When one letter-writer inquired how to cure the wandering eye of a married man, “Dear Abby” had an answer: “Rigor mortis.”
To the wife who bemoaned her husband’s habit of removing his false teeth at parties and clapping them like Spanish castanets, Abby proffered a suggestion: “Let him have a good time. I think it is hysterical.”
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.
On the last topic, 227,000 readers responded when Mrs. Phillips asked in a column whether women over 50 enjoyed it.
There was a personal element to her work not conveyed in her printed column. Any letter writer who requested a reply (and included a self-addressed, stamped envelope) was obliged. Mrs. Phillips personally called people, such as a battered wife from Idaho, whose queries couldn’t wait on the Postal Service. One letter she said she never forgot was from the heartbroken landlady of a 91-year-old man who waited all day on his birthday for a visit from his children. They never came.
Mrs. 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 once 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, Mrs. Phillips argued, she wasn’t really a stranger. She had been with her readers for years.
Pauline Esther Friedman was born 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, Mrs. 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 wrote in the Miami Herald, but Mrs. Phillips, known as Popo, later thought that the injury had happened to her.
“They 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 in Sioux City, where they co-wrote a gossip column, the Campus Rat, in the student newspaper. Just before their 21st birthday, 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.
Mrs. Phillips said 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, Mrs. Phillips’s 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 in 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, Mrs. Phillips, then living in the San Francisco area, 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 inscrutable 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, Mrs. Phillips came back in two hours with 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, Mrs. Phillips drew upon the Bible (“And blessed be thy advice,” it was said of Abigail) and American history (the eighth president’s last name just sounded elegant). Abigail Van Buren would nip at Ann Landers’s high heels until Lederer’s column ended with her death.
Mrs. Phillips’s death was announced by her column’s syndicate, Universal Uclick. She had Alzheimer’s disease and had turned her column over to her daughter, Jeanne Phillips, about a decade ago.
Besides her daughter, Mrs. Phillips’s survivors include her husband of 73 years and the person to whom she said she turned for advice, Mort Phillips; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Her son, Edward Phillips, died in 2011.
To Mrs. Phillips, the rewards of the advice business were great. “Every day I get letters from people who say, ‘You changed my life,’ ” she said. “Now that’s important.”