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‘Dear Abby’ advice columnist dies at age 94
First Published Jan 17 2013 11:46 am • Last Updated Jan 17 2013 03:36 pm

MINNEAPOLIS • Pauline Friedman Phillips, who as Dear Abby dispensed snappy, sometimes saucy advice on love, marriage and meddling mothers-in-law to millions of newspaper readers around the world and opened the way for the likes of Dr. Ruth, Dr. Phil and Oprah, has died. She was 94.

Phillips died Wednesday in Minneapolis after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, said Gene Willis, a publicist for the Universal Uclick syndicate.

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"My mother leaves very big high heels to fill with a legacy of compassion, commitment and positive social change," her daughter, Jeanne Phillips, who now writes the column, said in a statement.

Private funeral services were held Thursday, Willis said.

The long-running "Dear Abby" column first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1956. Mother and daughter started sharing the byline in 2000, and Jeanne Phillips took over in 2002, when the family announced Pauline Phillips had Alzheimer’s disease.

Pauline Phillips wrote under the name Abigail Van Buren. Her column competed for decades with the advice of Ann Landers, written by her twin sister, Esther Friedman Lederer, who died in 2002. Their relationship was stormy in their early adult years, but they later regained the closeness they had growing up in Sioux City, Iowa.

The two columns differed in style. Ann Landers responded to questioners with homey, detailed advice. Abby’s replies were often flippant one-liners.

Phillips admitted that her advice changed over the years. When she started writing the column, she was reluctant to advocate divorce:

"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."

She willingly expressed views that she realized would bring protests. In a 1998 interview she remarked: "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."


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If the letters sounded suicidal, she took a personal approach: "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."

In a time before confessional talk shows and the nothing-is-too-private culture of the Internet, the sisters’ columns offered a rare window into Americans’ private lives and a forum for discussing marriage, sex and the swiftly changing social mores of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

Asked about Viagra, Phillips replied: "It’s wonderful. Men who can’t perform feel less than manly, and Viagra takes them right off the spot."

About working mothers: "I think it’s good to have a woman work if she wants to and doesn’t leave her children unattended — if she has a reliable person to care for them. Kids still need someone to watch them until they are mature enough to make responsible decisions."

One trend Phillips adamantly opposed: children having sex as early as 12 years old.

"Kids grow up awfully fast these days," she said. "You should try to have a good relationship with your kids, no matter what they do."

Pauline Esther Friedman, known as Popo, was born on Independence Day 1918 in Sioux City, Iowa, 17 minutes after her identical twin, Esther Pauline (Eppie). Their father was a well-off owner of a movie theater chain. Their mother took care of the home. Both were immigrants from Russia who had fled their native land in 1905 because of the persecution of Jews.

"My parents came with nothing. They all came with nothing," Phillips said in a 1986 Associated Press interview. She recalled that her parents always remembered seeing the Statue of Liberty: "It’s amazing the impact the lady of the harbor had on them. They always held her dear, all their lives."

The twins spent their growing-up years together. They dressed alike, both played the violin and both wrote gossip columns for their high school and college newspapers. They attended Morningside College in Sioux City.

Two days before their 21st birthday, they had a double wedding. Pauline married Morton Phillips, a businessman, Esther married Jules Lederer, a business executive and later founder of Budget Rent-a-Car. The twins’ lives diverged as they followed their husbands to different cities.

The Phillipses lived in Minneapolis, Eau Claire, Wis., and San Francisco, and had a son and daughter, Edward Jay and Jeanne. Esther lived in Chicago, had a daughter, Margo, and in 1955 got a job writing an advice column. She adopted its existing name, Ann Landers.

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