Woman Behind 'Dear Abby' Guided Readers Through Personal Crises

Pauline Phillips, better known as the columnist "Dear Abby," died Wednesday at the age of 94.

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Her real name was Pauline Friedman Phillips, and she was one of the most widely read advice columnists in the world. You probably recognize her as Dear Abby.

Phillips died yesterday at a hospital in Minneapolis. She was 94 and had struggled for many years with Alzheimer's.

NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: She picked her nom de advice, Abigail Van Buren, after President Martin Van Buren and Abigail after the biblical figure who gives advice to King David. It's likely David shared few of the concerns of her readers, like one she discussed on MORNING EDITION with musical accompaniment back in 1981.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ABIGAIL VAN BUREN: Someone wrote and told me that any woman who says she's interested in sex after age 50 is either lying or crazy. Women just aren't interested in sex over 50, so I put a little confidential in my column, and I ask my readers to let me know how they go about that. By God, I got about 100,000 responses.

ULABY: At their peak, Dear Abby and her advice columnist sister Ann Landers appeared in over 2,000 newspapers around the country. For many, "Dear Abby" was the very first part of the paper they read or the very last, like a treat.

Advice Columnist Amy Dickenson took over Ann Landers' syndicated column, but she grew up reading "Dear Abby's."

AMY DICKENSON: I think reading "Dear Abby" made me, you know, smart enough to do this job.

ULABY: Dickenson says the women known as Dear Abby and Ann Landers were twin sisters born in Sioux City, Iowa. They went to the same college, both worked on the school weekly and even had a double wedding and a double honeymoon. Things went south when they both decided to become advice columnists.

DICKENSON: And this created a very famous feud, you know, between the sisters where they didn't speak for many years because they were competitors.

ULABY: Dear Abby started writing her column in 1956 for the San Francisco Chronicle, just a few months after her sister started at the Chicago Sun Times. She blended common sense and Midwestern relatability. At her peak, she got over 12,000 letters a day and employed a staff of eight. And she said over three decades of column writing some of her views evolved.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BUREN: Well, I've changed my mind about premarital sex.

ULABY: That's Abigail Van Buren on NPR 31 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BUREN: I think if people are old enough to support themselves and live away from home, I think they have a right to select their own lifestyles without asking anyone.

ULABY: Van Buren also was an early advocate for gay and lesbian readers, says Amy Dickenson.

DICKENSON: This is a big part of her legacy. She said every time I mention gays in my advice column, I get lambasted, but I don't care.

ULABY: Over the years, Abigail Van Buren would also change her mind about divorce, and she answered questions about everything from teenage girls wanting to pierce their ears to pornography. She guided readers through the social tumult of the 1960s and '70s and sometimes personally called people asking her advice. She and her sister eventually reconciled. In 2000, her daughter officially took over her column. Oh, and remember that confidential inquiry about sex after 50? Dear Abby got a range of responses, but this is the one she liked best.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BUREN: Sex after 50 is wonderful. You don't have to worry about getting pregnant. You don't have the kids around. You can make all the noise you want. Sex after 50 is the greatest.

ULABY: It was this kind of sensibility, says Amy Dickenson, that made "Dear Abby" such a joy to read.

DICKENSON: She was really good with the snappy one-liner. If you did something well, you were a smart cookie.

ULABY: Confidential to listeners:

DICKENSON: She was one smart cookie.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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