The Legacy of an Advice Columnist Dear to Many

Pauline Phillips, the woman who founded the Dear Abby column in the 1950s, has died, but that doesn't mean her advice doesn't continue into perpetuity. In fact, it's woven — sometimes obviously, sometimes imperceptibly — into the fabric of our cultural lives.

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Pauline Phillips, the woman who founded the Dear Abby column in the 1950s, has died, but that doesn't mean her advice doesn't continue into perpetuity. In fact, it's woven — sometimes obviously, sometimes imperceptibly — into the fabric of our cultural lives.

Advice columns have come a long way since the very first person put pen, or possibly quill, to paper and asked for help on a pressing matter from an expert. But even as advice column formats, styles, and topics change, there's something about the original that remains irreplaceable. This could, perhaps, be summed up in two words: "Dear Abby." Ask her a question about anything: life, relationships, friends, family, work, whatever emotional and sometimes physical challenges a person might face, and she'll try to help. Advice columnists, a bit like doctors, are in the business of helping to make our lives healthier, and us feel better in the process — of course, there's nothing strictly medical about the doling out of advice; they just have to go with their guts and what they've seen and experienced and hope for the best, really. Whether that advice falls flat or not, too, if they did try, if they did care, that's a large part of the point. Someone outside of my realm is thinking about me and my problem, those who ask for help will know. That is not a small kind of heartening feeling. And the advice, printed in a paper or published online, can help more than the one person who asked, and usually will. Life's problems are pretty common, and there's something comforting when you see your own issue reflected in the question of another. 

A lot of how we look at advice and advice columnists, even as new modern forms of the enterprise exist and evolve — Dear Sugar, Dear Cary, Dear Prudence, The Ethicist — is based on our notion of Dear Abby, someone who listened, thought, and offered up wisdom and sometimes flippant quips (Salon has a roundup of some of her greatest one-liners) but always honesty to help us cope, to tell us we were being ridiculous, to firmly but kindly set us down the right path, upon which we could choose to go, or not.

Of course, Abby was not "Abby," she was Pauline Friedman Phillips, the woman who in 1956 founded what may be the most famous and long-standing advice column there is, the woman also known as Abigail Van Buren (hey, she liked Martin Van Buren; who doesn't?). In the photo above, she's with her twin sister, "Ann Landers," or Esther Friedman Lederer. At right, she (at left) is talking to a reporter in 1959. Phillips had no shortage of gumption. When she was 37, in 1955, she "phoned the editor of The San Francisco Chronicle and told him that she could write a better advice column than the one she had been reading in the newspaper," according to Phillips' syndicate, Universal Uclick. He told her to come in for an interview, and she got the job.

More than fifty years later, her column has been widely syndicated, and it's still going strong, with a daily readership of 100 million. Since 1987 the column has been written by Phillips' daughter, Jeanne, who tackles grouchy grandmothers, love in these modern times, getting rid of troubling bridesmaids, and coping with awkward holiday moments with the aplomb of her mom, whom she'd been helping with advice since she was 14 years old. 

Advice columnists are human, too, and not without their own troubles. Jeanne had been coping with her 94-year-old mom's Alzheimers, and said of her mother's death, "I have lost my mother, my mentor and my best friend." Meanwhile, Pauline's own relationship with her sister Esther, or "Ann," who died in 2002, was fraught: "Their relationship was stormy in their early adult years, but later they regained the close relationship they had growing up in Sioux City, Iowa," writes Steve Karnowski for the AP. Part of the rift was, appropriately or not, about advice. "Pauline applied for the advice column without notifying her sister, and that reportedly resulted in bad feelings."

This, too, from the New York Times' excellent obituary on Phillips, shows the inherent (cinematic and rather comedic) rivalry between the sisters — Pauline was known as "Popo" and Esther "Eppie":

In 1939, Pauline Friedman left college to marry Morton Phillips, an heir to a liquor fortune. She was married in a lavish double ceremony alongside Eppie, who, not to be outdone, was wed on the same day to Jules Lederer, a salesman who later founded the Budget Rent A Car corporation.

In the years since her column was begun, Abby adapted her advice in keeping with what she learned and as times changed. About divorce, for instance, she said, "I always thought that marriage should be forever. 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 was an activist fighting for the greater good — from the statement on her death posted by Universal Uclick, "In her column, Mrs. Phillips championed equal rights for women, minorities, people with mental illness and those who are physically challenged. The column has promoted AIDS awareness and education, hospice care, the living will, organ donation and also raised awareness about gender apartheid suffered by women in Afghanistan" — but she was also a keen humorist. The Times includes this great question and response showing off some trademark Abby style, which could have used its own laugh track:

Dear Abby: My wife sleeps in the raw. Then she showers, brushes her teeth and fixes our breakfast — still in the buff. We’re newlyweds and there are just the two of us, so I suppose there’s really nothing wrong with it. What do you think? — Ed

Dear Ed: It’s O.K. with me. But tell her to put on an apron when she’s frying bacon.

The best advice columnists grow and change and never stay stuck in one place; they can be funny, they are fearless, and most of all, they have heart. The way in which they speak to us is enveloped into the overall culture almost without our notice, until they're gone, and then we remember how much they meant. In the Universal Uclick statement there is this final word of advice: "Mrs. Phillips, who befriended millions in her lifetime, always enjoyed quoting a favorite Swedish toast: 'Fear less; hope more. Eat less; chew more. Talk less; say more. Hate less; love more.'"

We'll miss you, Abby, but we'll certainly never forget you.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.