Dear Abby’s Timeless Advice

The particular charms of Pauline Phillips’ counsel.

Pauline Friedman Phillips.

Photo courtesy Easter Seals via WikiMedia

In reading the obituaries for the late Pauline (Popo) Friedman Phillips, who was best known as advice columnist Dear Abby, I enjoyed her unpretentious description of what she felt made her qualified to tell people what to do. As this Washington Post tribute describes, she made no claims for any special knowledge of the human condition. She just confidently asserted that she possessed common sense and could deploy it to help. (She was also happy to turn to a long list of authorities if the question required more expertise.)

The numbers of those who agreed with her self-assessment are astonishing. The Washington Post says she received between 3,000 and 25,000 letters a week. To answer these “she employed four full-time mail openers, six letter-answerers and a research assistant.” (As Slate’s Dear Prudence, I open all my own email, and it is not an onerous task.) Phillips became Dear Abby in 1956—she named herself after the Biblical Abigail, “Then David said to Abigail ‘Blessed is your advice and blessed are you’ ”—and continued until the column was officially taken over by her daughter, Jeanne, in 2002, with the announcement that Pauline was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Phillips died this week of the disease at age 94. Advice-giving ran in the family. Phillips’ twin sister, the late Esther (Eppie) Friedman Lederer, was the equally famous columnist Ann Landers. Lederer’s daughter Margo Howard was Slate’s previous Dear Prudence.

Dear Abby specialized in the clever one liner. To a wife asking about a cure for her husband’s wandering eye, she suggested “rigor mortis.” To the people complaining about the gay couple who’d moved in next door and wanting to know how the quality of the neighborhood could be restored, she replied: “You could move.” Her style makes her seem both like a voice from another era—one of those snappy dames Rosalind Russell played—and in the age of Twitter, remarkably current.

I’m sure that she must have sometimes felt overwhelmed by the sorrow that came her way, the cries from people who felt the need to turn to a disembodied stranger. I know she took her responsibilities very seriously; accounts say she sometimes contacted letter writers personally if she felt they were in trouble. I understand her impulse—I, too, communicate directly with people who sound suicidal or in danger. I’m sure she felt the same gratification I do when I hear back that they’ve seen a doctor and are feeling better or have left a threatening relationship.

She had the bedrock values of a nice Midwestern Jewish girl, a liberal point of view about people’s right to make personal decisions, and a willingness to adapt with the times. She started out thinking marriage should be forever but changed her mind on that—both of her children eventually divorced. She was an early supporter of equality for gay people and was a believer in abortion rights. She hated smoking but was willing to entertain the notion of drug legalization.

As Washington Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax wisely points out in her reflection on Dear Abby, just because you dole out advice doesn’t mean you don’t need it yourself. I frequently get letters from people full of resentment or rage at their adult siblings. It’s a little-explored area of human experience, unlike the much-examined relationships between parent and child or spouse and spouse. Phillips and Lederer famously feuded on and off for years because of their competing advice columns. After Lederer had begun hers first, she turned to her witty sister for help with answers. Lederer’s syndicate said she couldn’t farm out replies, so Phillips herself went and convinced the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle to give her her own column.

The resentment between them that bubbled out in interviews over the years was raw and sad. One can understand the rivalry, but both of the sisters must have known from the mailbags to their offices that there was more than enough trouble to go around. Each woman was among the most widely syndicated and best-read newspaper columnists of her day—Dear Abby at its height was in more than 1,400 newspapers, according to the Wall Street Journal. When I was growing up, my local newspaper, the Boston Globe, carried Ann Landers, and I read her column religiously. It has been a pleasure in the past day to read some of the best of Abby’s answers, to see that many of the same dilemmas she dealt with fill my inbox, and to confirm that the advice Abby gave still holds up.

Correction, Jan. 18, 2013: Due to a production error, this article originally included a photo of Esther Friedman Lederer, the twin sister of Pauline Friedman Phillips, but identified the image as Friedman Phillips.