The summer before I entered college, I opened the mail for Ann Landers. It sounded like a glamorous job. The syndicated advice columnist had the name recognition of a movie star, with 90 million readers turning to her for guidance in 12,000 newspapers around the world.
I thought myself sophisticated. My summer reading included Nathanael West’s noir novella Miss Lonelyhearts. Here I was, seeing the real pleas for help even before they reached Ann Landers.
In that pre-internet era, Ann Landers received mail from one thousand anguished souls a day. I got the job because the amount of mail edged up in summer. I don’t know why that was. My teenage heart told me that I could be miserable in any season.
I joined three year-round clerks in the basement of the Sun-Times Building, its ghost foundations now buried beneath Trump Tower. They taught me the job: slit open the letters and triage the contents.
Half the letters were requests for pamphlets advertised at the end of the daily column. Mail in a quarter and a folded envelope — long, self-addressed and stamped — and you’d receive “Necking and Petting — What Are the Limits?” or whatever title addressed your problem.
The envelopes without coins were requests for advice. Advice was free, but the correspondents still had to include return envelopes, because most of the replies went directly to them. The column had space for only three letters each day, and those letters had to pique the curiosity of readers. No one cared if your aunt was annoying, but if she asked nosy questions about your sex life in front of your mother, that might make the cut.
We opened the envelopes and smoothed out the letters, some written on scraps of paper or even fragments of grocery bags. Were the splotches caused by teardrops? Some of the letters included photographs. I saw Polaroids of bruises on children, years before such abuse was publicly acknowledged. We weren’t supposed to read the letters, but how could I resist?
Several floors above us, three editorial assistants read the letters officially. Only a few of those made it to the desk of Ann Landers — born Esther Pauline “Eppie” Friedman in Sioux City, Iowa. We rarely spoke to Eppie ourselves, but we did gossip about her: she was on the outs with her identical twin and rival advice columnist Dear Abby — Pauline Esther, known as Popo — and Eppie’s nose job meant they weren’t identical anymore. Their relationship would have provided good fodder for the column.
The editorial assistants sent us instructions on how to reply to the requests for advice. Everyday sorrows were coded with numbers that corresponded to mimeographed sheets for us to stuff into the reply envelopes. One of my fellow clerks regularly reversed numerals, and we’d receive angry follow-up letters: “What do you mean I’m too young to shave my legs? [#43] I asked if I should join a lonely hearts club [#34].” Years before Match.com, lonely hearts clubs afforded low-tech romantic disappointment.
Those ditto sheets took care of most problems. For questions that merited a more tailored response, we were directed to a book of forms with blanks to be filled in from a list of scribbled words, like psychiatric Mad Libs: “Tell your _____ to see your _____ before your _____ is ruined.” We’d type up the replies and sign Ann Landers’s name. I mastered that forgery easily, but I always felt guilty, wondering if the recipients cherished her autograph, to say nothing of her “personal” advice.
In my summer of snooping, I noticed a pattern. Few people actually asked for advice. Instead, most writers already had a plan in mind — not “What should I do” but “Should I do such and such?” They didn’t want Ann Landers to offer advice; they wanted her to affirm their half-gelled decisions.
My summer job ended and I entered college. Away from home, I made key decisions, some of which proved to be disastrous, just as friends had predicted when they tried to talk me out of them. But I hadn’t asked for their advice, and I had no intention of following it.