By Sandra Birungi
Pauline Phillips commonly known as Abigail Van Buren or Dear Abby died at the age 94.
Mrs. Phillips died on Jan. 16 in Minneapolis. As a confessor, arbiter and friend to many, Mrs. Phillips started her career as a writer in mid 1950′s as an apprentice to her sister, Esther Pauline Friedman. She responded to the overflow from Ann Landers column; that was when she discovered she would as well give good advice to people.
Despite being sisters, the two became competitors and were compared by the readers leading to a bitter relationship which saw them not speak to each for long periods of time. “For seven years,” Abby wrote, “my career flourished but I walked around with a hole in my heart.”
Estimates of Mrs. Phillips’s mail load ranged from 3,000 to 25,000 letters per week. At one time, she employed four full-time mail openers, six letter-answerers and a research assistant to respond to questions on topics ranging from unbearable tragedy to family squabbles to burial requests to intimacy.
On the last topic, 227,000 readers responded when Mrs. Phillips asked in a column whether women over 50 enjoyed it. Mrs. Phillips took her work seriously and personally. She personally made visits to people, such as a battered wife from Idaho, whose queries couldn’t wait on the Postal Service. One letter she said she never forgot was from the heartbroken landlady of a 91-year-old man who waited all day on his birthday for a visit from his children but they never came.
“It’s no great tribute to me,” she once told the Los Angeles Times, explaining why she thought so many desperate people turned to her. “They figure they’re never going to see you again. But I imagine they’re people whom nobody listens to, and they take the opportunity and let it all hang out.”
Pauline Esther Friedman was born July 4, 1918, in Sioux City, Iowa, to Russian Jewish immigrants. Her father supported the family as a traveling salesman who became a move theater chain owner in America. The saddest thing in her life, Mrs. Phillips said, was that her parents did not live to see her and her sister’s success.
Phillips and her twin who later turned into her rival in business were inseparable as children. “They would tell each other’s stories, and in their minds their lives became interchangeable,” wrote Howard, who for a time penned the Dear Prudence advice column on Slate.com. When the sisters graduated from high school in 1936, the yearbook said next to Popo’s picture, “Always with Eppie” and next to Eppie’s was “Always with Po-Po.” Eppie was Esther while Mrs. Phillips was Popo.
The girls went off to school together and just before their 21st birthday, they left college to be married in a double ceremony followed by a double honeymoon.
Time magazine once wrote, “From a chauffeured yellow Cadillac convertible in front of the San Francisco Chronicle building last winter stepped a shapely brunette wearing a little black dress by Dior and the inscrutable smile of a woman who knows what she wants.”
Lederer died in 2002.
Mrs. Phillips’s death was announced by her column’s syndicate, Universal Uclick. She had Alzheimer’s disease and had turned her column over to her daughter, Jeanne Phillips, about a decade ago.
Besides her daughter, Mrs. Phillips’s survivors include her husband of 73 years and the person to whom she said she turned for advice, Mort Phillips; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Her son, Edward Phillips, died in 2011.