Dear Abby's Legacy: Wit, Warmth, and Snappy Advice

In this Feb. 14, 2001, photo, Pauline Friedman Phillips, right, the nationally syndicated advice columnist best known as "Dear Abby," and her daughter Jeanne Phillips, pose after the dedication of a Dear Abby star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles.
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By JOCELYN NOVECK, Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Two men had recently bought a house together in San Francisco, and the neighbors were annoyed. The men were entertaining "a very suspicious mixture of people," the neighbors wrote, asking: "How can we improve the neighborhood?"

"You could move," Dear Abby replied.

That zinger, contained in the 1981 collection "The Best of Dear Abby," was such classic Abby — real name, Pauline Friedman Phillips — that it moved her daughter to burst into laughter Thursday when reminded of it, even though she had just returned from the funeral of her mother. The elder Phillips had died a day earlier at age 94 after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease.

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"People weren't really talking about homosexuality back then," Jeanne Phillips, who now writes the famous syndicated column, said. "But you know, there wasn't a subject my mother wouldn't take on."

As the world said goodbye to Dear Abby on Thursday, the Web was full of her snappiest one-liners, responses to thousands of letters over the decades that she wrote in her daily column. But her admirers noted that behind the humor and wit was a huge heart, and a genuine desire to improve people's lives.

"She really wanted to help people," said Judith Martin, the etiquette columnist known as Miss Manners. "Yes, she wrote with humor, but with great sympathy. She had an enormous amount of influence, and for the good. Her place in the culture was really extraordinary."

The long-running "Dear Abby" column first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1956. Phillips was hardly experienced, but she had managed to snag an interview for the job. A skeptical editor allowed her to write a few sample columns, and Phillips was hired.

She wrote under the name Abigail Van Buren, plucking the name Abigail from the Bible and Van Buren from American history. Her column competed for decades with that of Ann Landers, who was none other than her twin sister, Esther Friedman Lederer (she died in 2002.) Their relationship was stormy in their early adult years, but they later regained the closeness they'd had growing up in Sioux City, Iowa.

Carolyn Hax, who writes her own syndicated advice column, feels that one can't speak of one sister without the other, so influential were they both, and at the same time.

"Any of us who do this owe them such a debt," she said. "The advice column was a backwater of the newspaper, and now it is so woven into our cultural fabric. These columns are loved and widely read, by people you wouldn't expect. That couldn't have happened without them."

In a time before confessional talk shows and the nothing-is-too-private culture of the Web, 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.

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The two columns differed in style, though. While Ann Landers responded to questioners with homey, detailed advice, Abby's replies were more flippant and occasionally risqué, like some collected for her 1981 book.

Dear Abby: My boyfriend is going to be 20 years old next month. I'd like to give him something nice for his birthday. What do you think he'd like? — Carol

Dear Carol: Nevermind what he'd like, give him a tie.

Dear Abby: I've been going with this girl for a year. How can I get her to say yes? — Don

Dear Don: What's the question?

Jeanne Phillips, who took over the column in 2002 after a few years of sharing the byline, recalled in a telephone interview Thursday her mother's response to a woman who wrote in detail of how many drinks she'd shared with her date one night. "Did I do wrong?" the woman wrote, in the daughter's retelling.

"Probably," her mom responded.

But with all the wonderful humor, the younger Phillips says she was most impressed with two things: her mother's compassion and her bravery. The compassion, she says, shone through especially when her mother met her readers. She remembers a young girl coming up at a speaking engagement and saying something quietly, at which point her mother embraced the girl, who wept on her shoulder.