How do you turn a gorgeous goy into a feisty, stylish Jewish grandmother of a media superstar?
It's all about the hair.
When Judith Ivey takes the stage as Esther Pauline "Eppie" Lederer _ aka Ann Landers _ at the Cherry Lane Theatre on Oct. 14, she takes it with the legendary advice columnist's black bouffant firmly in place.
"The hair's right," Ivey assures us.
So is the distinctive twang of Lederer's native Iowa, her home study on Chicago's swanky Gold Coast and the mammoth IBM Selectric typewriter that serves as Ivey's only co-star in "The Lady With All the Answers."
It's the two-time Tony winner's reprise as the 50-something Eppie during a professionally precarious moment in 1975 _ how to break the news to millions of readers that she's divorcing Budget Rent-a-Car mogul Jules Lederer. This a decade after Eppie first began to soften her "cure it, don't kill it" advice to married couples in crisis, driven by the home-fires discord of her only child, the four-time married Margo Howard.
On stage, Lederer describes herself as once being "so anti-divorce, my dateline could be Vatican City," but what to do when your husband of nearly 36 years falls in love with a woman younger than said daughter?
"Her husband reveals to her that he's been having an affair for three years and she didn't pick up on it, and she said, `That's it.' That was the end of the marriage, but they remained friends," Ivey said.
Only rarely did Lederer write of herself or her family as Ann Landers. A notable exception was her 1969 tribute to her one and only husband for their 30th wedding anniversary. Another was the divorce column that "CSI" writer and co-producer David Rambo took hold of with Howard's blessing in his one-woman play first done in regional theater in 2005.
Lederer received 32,000 letters of support in response to the divorce column. She offered her readers few details, praising her hard-drinking ex as a loving, supportive and "extraordinary man."
"How did it happen that something so good for so long didn't last forever? The lady with all the answers does not know the answer to this one," Lederer wrote. She promised not to comment further and asked her editors to leave white space at the end of the shorter-than-usual column "as a memorial to one of the world's best marriages that didn't make it to the finish line."
Ivey got the role right in suburban Chicago last year at the Northlight Theatre, so right that the artistic director there, BJ Jones, is making his New York directing debut with Ivey back as Eppie. Northlight is co-producing with the Cherry Lane, a tiny 85-year-old Greenwich Village landmark.
Ivey was well received as Lederer the first time around, but playing Eppie in Eppie's Chicago is one thing. Playing Eppie in New York in say-anything 2009 could be quite another. At the first Cherry Lane rehearsal, Jones offered a primer for the young and uninitiated:
"My kids don't know who Ann Landers is," he said. "She was the Oprah of her day. Without her there would be no Oprah. The thing about her was that she was responsible to her readers in a way people on the Internet are not."
In over 47 years of writing Ann Landers in syndication, Lederer builet her empire to more than 1,250 newspapers. At her peak, her readers numbered 90 million. The immensely well-connected and well-dressed Eppie, who died in 2002 at age 83, was the identical twin of "Dear Abby" creator Pauline Esther Phillips. The two had some rough years of estrangement as they competed letter-for-letter, sister "Popo" from California and Eppie in Chicago.
But it was Lederer who first tapped the marrow of the human psyche, starting in 1955.
Lederer's primary predecessor as Ann Landers wrote anonymously, but Eppie thought it better for business to go public as the person behind advice. She did it in March 1956 on "What's My Line?" as she signed in as Mrs. Jules Ledere, and through near-constant speaking engagements that had her traveling the country for much of her life.
An active Democrat, Lederer won a letter-writing competition to become the new Ann Landers after she moved to Chicago from Eau Claire, Wis. As Landers, she took on teen sex, suicide, gun control _ the proper way to hang a toilet paper roll _ in responses to letters she hand-picked from 2,000 or more that poured in daily.
For years, her home newspaper was the Chicago Sun-Times, but she and many others defected to the Chicago Tribune after Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times in 1984.
Writing seven days a week, Lederer often called on experts she knew personally in a variety of fields _ religion, medicine, politics, the law _ to hone her responses. She worked "vampire" hours, often reading her mail as she soaked in the bathtub, using a wide ledge she had specially built for the task.
"She was all about service. This meant something to her," said Howard, who has been married since 2001 to a Boston cardiac surgeon and took up advice writing herself.
Jules Lederer suffered huge financial losses after selling off Budget and Eppie supported him after the split, Howard said. He died in 1999 at age 81, having fathered a child with the woman for whom he left Eppie.
"He wanted both of them. He wanted the young chickie and he wanted Eppie," Howard said. "He was crazy about Mother until the end, and she had warm feelings for him. She always looked after him."
Ivey is clearly fond of the "gutsy, old-school newspaper dame," as Howard described her mother in a farewell column that ended "Ask Ann Landers" for good after Lederer's passing.
"I think I identify with the sort of Midwestern attitude about life, that you can go out and do anything," said Ivey, who grew up in Texas. "There's nothing to stop you, believe in yourself. There's a less, dare I say, jaded or cynical approach to life in the Midwest."
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