'Dear Abby' Advice Columnist Dies at 94

6 years ago

"Dear Abby" advice columnist Pauline Esther Friedman Phillips passed away Wednesday in Minneapolis after a quarter-century battle with Alzheimer's disease. She was 94.

Using the pen name and persona of Abigail Van Buren, or simply Abby, for more than a half-century, Phillips fully relinquished her byline to her daughter Jeanne Phillips back in 2002.

Yet, the voice and style of the columns retained their spunky, warm and friendly qualities as it doled out advice on life, love and loss.


Pauline Phillips, "Dear Abby" originator. Image: © Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com


Today's column by Jeanne extols her mother's great values of "a deeply caring heart, a lively sense of humor and deep devotion to all of you."

She and her twin sister, Esther Pauline Friedman Lederer, better known to the world as another famous advice columnist-Ann Landers-grew up in Sioux City, Iowa. Inseparable in childhood, Pauline and Esther took on nicknames at an early age: Popo and Eppie, respectively.

But it was Popo who stuck with her famous persona even in her private life, so much so that her husband, Mort, called her Abby, according to her longtime editor.

In her 1981 book, Dear Abby she explained how she arrived at the moniker:

"I took the 'Abigail' from the Old Testament, for Abigail was a prophetess in the Book of Samuel, I chose 'Van Buren' from our eighth president, Martin Van Buren, because I liked the aristocratic, old-family ring."

In 1956, the suburban homemaker, volunteer, and mother of two teens took the pseudonym and her advice column to the San Francisco Chronicle. They liked her easy-flowing style.

Today, the column celebrates a daily readership of more than 110 million.

Her topics remained relevant as time passed, including far more than just relationship advice. She talked about difficult relationships, sex and sexual orientation, illness, equal rights, AIDS awareness and hospice care.

She admitted that her open-mindedness on certain topics upset her readership:

“Whenever I say a kind word about gays, I hear from people, and some of them are damn mad. People throw Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and other parts of the Bible to me. It doesn’t bother me. I’ve always been compassionate toward gay people.”

Her thoughts on marriage also evolved over time.

Initially, she pushed couples to fight through tough times and stick it out, especially when children were involved.

But her readers showed her sometimes relationships cannot, nor should they be, salvaged.

“I always thought that marriage should be forever,” she explained. “I found out through my readers that sometimes the best thing they can do is part. If a man or woman is a constant cheater, the situation can be intolerable. Especially if they have children. When kids see parents fighting, or even sniping at each other, I think it is terribly damaging.”

Yet for all her warm and sincere advice, Phillips struggled with sibling rivalry through much of her adult life.

Growing up, she and her twin sister did everything together. They both attended Morningside College, worked at the school newspaper, and even married their husbands in a double ceremony on their 21st birthday in July 1939.

But just a few months after Eppie started her "Ann Landers" column at the Chicago Sun Times, she learned that Popo had begun a similar stint in San Francisco.

That's when the sisters's lives splintered.

Allegedly, Popo offered "Dear Abby" at a reduced rate to their hometown newspaper, the Sioux City Journal, to beat out her sister's "Ann Landers" column.

The sisters reconciled in 1964, but tension remained until shortly before Eppie's passing in 2002.

Despite this rough patch, friends described Abby as "bright, charming, engaged, and curious."

Helen Thomas, a longtime journalist and close friend, said in an interview with USA Today:

"She always was upbeat and gave the best advice she could. She was never flippant with people's problems."

In fact, Abby herself said she took suicidal letters especially seriously.

“I’ll call them. I say, ‘This is Abby. How are you feeling? You sounded awfully low.’ And they say, ‘You’re calling me?’ After they start talking, you can suggest that they get professional help.”

She also had a humorous and endearing quality.

When asked her view on the erectile dysfunction treatment drug, Viagra, she replied: "It's wonderful."

Her acclaim includes a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame memorializing the "Dear Abby" radio show.


"Abby" receiving a star with her daughter Jeanne. Image: © Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com


Her daughter asked readers in today's column to remember "Mama" fondly:

"She had an amazing journey from Sioux City, Iowa, to shaking hands with U.S. presidents and British royalty. Ask that her spirit be surrounded by the souls of the many individuals whom she loved and who loved her."

Our very Dear Abby is survived by her husband of 73 years Mort Phillips of Minneapolis; daughter Jeanne Phillips; son Edward Phillips; four grandchildren and two great granddaughters. She will be greatly missed.

~ Sad in San Diego

Erica Holloway is a BlogHer contributing editor. Follow her @erica_holloway.

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