On this day in 2013, Pauline Phillips, who for more than 40 years wrote the “Dear Abby” newspaper advice column, dies at age 94 in Minneapolis after battling Alzheimer’s disease. Using the pen name Abigail Van Buren, Phillips made her “Dear Abby” debut in 1956, and over the ensuing decades dispensed witty advice on a broad range of topics, from snoring to sex. With a daily readership eventually topping 110 million people, “Dear Abby” became the world’s most widely syndicated newspaper column, appearing in some 1,400 newspapers and generating around 10,000 letters per week.
Pauline Esther Friedman, nicknamed Popo, was born July 4, 1918, in Sioux City, Iowa. Her identical twin, Esther Pauline Friedman, dubbed Eppie, would grow up to pen the “Ask Ann Landers” advice column. The twins, whose Russian Jewish immigrant parents owned a chain of movie theaters, attended Sioux City’s Morningside College, where they studied journalism and psychology and wrote a gossip column for the school paper. They dropped out of college to marry in a double ceremony in 1939, shortly before their 21st birthday. Pauline wed Morton Phillips, a businessman from a wealthy family, while her twin tied the knot with Jules Lederer, who would later found Budget Rent a Car.
In 1955 Lederer took over the “Ann Landers” column for The Chicago Sun-Times and soon turned to her sister for help answering some of the letters she received from readers. Phillips, who was living in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she was raising a family and involved in various philanthropic activities, enjoyed responding to these letters and decided she wanted an advice column of her own. She contacted The San Francisco Chronicle and told an editor there she believed she could write a better advice column that the one the paper published. The editor told her to stop by sometime, and the next morning Phillips showed up at the paper’s offices. Skeptical about Phillips’ qualifications, the editor told her to come up with her own responses to some of the letters that appeared in back issues of the paper. Phillips did so that same day and promptly was hired for the job, at $20 a week.
In selecting her pen name, Phillips took Abigail after a character from the Bible and Van Buren after the eighth U.S. president, whose name she liked. The first “Dear Abby” column debuted on January 9, 1956, and was an instant hit with readers. A rift soon developed between Phillips and Lederer as a result of their competing columns, and the two were estranged for a number of years; however, both women became two of the most successful and influential columnists of the 20th century. Over the decades, Phillips tackled a variety of serious and controversial subjects, including abortion (she was pro-choice) and homosexuality (by the early 1980s, she publicly supported gay people). Additionally, Phillips was known to check in by phone with letter writers who sounded particularly distressed.
In 1987 Phillips’ daughter, Jeanne, began co-writing “Dear Abby” with her mother. In 2002 Jeanne Phillips officially took over the column. That same year, Lederer died at age 83 and Pauline Phillips’ family announced she had Alzheimer’s. Phillips died on January 16, 2013.