Dear Abby's legacy: Wit, warmth, and snappy advice
New York • Two men had recently bought a house together in the tiny San Francisco neighborhood of Nob Hill, and the neighbors were annoyed. The men were entertaining "a very suspicious mixture of company," the neighbors wrote into their paper's advice column, asking, "How can we improve the neighborhood?"
"You could move," Dear Abby replied.
That zinger was such classic Abby real name, Pauline Friedman Phillips that it moved her daughter to burst into laughter Thursday when reminded of it, even though she had just returned from the funeral of her mother, who died a day earlier at age 94 after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease.
"People weren't really talking about homosexuality back then," Jeanne Phillips, who now writes the famous syndicated column, said. "But you know, there wasn't a subject my mother wouldn't take on."
As the world said goodbye to Dear Abby on Thursday, the Web was full of her snappiest one-liners, responses to thousands of letters over the decades that she wrote in her daily column. But her admirers noted that behind the humor and wit was a huge heart, and a genuine desire to improve people's lives.
"She really wanted to help people," said Judith Martin, the etiquette columnist known as Miss Manners. "Yes, she wrote with humor, but with great sympathy. She had an enormous amount of influence, and for the good. Her place in the culture was really extraordinary."
The long-running "Dear Abby" column first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1956. Phillips was hardly experienced, but she had managed to snag an interview for the job. A skeptical editor allowed her to write a few sample columns, and Phillips was hired.
She wrote under the name Abigail Van Buren, plucking the name Abigail from the Bible and Van Buren from American history. Her column competed for decades with that of Ann Landers, who was none other than her twin sister, Esther Friedman Lederer (she died in 2002.) Their relationship was stormy in their early adult years, but they later regained the closeness they'd had growing up in Sioux City, Iowa.
Carolyn Hax, who writes her own syndicated advice column, feels that one can't speak of one sister without the other, so influential were they both, and at the same time.
"Any of us who do this owe them such a debt," she said. "The advice column was a backwater of the newspaper, and now it is so woven into our cultural fabric. These columns are loved and widely read, by people you wouldn't expect. That couldn't have happened without them."
In a time before confessional talk shows and the nothing-is-too-private culture of the Web, the sisters' columns offered a rare window into Americans' private lives and a forum for discussing marriage, sex and the swiftly changing mores of the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
The two columns differed in style, though. While Ann Landers responded to questioners with homey, detailed advice, Abby's replies were more flippant and occasionally risquÃ©, like some collected for her 1981 book The Best of Dear Abby.
Dear Abby: My boyfriend is going to be 20 years old next month. I'd like to give him something nice for his birthday. What do you think he'd like? Carol
Dear Carol: Nevermind what he'd like, give him a tie.
Dear Abby: I've been going with this girl for a year. How can I get her to say yes? Don
Dear Don: What's the question?
Jeanne Phillips, who took over the column in 2002 after a few years of sharing the byline, recalled in a telephone interview Thursday her mother's response to a woman who wrote in detail of how many drinks she'd shared with her date one night. "Did I do wrong?" the woman wrote, in the daughter's retelling.
"Probably," her mom responded.
But with all the wonderful humor, the younger Phillips says she was most impressed with two things: her mother's compassion and her bravery. The compassion, she says, shone through especially when her mother met her readers. She remembers a young girl coming up at a speaking engagement and saying something quietly, at which point her mother embraced the girl, who wept on her shoulder.
"That is my favorite visual memory of my mom," she said.
Dear Abby's advice changed over the years. When she started writing the column, she has said, 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."
But her bravery, her daughter says, was exemplified even more by her willingness to take on issues like abortion, AIDS, sexism and other hot topics. She caught some flack for writing about homosexuality.
"Whenever I say a kind word about gays, I hear from people, and some of them are damn mad," she said. "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."
Phillips didn't always stop at answering letters; sometimes she called people directly.
"I'll call them. I say, 'This is Abby," she said. "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."
Her longtime editor, Alan McDermott of the Universal Uclick features syndicate, said he was struck by how she combined that compassion with an infectious sense of humor, and good spirits.
"I don't think I ever, in all those years, saw her without a smile on her face," said McDermott, who edited her column for some 20 years. The two would speak on the phone weekly, and he sometimes accompanied her on speaking engagements.
And even though Phillips was a good 30 years his senior, McDermott says, she was not above a little innocent flirting. One morning he called her hotel room, and she quipped, "I think you left you left your toothbrush here," he remembers with a chuckle.
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.
Two days before their 21st birthday, the sisters 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 her job writing the advice column. She adopted its existing name, Ann Landers.
Pauline, who had been working for philanthropies and the Democratic Party, followed her sister's lead. She applied for the advice column without notifying her sister, and that reportedly resulted in bad feelings. For a long time they did not speak to each other, but their differences were eventually patched up. In 2001, the twins, then 83, attended the 90th birthday party in Omaha, Neb., of their sister Helen Brodkey.
The advice business extended to the second generation of the Friedmans. Not only did Jeanne Phillips take over "Dear Abby," but Esther Lederer's daughter, Margo Howard, wrote an advice column for the online magazine Slate.