maybe because they were so beautiful. I couldn`t throw them out. They are the only letters that I`ve ever kept. My readers told me not to think that because my marriage didn`t last forever, I wasn`t qualified to advise others. They said the experience would make me better qualified, and they were right.
I don`t know if writing the column and reading about other people`s problems have affected the way I handle my own. I never confuse my identity with my readers. But I`m sure that what I have learned from them has given me strength. I`ve seen how people live through terrible tragedies and emerge stronger in the broken places.
A divorce is nothing compared with the problems I see in my everyday mail. There are millions of people out there who have had rotten luck and fought their way back. The column has given me a healthy perspective and made me realize how fortunate I`ve been. I truly feel joined at the heart with my readers. I would rather have my column on 1,000 refrigerator doors than win a Pulitzer.
I don`t have a great deal of time for hobbies, but I make it a point to take time for myself. My work is never finished. There is always so much to do. I could easily become a workaholic, so I see to it that I have a social life. I set aside ``play time,`` time for fun. I have interesting gentlemen friends. Chicago has a fabulous symphony, the Lyric Opera and good theater.
I`ve been blessed with friends who are marvelous to me. Many single women, when they`re divorced or widowed, are left out. That never happened to me. In addition to my Chicago pals, I have friends who invite me to fabulous parties on both coasts and some cities in between. I`ve already penciled in a hot-air- balloon party in Normandy, France, for next June.
I visit my sisters in Omaha and Beverly Hills, and I vacation with friends in Greenwich, Palm Springs, Martha`s Vineyard, Southampton, Palm Beach, London, etc. I visit my daughter, Margo, and her husband, Ken, and the grandkids in Connecticut, Boston and Minneapolis. We always have Thanksgiving together. My family is a joy to me, the frosting on the cake.
I`m often asked about my relationship with my twin sister, Dear Abby. It isn`t true that we fight. We get along fine. All siblings are competitive and, being twins, we are probably more competitive than ordinary sisters. But she`s a great girl with a marvelous sense of humor, and when we get together, our mouths never stop. We make each other laugh in a way that no one else can. We both have fax machines, and we fax each other like crazy. If I see a column of hers that I think is especially good, I`ll tear it out and fax it to her with a note saying, ``This is great.`` She does the same for me. It`s irritating to read that we aren`t speaking. That is simply not true.
Professionally, we compete, but there are plenty of newspapers for both of us, and in some cities, her column and mine appear in the same paper. This does not bother either of us. This is a killer job. I often work 14 hours a day. I pick letters that demand a lot of me. It would be easy to print run-of-the-mill stuff, but I select letters that give me an opportunity to teach people something. This was my mission from the beginning. I have always viewed my column as an opportunity to educate. You cannot read my column regularly and not learn something.
It always tickles me when I meet middle-aged people who say: ``You raised me. My mother used to put your column in my lunch bag and on my dinner plate. When I went away to college, she`d mail the damned things to me with a note saying, `Read this!` Now I`m mailing your column to my kids who are away at college, and I`m saying the same thing!``
In addition to being able to reach millions of people, the column has empowered me to do some real good in the world. For example, years ago I printed a column about the most feared word in the English language-cancer.
There was a bill before Congress designating $100 million for cancer research. It needed President Nixon`s signature. I asked my readers to clip the column and send it to Washington. Well-all hell broke loose. More than a million pieces of mail hit Washington. Capitol Hill had never seen anything like it.
No politician could afford to ignore that kind of pressure. President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act in 1971, and we got the money.
It`s been said that you can tell a lot about a person by the enemies they`ve made. It`s true. Not everybody loves me. For a long time now I`ve been battling some mighty powerful opponents.
As a strong supporter of Planned Parenthood and a woman`s right to choose, I receive a lot of ugly mail from the anti-abortion people. I also get nasty letters from members of the National Rifle Association. The number of people killed by handguns in this country is appalling. I am now fighting for the Brady Bill, which would require a seven-day waiting period before a person can buy a handgun. The NRA says it would be ``inconvenient.`` My position is that anyone who is in that big a hurry to get a gun shouldn`t have one.
The animal-rights people would also dearly love to see me drop into a very deep hole. I believe it is absolutely imperative that animals be used to further medical research. For example, experiments using monkeys are essential to unlock the mysteries of the AIDS virus. Animal-rights activists have broken into laboratories, let the monkeys out of the cages, smashed expensive equipment and destroyed research. I call these zealots ``terrorists.`` The names they call me cannot be printed in a family newspaper.
I receive approximately 2,000 letters daily. No one screens the mail for me. I select all the letters that go into the column, and I do all my own writing. There are no little ghosts sitting at my typewriter. I have a staff of eight secretaries and two mail clerks. They are the most dedicated, hardest-working people I know. My office runs like a well-oiled machine. The amount of work they turn out every day is simply staggering. I could never do the job half as well without these incredible assistants.
After all these years, I still attack every batch of mail with enthusiasm. I guess I must be a little crazy, but I continue to be excited by this work. Some of the handwriting is terrible, but I`ve become a master at hieroglyphics. The number of people who write to me just to unload is surprising. They will go on for 12 or 14 pages, and then I find there is no name or address. They end the letter by saying: ``Thanks for letting me get this off my chest, Ann. I feel a lot better now.``
I am well aware that a life that has been messed up for 20 years cannot be straightened out with one letter from Ann Landers or two inches of newspaper space. Many people who write to me need a lot more help than I can give them. The most important thing I do is something that many readers don`t ever know about. I refer people to service agencies so they can get the kind of ongoing help they need.
We have, on computer, the addresses and telephone numbers of hundreds of service agencies and self-help groups in the U.S. and Canada. People need to know how to get in touch with Alcoholics Anonymous, Catholic Charities, the Lutheran Family Services and the Jewish Federation. They need to know about the drug-abuse centers, the support groups and the toll-free hot lines for the depressed and the suicidal and for rape victims, battered women and missing children. Most of the self-help groups cost nothing to join. They extend a warm welcome to anyone who shows up. But people need to know they exist and how to contact them. Telling them is the best thing I do.
A Woman Of Letters
Part 2: More on Landers' career and reflections
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.
The Baltimore Sun encourages civil dialogue related to our stories; you must register and log-in to our site in order to participate. We reserve the right to remove any user and to delete comments that violate our Terms of Service. By commenting, you agree to these terms. Please flag inappropriate comments.