‘Dear Abby’ advice columnist dies at age 94

MINNEAPOLIS – Pauline Friedman Phillips, who under the name of Abigail Van Buren, wrote the long-running “Dear Abby” advice column that was followed by millions of newspaper readers throughout the world, has died. She was 94.

Publicist Gene Willis of Universal Uclick said Phillips died Wednesday after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Phillips’ column competed for decades with the advice column of Ann Landers, written by her twin sister, Esther Friedman Lederer. Their relationship was stormy in their early adult years, but later they regained the close relationship they had growing up in Sioux City, Iowa.

The two columns differed in style. Ann Landers responded to questioners with homey, detailed advice. Abby’s replies were often flippant one-liners.

Phillips admitted that her advice changed over the years. When she started writing the column, she was reluctant to advocate divorce:

“I always thought that marriage should be forever,” she explained. “I found out through my readers that sometimes the best thing they can do is part. If a man or woman is a constant cheater, the situation can be intolerable. Especially if they have children. When kids see parents fighting, or even sniping at each other, I think it is terribly damaging.”

She willingly expressed views that she realized would bring protests. In a 1998 interview she remarked: “Whenever I say a kind word about gays, I hear from people, and some of them are damn mad. People throw Leviticus, Deuteronomy and other parts of the Bible to me. It doesn’t bother me. I’ve always been compassionate toward gay people.”

If the letters sounded suicidal, she took a personal approach: “I’ll call them. I say, ‘This is Abby. How are you feeling? You sounded awfully low.’ And they say, ‘You’re calling me?’ After they start talking, you can suggest that they get professional help.”

Asked about Viagra, she replied: “It’s wonderful. Men who can’t perform feel less than manly, and Viagra takes them right off the spot.”

About working mothers: “I think it’s good to have a woman work if she wants to and doesn’t leave her children unattended – if she has a reliable person to care for them. Kids still need someone to watch them until they are mature enough to make responsible decisions.”

One trend Phillips adamantly opposed: children having sex as early as 12 years old.

“Kids grow up awfully fast these days,” she said. “You should try to have a good relationship with your kids, no matter what they do.”

The woman known to the world as Ann Landers died in June 2002. Later that year, the family revealed that Phillips had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. By then Phillips’ daughter, Jeanne Phillips, who had helped her mother with the Dear Abby column for years, was its sole author.

Pauline Esther Friedman, known as Popo, was born on Independence Day 1918 in Sioux City, Iowa, 17 minutes after her identical twin, Esther Pauline (Eppie.). Their father was a well-off owner of a movie theater chain. Their mother took care of the home. Both were immigrants from Russia who had fled their native land in 1905 because of the persecution of Jews.

“My parents came with nothing. They all came with nothing,” Phillips said in a 1986 Associated Press interview. She recalled that her parents always remembered seeing the Statue of Liberty: “It’s amazing the impact the lady of the harbor had on them. They always held her dear, all their lives.”

The twins spent their growing-up years together. They dressed alike, they both played the violin, they wrote gossip columns for their high school and college newspapers. They attended Morningside College in Sioux Falls. Two days before their 21st birthday, they had a double wedding. Pauline married Morton Phillips, a businessman, Esther married Jules Lederer, a business executive and later founder of Budget Rent-a-Car. The twins’ lives diverged as they followed their husbands to different cities.

The Phillipses lived in Minneapolis, Eau Claire, Wis., and San Francisco, and had a son and daughter, Edward Jay and Jeanne. Esther lived in Chicago, had a daughter, Margo, and in 1955 she applied for and was given the job of writing the advice column. She adopted the existing column’s name, Ann Landers.

Pauline, who had been working for philanthropies and the Democratic Party, followed her sister’s lead, though she insisted it wasn’t the reason for her decision. She arranged for an interview with an editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and presented sample columns, arguing that the paper’s lovelorn column was boring. The editors admired her breezy style, and she was hired.

Searching for a name for the column, Pauline chose Abigail from the Bible and Van Buren from the eighth American president. Within a year she signed a 10-year contract with the McNaught Syndicate, which spread her column across the country.

“I was cocky,” she admitted in 1998. “My contemporaries would come to me for advice. I got that from my mother: the ability to listen and to help other people with their problems. I also got Daddy’s sense of humor.”

Pauline applied for the advice column without notifying her sister, and that reportedly resulted in bad feelings. For a long time they did not speak to each other, but their differences were patched up. In June 2001, the twins, 83, attended the 90th birthday party in Omaha, Neb., of their sister Helen Brodkey.

The advice business extended to the second generation of the Friedmans. Phillips had announced in 2000 that her daughter would share her byline. Her sister’s daughter, Margo Howard, wrote an advice column for the online magazine Slate.

Aside from the Dear Abby column, which appeared in 1,000 newspapers as far off as Brazil and Thailand, Phillips conducted a radio version of “Dear Abby” from 1963 to 1975 and wrote best-selling books about her life and advice.

In her book “The Best of Abby,” Phillips commented that her years writing the column “have been fulfilling, exciting and incredibly rewarding. … My readers have told me that they’ve learned from me. But it’s the other way around. I’ve learned from them. Has it been a lot of work? Not really. It’s only work if you’d rather be doing something else.”

Online: http://www.dearabby.com

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Bob Thomas in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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