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Pauline Friedman Phillips dies at 94; original 'Dear Abby'

Phillips, writing as Abigail Van Buren, dispensed wry, no-nonsense advice to newspaper readers around the world for over 40 years. Her identical twin also wrote an advice column, as Ann Landers.

January 17, 2013|By Beverly Beyette and Valerie J. Nelson,
Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Pauline Friedman Phillips, shown in her Beverly Hills office, wrote the world's most widely syndicated column.
Pauline Friedman Phillips, shown in her Beverly Hills office, wrote the… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Dear Abby: "What would you do with a man who refuses to use a deodorant, seldom bathes, and doesn't even own a toothbrush?"

"Absolutely nothing," she replied.

The wry answer from Abigail Van Buren — the pen name of Pauline Friedman Phillips — was typical of the advice she dispensed for more than 40 years to newspaper readers around the world through her "Dear Abby" column, which debuted in 1956 in the San Francisco Chronicle.

She got the bug to write it from her identical twin, who was already providing more homespun counsel in a syndicated newspaper column as Ann Landers. Over the decades, Phillips' witty exchanges with readers about snoring or prom dates would give way to more serious subjects as society underwent an upheaval.

Dear Abby spanned the sexual revolution (one reader cheekily asked where it was taking place and how he could get there), the women's movement (she actively campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment), the legalization of abortion (she favored abortion rights), and the advent of AIDS (she advocated frequent testing and education).

Phillips, 94, died Wednesday in Minneapolis, according to a statement from Universal Uclick press syndicate. Her family announced she had Alzheimer's disease in 2002, the year her twin sister died.

By 1957, Time magazine had declared "Dear Abby" the "fastest-rising star in the field of journalism." The sisters' rival columns caused a years-long estrangement between them — and turned them into two of the most famous and influential women of their generation.

"Dear Abby" is the world's most widely syndicated column, appearing in more than 1,400 newspapers and generating as many as 10,000 letters a week, according to the syndicate.

Dear Abby: "Are birth control pills deductible?"

"Only if they don't work," she answered.

From 1939 until her death, she was married to Morton B. Phillips, scion of the National Pressure Cooker Co. From an office in their Beverly Hills home, she edited the column into her 80s. She started sharing a byline with her daughter, Jeanne Phillips, in 2000 and turned the column over to her two years later.

"My mother leaves very big high heels to fill, with a legacy of compassion, commitment and positive social change," Jeanne said in a statement. "I will honor her memory every day by continuing this legacy."

Phillips' influence could be astonishing. When she urged readers to mark President Reagan's birthday in 1985 by sending $1 to the White House for the March of Dimes, the president wrote her to ask that donations be sent directly to the charity. Within a month, $41,000 had poured in.

The single greatest number of responses — 300,000 — came in reply to a 1992 column that asked: "Where were you when President John F. Kennedy was shot?" She turned these into one of the six books she wrote. She also took great pride in the huge response to "Operation Dear Abby," launched in 1985 to encourage readers to correspond with military personnel overseas.

The youngest of four daughters of Jewish immigrants from Russia, the twins were born in Sioux City, Iowa, on July 4, 1918, and given the confusing names of Pauline Esther Friedman (the future Abby) and Esther Pauline (Ann). They were nicknamed Popo and Eppie.

The improbable saga of "Dear Abby" began in 1955 when Phillips was an affluent homemaker in Hillsborough, Calif., with time on her hands, doing volunteer work and playing mah-jongg. Her twin, who'd just been hired by the Chicago Sun-Times Syndicate to take over the Ann Landers column, began soliciting her help with replies.

Extremely close, the sisters were thrilled to be collaborating, but the arrangement abruptly ended when the syndicate that distributed the Ann Landers column learned of it.

"Having acquired a taste for dispensing advice," as Phillips wrote in her 1981 book, "The Best of Dear Abby," she offered to write a column for the San Mateo Times, but it declined.

When she called the San Francisco Chronicle, she identified herself to feature editor Stanleigh Arnold as a Hillsborough housewife and said she could write a better column than the one the paper published. Intrigued by her brashness, he invited her to stop by sometime.

The next morning, she showed up. He was "visibly underwhelmed" upon hearing her qualifications but handed her a stack of published columns and told her to come back in a week with her answers.

Two hours later, she returned with replies that were "mostly flip, saucy one-liners," she later recalled, and was hired the same day.

On Jan. 9, 1956, she wrote, "with my participles dangling and my infinitives splitting, I was launched in my writing career" — and terrified that nobody would write in.

Her husband advised her to "copyright your pen name and own it yourself." She decided on Abigail Van Buren, combining the names of a biblical character and a favorite president.

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