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'Dear Abby' advice columnist dies at age 94

By The Washington Post

Pauline "Popo" Phillips, who as the nationally syndicated advice columnist Abigail Van Buren became a confessor and friend to millions of newspaper readers for more than four decades, died Jan. 16 in Minneapolis. She was 94.

Her death, from Alzheimer's disease, was announced in a statement from Universal Uclick, the syndication company that distributes the "Dear Abby" column.

Phillips had one outstanding competitor in the all-purpose advice business: Her identical twin and sometimes rival, Esther "Eppie" Lederer, was better known as Ann Landers.

The younger by 17 minutes, Phillips (nee Pauline Esther) began her writing career in the mid-1950s as an apprentice to her sister (nee Esther Pauline). By responding to the overflow from the wildly popular Ann Landers column, she discovered that she wouldn't make a bad sob sister herself.

In one classic letter, a woman wrote that she had celebrated her 21st birthday with her boyfriend by downing three martinis, half a bottle of wine and several brandies. "Did I do wrong?" she asked.

Dear Abby replied: "Probably."

In another missive, a wife inquired about the cure for a long-married man who couldn't keep away from other women.

Abby shot back: "Rigor mortis."

Estimates of Phillips' mail load ranged from 3,000 to 25,000 letters per week. Time magazine reported in 1981 that she employed four full-time mail openers, six letter-answerers and a research assistant to respond to questions on topics ranging from unbearable tragedy to family squabbles to burial requests to sex.

On the last topic, 227,000 readers responded when Mrs. Phillips asked in a column whether women over 50 enjoyed it.

A pixie of a lady at 5-foot-2 and just over 100 pounds, Phillips sometimes worked from home wearing ballet-shoe slippers. As if in an outward display of the role she played for the readers who trusted her with their warts and secrets, she kept an old Italian confessional on display in her bedroom, according to the Orange County Register.

Not all of her work was done from the comfort of her home, however. Time magazine reported that, disguised in a wig, Phillips visited a Gamblers Anonymous meeting in New Jersey and a Masters and Johnson clinic in St. Louis before recommending them to letter-writers.

There was a human angle to her work not conveyed in her column, which appeared in hundreds of newspapers. Any letter-writer who requested a reply (and included a self-addressed stamped envelope) was obliged. Phillips personally called people, such as the battered wife from Idaho, whose queries couldn't wait on the postal service. One letter she never forgot was from the landlady of a 91-year-old man who waited all day on his birthday for a visit from his children. They never came.

Phillips maintained that she possessed no special wisdom and simply relied on a "sense" no better or worse than anyone else's.

"It's no great tribute to me," she told the Los Angeles Times, explaining why she thought so many desperate people turned to her. "They figure they're never going to see you again. But I imagine they're people whom nobody listens to, and they take the opportunity and let it all hang out."

And anyway, Phillips argued, she wasn't really a stranger. She had been with her readers for years.

***

Pauline Esther Friedman was born on July 4, 1918, in Sioux City, Iowa, to Russian Jewish immigrants who had passed through Ellis Island. Her father supported the family as a traveling salesman and later, having made it in America, as the owner of a movie theater chain. The saddest thing in her life, Phillips said, was that her parents did not live to see her and her sister's success.

Growing up, the Friedman Twins - as the popular girls were known - were inseparable. They dressed alike, shared purses and dates, and often slept in the same bed. Eppie broke her arm when she was 11, her daughter Margo Howard told the Miami Herald, but Phillips later thought that the injury had happened to her.

"The would tell each other's stories, and in their minds their lives became interchangeable," wrote Howard, who for a time penned the Dear Prudence advice column on Slate.com, which is owned by The Washington Post Co.

When the sisters graduated from high school in 1936, the yearbook said it all. Next to Popo's picture was the message "Always with Eppie." Next to Eppie's was "Always with Po-Po."

The girls went off to school - together, of course - to Morningside College, where they co-authored a gossip column, the Campus Rat, in the student newspaper. Just before their 21st birthdays, they left college to be married in a double ceremony followed by a double honeymoon.

Their wedding - which, according to Howard, was attended by 750 guests plus onlookers and mounted police - was preceded by a bit of drama. Popo had been with Morton Phillips, heir to his family's liquor business, for several years, but Eppie subbed in a new groom at the last minute. After accepting a date with a buyer at the clothing store where the girls shopped for their wedding veils, she ditched her fiance and married Jules Lederer, who would later form Budget Rent a Car.

***

Phillips told the Los Angeles Times that she had never expected to have a career, but that after getting married she thought "there has to be something more to life than mah-jongg." In addition to raising her two children, she volunteered with the Red Cross's Gray Ladies.

By the mid-1950s, Phillips' sister was living in Chicago and had taken to reading a column in the Chicago Sun-Times called Ask Ann Landers. When she learned that the columnist had died, she entered a competition to become the new Ann Landers - and won. Lederer's first installment of the column appeared in the newspaper on Oct. 16, 1955.

Lederer enlisted her sister's help to keep up with the onslaught, but the paper soon asked her to stop the outsourcing. And so it was that in the winter of 1956, Phillips went after a column of her own. As Time magazine told it:

"From a chauffeured yellow Cadillac convertible in front of the San Francisco Chronicle building last winter stepped a shapely brunette wearing a little black dress by Dior and the scrutable smile of a woman who knows what she wants."

What she wanted was to take over for Molly Mayfield, the advice-giver the paper published at the time. When an editor gave her a stack of old columns for a tryout, Phillips ran to her husband's office and in two hours wrote her own responses to 70 letters. The editors enjoyed her work so much that they gave the column over to her practically on the spot.

For her alter ego's name, Phillips drew upon the Bible ("And blessed be thy advice," it was said of Abigail) and American history (the eighth's president's last name just sounded elegant). Abigail Van Buren would nip at Ann Landers' high heels until Lederer's column ended with her death in 2002.

What the sisters didn't want was to be compared, but to many the urge was irresistible. Time magazine described Phillips' column as "slicker, quicker and flipper" than her sister's. Their competition provoked a rivalry and long spells when the sisters did not speak to each other.

"For seven years," Abby wrote, "my career flourished but I walked around with a hole in my heart."

Yet their bond was undeniable, and there were other periods when the sisters faxed each other almost every day.

Phillips' survivors include her husband of 73 years, the person to whom she said she turned for advice; her daughter, Jeanne Phillips, of Los Angeles, who now writes the Dear Abby column; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Her son Edward Phillips died in 2011.

The rewards of the advice business, Phillips told the Los Angeles Times, were great.

"Every day I get letters from people who say, 'You changed my life. . . .' Now that's important."


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