Dear Abby: We Miss You

Pauline Phillips: July 4, 1918 – January 16, 2013

“Although I have unbounded admiration for each of them, I am not King Solomon, the American Medical Association or the U.S. Supreme Court. I am not Portia, Cassandra, or the Delphic Oracle even. I have, in brief, no delusions about myself or about my work. Although I do put forward the mild claim to some pride in both.”
-Pauline Phillips

Everyone seeks out advice once in a while. Nowadays, a simple Google search can help you find the guidance you need, but for a long time, advice-seekers depended on Pauline Esther (Friedman) Phillips – better known to those who read her column as Dear Abby. Mrs. Phillips, a counselor, confidant, and consultant to millions, died at age 94 on January 16, 2013 – but, her legacy lives on in the advice she gave on topics ranging from marriages, work, children, in-laws, parents, and anything else that troubled her readers.

Pauline Esther Friedman was born, along with her twin, Esther Pauline Friedman, on July 4, 1918, in Sioux City, Iowa (a great choice of names, right?). Her parents immigrated from Russia and passed through Ellis Island. The “Friedman Twins” as they were known, were inseparable growing up. Following their high school graduations, they attended Morningside College together, where they co-wrote a gossip column, the “Campus Rat,” for the school newspaper. Just before turning 21, the twins left college to be married in a double ceremony and to enjoy a double honeymoon together.

Although she did not plan to have a career after getting married, Mrs. Phillips, an affluent homemaker, wanted to do more than volunteering and playing mah-jongg. For a few months in the mid-1950′s, she helped her twin sister, then an advice columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, respond to letters from “Ask Ann Landers” readers. With a taste for dispensing advice, Mrs. Phillips, who studied journalism in college but had never written professionally, decided she wanted to take over the advice column in the San Francisco Chronicle. She contacted the editor of the paper and declared that she could write a better column than the one they currently had. According to syndication service Universal Uclick (the syndicate for the column “Dear Abby”), Mrs. Phillips described herself to the editor as “an average, middle-aged housewife who had been happily married to the same man for 17 years and had reared two ‘reasonably normal’ teenagers.” She asserted that she would succeed as an advice columnist “because all of her life she had been an amateur ‘wailing wall without portfolio,’” the syndication service said. The editor was not convinced – trying to get her out of his office, he handed Mrs. Phillips a stack of old columns for a tryout. Within two hours, she had written responses to the 70 letters … and obviously the editor liked her responses because the first “Dear Abby” column was printed in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 9, 1956.

Mrs. Phillips’s nom de advice, Abigail Van Buren, was chosen after the biblical figure, Abigail, who advised King David, and the eighth president, Martin Van Buren. And while she didn’t want to be compared to her sister, Time magazine described Mrs. Phillips’s column as “slicker, quicker and flipper” than her sister’s. It’s not surprising that the twins’ relationship, which had once been strong and deep, was challenged by competition and rivalry. For years, the two sisters did not speak to each other.

According to Universal Uclick, “Dear Abby” is the world’s most widely syndicated column. It has appeared in more than 1,400 newspapers and at times generated as many as 10,000 letters a week. In 2000, Mrs. Phillips began sharing a byline with her daughter, Jeanne Phillips, and two years later, she turned her column over to her daughter. While Mrs. Phillips is no longer with us, her words of wisdom live on. Here are some of my favorites:

Dear Abby: I have always wanted to have my family history traced, but I can’t afford to spend a lot of money to do it. Any suggestions? – Sam in Cal
Dear Sam: Yes. Run for public office.


Dear Abby: I know boys will be boys, but my ‘boy’ is seventy-three and he’s still chasing women.  Any suggestions? – Annie
Dear Annie: Don’t worry.  My dog has been chasing cars for years, but if he ever caught one, he wouldn’t know what to do with it.


Dear Abby: I’ve been going with a girl for two years and can’t get her to say yes. What should I do? – Joe
Dear Joe: What’s the question?


Dear Abby: My husband has always been very close to his mother and she has never cared much for me. I asked my husband if I was drowning and his mother was drowning which one would he save? He said “My mother because I owe her more.” I am so terribly hurt, Abby. What shall I do? – Arlene
Dear Arlene: Learn to swim.

* Based on a post on eFuneral.com - a website that provides helpful information and support to those caring for a sick loved one, thinking about end-of-life, or grieving a loss. Read more tributes and memorials in the eFuneral.com Comfort Circle Resources Center.