The Unauthorized Biography of Ann

Landers and Abigail Van Buren

By Jan Pottker and Bob Speziale

Dodd, Mead. 340 pp. $17.95


Our Intimate and Changing

Dialogue With America's

Best-Loved Confidante

By David I. Grossvogel

Contemporary Books. 278 pp. $17.95

NATHANAEL WEST did it best in Miss Lonelyhearts, that fictional portrait of an advice columnist disintegrating as he takes on the cares of his readers. In that darkened universe where problems poured through the mail slot, no one ever wrote to say they'd had a happy day. Very few of the readers who write to "Dear Ann" or "Dear Abby," America's reigning advice queens, put pen to paper to share a jolly thought, either, but the ladies are remarkably unmarked by their daily dose of pitch. One could unkindly assume a lack of empathy for their readers, but it is more probable that both women are firmly grounded in an ethic that believes that when you see something wrong, by gum, you fix it. I knew Eppie Lederer, who writes the "Ann Landers" column, years ago when I worked for the Chicago Sun-Times, and she was an extremely nice and charmingly nutty woman who believed in the advice she gave. One assumes that her twin sister, Popo Phillips, who writes the "Abigail Van Buren" column, feels the same way.

Such an ethic makes for sound, commonsensical advice and a happy life; it also makes for a very boring biography. It is not the fame of the name that makes a book interesting, but the way a life was lived. Biographies succeed because the subject has done unusual things, witnessed important events, been involved in nasty scandals or, conversely, used a sedentary life to grow in wisdom.

The recipe for a pineapple upside down cake is more titillating than anything one will read about either Ann Landers or Abby Van Buren, whose most sensational deviation involves the fact that the advice-giving, identical twins, who both entered the field of the lovelorn in the 1950s, went five years (or 10, depending on who's telling the story) without speaking to each other. Zut alors! There is also the fact that Ann Landers, after 30 some years, was divorced. But any reader who is unaware of these two facts has been avoiding all media for years. If there are secrets hidden behind the identical faces which look out from the top of "Dear Ann" and "Dear Abby," you won't find them here. You probably won't find them anywhere, given that the lives of the two women have been lived under intense public scrutiny for over 30 years. If "Dear Abby" was secretly racing off to sex clubs, if "Dear Ann" was a vicious boss, someone would have squealed by now. The authors have drawn their net through clear waters and come up with remarkably few fish.

They include notes in the back of their dual biography listing their sources; and though it seems that they have interviewed a number of people, they have interviewed the wrong ones. With a few exceptions, most of the people seem peripheral to the lives of their subjects, a lineup of he-said-that-she-said-that-he-said sources. There is also a sloppiness to the book as the authors attempt to make something of nothing. Eppie Lederer, they write, claims, "I was one of the early doves" about the Vietnam War. They're not going to let her get away with that and so following her statement about her peaceful leanings, they stamp it down with a watery quote from the co-director of the Institute for Policy Studies, Richard Barnet, who says he has no recollection of "Ann Landers taking any public stand against the war at any moment when it would have made any difference." If that isn't scandal enough for the reader, the authors show how Ann Landers has occasionally, over the last 30 years, recycled a snappy answer or two.

The book does contain some amusing anecdotes, but they were told first and best by Eppie Lederer's daughter, Margo Howard, in an earlier biography of her mother.

Dear Ann Landers is not a biography, but an analysis of the way the letters in the Ann Landers column reflect the changing mores of the last 30-some years. The advice columnist occasionally stepped to the fore to lead her readers in their thinking on such issues as women's right, abortion and AIDS, but in general the column reflected the way American attitudes changed on issues like sex and gender in the last half of the 20th century. It is a competent work but not particularly riveting, a source for scholars or for those readers who can't get enough of reading advice to the lovelorn and will pick up anything as long as it contains letters that begin "Dear Ann Landers."

Susan Dooley is a Washington critic and writer.