And for the young woman who wondered whether she had gone too far in a 21st birthday celebration with her boyfriend, Abby had — as usual — a saucy word of wisdom.
“I usually don’t go in much for drinking,” the woman confided, “but I had three martinis. During dinner we split a bottle of wine. After dinner we had two brandies. Did I do wrong?”
Abby replied: “Probably.”
For more than four decades, Abigail Van Buren — whose real name was Pauline Phillips, and who died Jan. 16 in Minneapolis at 94 — was a confessor, arbiter and friend to the thousands who sought her guidance on the endless conundrums of everyday living.
Syndication allowed millions of newspaper readers to follow her correspondence. To them, “Dear Abby” offered an intimate look into the lives of others — the foibles, troubles and morbid curiosities rarely, if ever, discussed at church socials and other meetings of polite company.
Mrs. Phillips had one outstanding competitor in the all-purpose advice business: her identical twin and sometimes rival, Esther “Eppie” Lederer, better known as Ann Landers, who died in 2002.
The younger by 17 minutes, Mrs. Phillips (nee Pauline Esther Friedman) began her writing career in the mid-1950s as an apprentice to her sister (nee Esther Pauline Friedman). By responding to the overflow from the wildly popular Ann Landers column, she discovered that she wouldn’t make a bad advice-giver herself.
What the sisters didn’t want was to be compared, but to many onlookers the urge was irresistible. Time magazine described Mrs. Phillips’s 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.
A pixie of a lady at 5-foot-2 and just over 100 pounds, Mrs. Phillips sometimes worked from home wearing ballet slippers. As though in an outward display of the role she played for the readers who trusted her with their warts and secrets, she reportedly kept an old Italian confessional on display in her bedroom.
Not all of her work was done from the comfort of her home, however. Time magazine reported that, disguised in a wig, Mrs. Phillips visited a Gamblers Anonymous meeting in New Jersey and a Masters and Johnson clinic in St. Louis before recommending them to letter writers.
Estimates of Mrs. Phillips’s mail load ranged from 3,000 to 25,000 letters per week. At one time, 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.