For more than four decades, Abigail Van Buren—the pen name of Pauline Friedman Phillips—was a confessor, friend, and truth-teller to millions of newspaper readers. In her daily “Dear Abby” column, she dispensed snappy, often saucy, words of wisdom on everything from love and marriage to medicine and mothers-in-law. When one letter-writer asked what would cure her husband’s wandering eye, Dear Abby had the answer: “Rigor Mortis.” Another reader wanted to know if birth control pills were tax deductible. “Only if they don’t work,” she replied. And when a young man named Don asked how he could get his girlfriend of a year to say “Yes,” Abby responded: “What’s the question?”
“The improbable saga of ‘Dear Abby’ began in 1955 when Phillips was an affluent homemaker in Hillsborough, Calif., with time on her hands,” said the Los Angeles Times. Her identical twin sister, Eppie Lederer, who’d just been hired by the Chicago Sun-Times to take over the successful Ann Landers column, asked for her help responding to the flood of letters. “My stuff was published,” Phillips said, “and it looked awfully good in print.” So good that when the Sun-Times banned Lederer from sending readers’ letters out of the office, Phillips decided to start a column of her own. In 1956 she was hired by the San Francisco Chronicle, took on the pseudonym Abigail Van Buren—combining the names of a biblical prophetess and the eighth U.S. president—“and never looked back,” said USA Today.
Her column, an immediate hit, was soon widely syndicated. “Estimates of Phillips’s mail load ranged from 3,000 to 25,000 letters a week,” said The Washington Post. “At one time she employed four full-time mail openers, six letter answerers, and a research assistant.” Her responses were often acerbic, but “beneath her crackling one-liners lay an imperturbable acceptance of the vagaries of modern life,” said The New York Times. While disapproving of sex before marriage, Phillips wrote that girls who were sexually active should be given birth control pills. And as early as 1975, she took a “love and let love” attitude toward homosexuality, saying she didn’t care what people got up to in bed, “just as long as they didn’t frighten the horses.”
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The success of Phillips’s column came at a price—a five-year rift with her twin, who felt that Dear Abby had stolen her limelight. The sisters eventually reconciled, and advice-giving remains a family business. Phillips’s daughter, Jeanne, took over Dear Abby in 2002, while Lederer’s daughter, Margo Howard, once wrote an advice column for Slate.com. In 1986, Phillips said that she couldn’t imagine a more rewarding profession. “Every day I get letters from people who say, ‘You changed my life,’” she said. “Now that’s important.”
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