Pauline Phillips, better known to the world as "Dear Abby," has died at the age of 94, after a long bout with Alzheimer’s disease.
Phillips, who wrote the “Dear Abby” syndicated newspaper column under the name “Abigail Van Buren,” was neither America’s first advice columnist nor the first or last member of her family to make a name for herself in that role. But she was the one whose column became instant shorthand in popular culture for a reliable source of pithy common-sense on any subject, no matter how personal, painful, or trivial. John Prine, The Hearts, the Dead Kennedys, and Adam Sandler immortalized her in song. She appeared on all the big talk shows, and even on an episode of Mister Ed. She dispensed advice through her own CBS radio show in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and collected her columns in a series of Best Of books.
Phillips began writing the column in 1956, one year after her twin sister, Esther “Eppie” Lederer, took over the “Ask Ann Landers” advice column in the Chicago Sun-Times. The pseudonym “Ann Landers” had been created by the column’s originator, Ruth Crowley, who died in 1955. Pauline Phillips came up with her own pen name by lifting the name “Abigail” from the Bible, then combining it with the last name of the eighth President of the United States. Esther Phillips didn’t know that her sister was thinking about breaking into the advice-columnist game until “Dear Abby” became a hit. Reportedly, this led to an icy feud between the twins that lasted for years.
Although its title has become synonymous with the traditional, sob-sisterish women’s-advice column, “Dear Abby” quickly achieved instant popularity under Phillips because of her funny, hardheaded approach and a tendency to respond to a question with a snappy one-liner. (To a man who wrote in asking for an inexpensive way to find out more about his family background, she advised, “Run for office.”) Phillips had a fairly progressive attitude toward issues like same-sex relationships and premarital sex (and, later in her career, Viagra), meaning much of her work can still be combed through and enjoyed without rubbing up against outdated clunkers of opinion.
This was in contrast to her sister, who publicly advocated “equal rights” for gays while repeatedly writing that they suffered from a “sickness” they drove them to behave “unnaturally.” Phillips always said that her career wasn’t dictated by any desire to compete with her sister; however, she would allow that she found her sister’s style a little long-winded.
Pauline Phillips’ daughter Jeanne began co-writing the “Dear Abby” column in 1987, fully taking it over in 2002 when her mother’s illness was made public knowledge. When Esther died that same year; her daughter, Margo Howard, also kept the advice game in the family, writing Slate’s “Dear Prudence” column from 1998 to 2006.