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Pauline Phillips, a California housewife who nearly 60 years ago, seeking something more meaningful than mah-jongg, transformed herself into the syndicated columnist Dear Abby—and in so doing became a trusted, tart-tongued adviser to tens of millions—died on Wednesday in Minneapolis. She was 94.
Phillips, who had Alzheimers disease, passed her column to her daughter more than a decade ago. So Phillips's column will survive her. (It's hard to imagine my straight snowboardin' son taking over "Savage Love" someday, but... anything is possible, I guess.) Phillips was the twin sister and, for many years, the bitter rival of Eppie "Ann Landers" Lederer.
In 1955, Mrs. Phillips’s twin, now Eppie Lederer, took over the Ann Landers column for The Chicago Sun-Times. A rank beginner soon swamped by a flood of mail, she began sending batches of letters to her sister—for advice, as it were. “I provided the sharp answers,” Mrs. Phillips told The Ladies’ Home Journal in 1981. “I’d say, ‘You’re writing too long (she still does), and this is the way I’d say it.’ ” She added, “My stuff was published—and it looked awfully good in print.” So good that when The Sun-Times later forbade Mrs. Lederer to send letters out of the office, Mrs. Phillips, by this time living in the Bay Area, vowed to find a column of her own.
And so she did—and Pauline and Eppie didn't speak for years.
There was a time when most cities had more than one newspaper. One paper would run Ann Landers, another would run Dear Abby. People tended to prefer one columnist or the other, their preferences shaped by which paper their families read. My family subscribed to all of Chicago's daily papers—Chicago had four dailies when I was a kid (a really little kid)—and I grew up reading both Ann in the Sun-Times and Abby in the Chicago Tribune. But I strongly preferred Ann. I'm actually sitting at Ann Lander's desk, which I bought at auction after her death, as I write this post. Ann's IBM Correcting Selectric III is sitting on the desk and a Saks Fifth Avenue receipt for a dress that Lander's purchased for $30 in 1974 is in the top drawer. (Fun fact: After Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times in 1984, Ann quit the paper and moved her column to the Tribune, which then ran both Ann and Abby until Lander's died in 2002.)
So, yeah, you could call me more of an Ann Lander's fan. But I must say I have a newfound appreciation for Abby after reading Margolit Fox's terrific obit in the New York Times. Fox quotes a few of Abby's pithier-than-Ann responses to her readers. Here's a good one:
Dear Abby: Our son married a girl when he was in the service. They were married in February and she had an 8 1/2-pound baby girl in August. She said the baby was premature. Can an 8 1/2-pound baby be this premature?—Wanting to Know
Dear Wanting: The baby was on time. The wedding was late. Forget it.
And Fox's obit ends with the most famous three-word response in the whole, sordid history of the advice-column racket:
Dear Abby: Two men who claim to be father and adopted son just bought an old mansion across the street and fixed it up. We notice a very suspicious mixture of company coming and going at all hours—blacks, whites, Orientals, women who look like men and men who look like women. This has always been considered one of the finest sections of San Francisco, and these weirdos are giving it a bad name. How can we improve the neighborhood? — Nob Hill Residents
Dear Residents: You could move.
Phillips wrote that decades ago—back when adult gay men often resorted to adopting their adult partners because it was the only way to secure any legal protections for their relationships—and people are still quoting it today. I don't think anyone working in this genre will ever top it.
My sympathies to Jeanne Phillips, Pauline's daughter and the current author of "Dear Abby."