Pauline Phillips, the woman who doled out advice to troubled readers in the hugely popular “Dear Abby” newspaper column, died on January 16 at 94 in Minneapolis. She had suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease for many years, according to her family.
Phillips was born Pauline Friedman in Sioux City, Iowa to Russian Jewish immigrants Rebecca (née Rushall) and Abraham B. Friedman, owner of a chain of movie theaters. She wrote under the pen name Abigail Van Buren. “Abigail” was taken from the wise woman in the Old Testament and “Van Buren” was one of her favorite presidents. The first “Dear Abby” column appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Jan. 9, 1956, the same year it was first syndicated. Phillips solely wrote the advice feature until 2000, when she and daughter Jeanne began sharing the byline.
From 1963 to 1975, Phillips also had a daily “Dear Abby” program on CBS Radio.
Jeanne Phillips took the column over full time in August 2002, when the family announced that her mother had Alzheimer’s. “I have lost my mother, my mentor and my best friend,” Jeanne Phillips said in a statement. “My mother leaves very big high heels to fill with a legacy of compassion, commitment and positive social change. I will honor her memory every day by continuing this legacy.”
Phillips was an honorary member of Women in Communications, the American College of Psychiatrists, and the National Council of Jewish Women. She authored six books: Dear Abby, Dear Teenager, Dear Abby on Marriage, Where Were You When President Kennedy was Shot?, The Dear Abby Wedding Planner, and The Best of Dear Abby.
Phillips enjoyed socializing with celebrities, and because of her notoriety, celebrities liked being seen with her. Among Phillips’ friends soon after she began her column were politicians, including Senators Hubert Humphrey and Herbert Lehman, and entertainers, including Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
She also admired Bishop Fulton Sheen, whom she met when learning about Catholicism while studying about other religions. The bishop admired her in return due to her ability to remain “unawed” and unaffected by the fame of others. Phillips commented, “He’s one of the greatest men I ever met, but he’ll be a Jew before I’m a Catholic.”
Phillips was known for both her sage advice and her biting wit. In one column, a reader queried: My husband has always been very close to his mother and she has never cared much for me. I asked my husband if I was drowning and his mother was drowning, which one would he save? He said “My mother, because I owe her more.” I am so terribly hurt, Abby. What shall I do? Arlene. In response, Phillips wrote: Dear Arlene: Learn to swim.
Another memorable letter read, “My boyfriend is going to be twenty years old next month. I’d like to give him something nice for his birthday. What do you think he’d like?” “Never mind what he’d like,” wrote Phillips. “Give him a tie.”
In addition to her daughter Jeanne, Phillips is survived by her husband of 73 years, Mort Phillips; grandchildren Dean Phillips, Tyler Phillips, Jay Phillips, and Hutton Phillips; and two great-granddaughters, Daniela and Pia. Her son Edward died in 2011 at the age of 66. Phillips’ twin sister Esther “Eppie” Lederer, who wrote her own advice column using the name Ann Landers, died in 2003.