'Dear Abby' columnist Pauline Friedman Phillips dies at 94


Sue Bean always wanted to write a letter that began "Dear Abby."

The 53-year-old North Adams resident recalled always reading the "Dear Abby" advice column, written by Pauline Friedman Phillips under the name Abigail Van Buren. The column was followed by millions of newspaper readers throughout the world.

"I always wanted to write her when I was younger, but I was afraid to because I had a strict father," Bean said. "I wanted to ask her questions, but I never did."

Phillips died Wednesday in Minneapolis after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease, said Gene Willis, a publicist for the Universal Uclick syndicate. She was 94.

"My mother leaves very big high heels to fill with a legacy of compassion, commitment and positive social change," her daughter, Jeanne Phillips, who now writes the column, said in a statement.

Private funeral services were held Thursday, Willis said.

"Dear Abby" competed for decades with the advice of Ann Landers, written by Phillips' twin sister, Esther Friedman Lederer, who died in 2002. Their relationship was stormy in their early adult years, but they later regained the closeness they had growing up in Sioux City, Iowa.

The long-running "Dear Abby" column first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1956. Mother and daughter started sharing the byline in 2000, and Jeanne Phillips took over in 2002, when the family announced Pauline Phillips had Alzheimer's disease.

"It was something you'd always have on the coffee table, so to speak," said Jenifer Augur, an assistant professor of English/Communications at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. "It was as entertaining as it was educational. The headline would either draw me in, or push me away."

Since Augur has master's degrees in both psychology and creative writing, she "began to recognize [through the column] that there are so many problems people can have," she said.

But Augur for more than 20 years kept a cutout of a "Dear Abby" column that her grandmother gave her in her wallet. It was the one in which Phillips talked about things she was thankful for, Augur said.

In a time before confessional talk shows and the nothing-is-too-private culture of the Internet, the sisters' columns offered a rare window into Americans' private lives and a forum for discussing marriage, sex and the swiftly changing mores of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

Back when Bean was "one of those young teenagers that always got in trouble," her mother gave her a "special little book" that was written by Phillips that answered questions teenagers had about sex, she said.

"It answered questions," Bean said, "but to change me back then, nobody would have."

Aside from the "Dear Abby" column, which appeared in 1,000 newspapers as far off as Brazil and Thailand, Phillips conducted a radio version of "Dear Abby" from 1963 to 1975 and wrote best-selling books about her life and advice.

In her book "The Best of Abby," Phillips commented that her years writing the column "have been fulfilling, exciting and incredibly rewarding. ... My readers have told me that they've learned from me. But it's the other way around. I've learned from them. Has it been a lot of work? Not really. It's only work if you'd rather be doing something else."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

To reach Adam Poulisse:
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