Pauline Esther Phillips, who was known to millions of newspaper readers as the “Dear Abby” advice columnist Abigail Van Buren, has died. She was 94.
She died yesterday in Minneapolis after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, according to a statement by Universal Uclick, syndicator of Dear Abby. Phillips lived in Minnetonka, Minnesota.
With her identical twin, Esther Pauline Lederer, who wrote under the Ann Landers pseudonym until her death in 2002, Phillips brought the staid newspaper advice-to-the-lovelorn column into the modern era. Like her sister, she replied to letters about serious social issues such as teen sex, divorce, alcoholism and AIDS, and answered them with a mix of candor, common sense and an occasional wisecrack.
Created by Phillips in 1956, the Dear Abby column appears in about 1,400 newspapers worldwide with a daily readership of more than 110 million people, according to Universal Press Syndicate, which merged with Uclick in 2009.
She wrote the column herself until 1987, when she was joined by her daughter, Jeanne Phillips. In 2002, as her health deteriorated, she retired and Jeanne Phillips became the new Abigail Van Buren.
According to Richard Weiner, author of the book “Syndicated Columnists” (1977), a theology professor in 1972 asked Phillips how she came up with her answers to letters and how long it took to write them.
“I think my answers are just common sense in a capsule,” she said. “And it took me about one hour and 53 years to write today’s column.”
Louis Cassels, a former United Press International religion editor who died in 1974, once called Phillips “the best moral theologian in America.”
The sisters maintained an intense sibling rivalry. In many cities, Ann Landers would appear in a morning newspaper and Dear Abby in the evening newspaper, or vice versa. Sometimes they argued over who had the larger circulation.
In 1958, Life Magazine reported that Phillips had offered Dear Abby to Iowa’s Sioux City Journal at a reduced price, provided the paper wouldn’t run Ann Landers. After that, the twins didn’t speak to each other for five years. They reconciled in 1964.
“The feud was vastly exaggerated,” Lederer once said.
In her column of Feb. 18, 1972, Phillips printed a letter from an identical twin who said twins should dress alike, according to Weiner’s book. Abby disagreed, saying that once twins are old enough to express themselves individually, they should be encouraged to do so.
“Twins who dress themselves identically,” Abby wrote, “are saying, look at us, we’re twins! (P.S. I asked my twin and she agrees with me.)”
Pauline Esther Friedman was born on July 4, 1918, in Sioux City, Iowa, 17 minutes after her sister. She was the fourth daughter of Rebecca and Abraham Friedman, who came to the U.S. in 1908 from Vladivostok, Russia. Her parents called her “Popo” and her sister “Eppie.”
Like many immigrants, Abraham Friedman earned enough money to move his family from the poorer section of the city to a middle-class neighborhood, first by peddling chickens from a pushcart and later by running a grocery store.
When Pauline was in her early teens, her father, who was active in the Jewish community and other civic affairs, became the part-owner of a movie and vaudeville theater. He later operated theaters in three states.
In their early years, the Friedman twins were almost inseparable. They attended Central High, graduating in 1936, and enrolled together at nearby Morningside College. They majored in psychology and journalism and collaborated on a gossip column in the school newspaper. The column, called PEEP, was an acronym for Pauline Esther and Esther Pauline.
The two petite, black-haired sisters even were married together. On July 2, 1939, Pauline wed businessman Morton Phillips and Esther married Jules Lederer at a double ceremony at a Sioux City synagogue.
After marriage, the Phillipses lived in Minneapolis and Eau Claire, Wisconsin, before moving to San Francisco, where he was president of a housewares distributor.
In 1956, Eppie Lederer began her career as Ann Landers at the Chicago Sun-Times. She often phoned her sister for help in coming up with letter replies. Pauline proved so good at it that she wrote to the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle and told them she could write a better column than the one they had.
“They gave her a bunch of letters, thinking that they would never see her again,” her son, Edward, told ABC News. “She immediately took all of the letters to my dad’s nearby office and whipped out answers and had the answers back the same day. That knocked them off their feet.”
The pen name Abigail Van Buren came from the Old Testament (“and David said to Abigail, blessed be thy advice”) and the eighth U.S. president because, as Phillips used to say, it sounded aristocratic.
Three weeks after its debut, the McNaught Syndicate picked up the “Dear Abby” column and sold it to newspapers around the country, including the New York Daily Mirror. Ann Landers wouldn’t get a New York outlet until years later, when her column ran in the World-Telegram and Sun.
The success of “Dear Abby” led to a radio show on CBS, which ran for 12 years, and a star for “Abby” on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 1982, Phillips admitted recycling some letters without labeling them as repeats, a week after her sister had acknowledged doing so following an investigation by the Associated Press and the Pontiac (Illinois) Daily Leader. Phillips issued a statement saying that “henceforth every reprint will be labeled.”
In 2003, Edward Phillips and an anonymous donor gave $10 million to the Mayo Clinic, based in Rochester, Minnesota, to conduct medical research in Alzheimer’s disease.
“I believe she made a profound difference in many lives countless times,” Edward Phillips said. “And if that is the acid test of a good life, she passed with flying colors.”