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Pauline Friedman Phillips was her name. But for decades, America knew the Sioux City, Iowa, native as Abigail Van Buren, a.k.a. “Dear Abby,” the newspaper advice columnist famed for giving readers a kick-in-the-pants with witty, acidic ripostes — at least when they deserved it.

Phillips, who died on Jan. 16 at age 94 in Minneapolis, made a career of being feisty and opinionated — and the 9,000 to 12,000 readers who sent her letters each week, by various accounts, seemed to love her for it. Born Pauline Esther Friedman on Independence Day in 1918, she was one-half of a pair of twin daughters of Russian immigrants Abraham and Rebecca Friedman. Her sister, Esther Pauline, who was born 17 minutes earlier, also grew up to become famous as an advice columnist, working under the pseudonym Ann Landers.

Here are 10 intriguing facts about an American icon.

  1. It was tough for her to get a start. When Phillips initially tried to become an advice columnist for the San Mateo (Calif.) Times in the 1950s, she “was laughed out of the room,” her daughter Jeanne told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008. She got her first toehold in the advice business when her sister took over the Ann Landers column at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1955 and asked her to help out with responses to some of the bushels of letters she was getting. The following year, she wrote to an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, telling him she could give better advice than the columnist he was using at the time. After she tossed off a few characteristically tart sample replies to readers’ mail, he was so impressed that he offered her the job, at a salary of $20 per week.
  2. Phillips borrowed her pen name from Abigail, the prophet who advised David in the biblical Book of Samuel, and from President Martin Van Buren.
  3. Phillips and her sister, who were pitted as syndicated competitors early in their careers, were estranged for a time, but reconciled in the 1960s.
  4. For years, Phillips worked from her home in Beverly Hills, Calif., where she began the day by jogging in place in her living room. Even after the advent of PCs, she continued to compose her columns on an IBM Selectric III typewriter.
  5. The longest letter she ever received, written by a prison inmate, ran to 102 pages.
  6. One of her oddest topics: Whether a dog could serve as the ring-bearer at a wedding ceremony. In a 1989 column, she applauded a couple who had incorporated their female Labrador retriever Knicky into the service, saying that “may your life together be filled with love and laughter.”
  7. Though she often seemed to toss off flip replies, Phillips often did so only after extensively researching a topic that troubled a reader. ”I try awfully hard to check out my answers, she explained in a 1991 St. Louis Post-Dispatch interview. “Sometimes it’s a matter of facts, sometimes I will accept as fact what a reader sends, and it isn’t . . . that’s when I get letters correcting me.”
  8. Phillips sometimes actually called people who wrote letters to her, especially if they seemed to be in distress. She told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that she once talked a Montana woman out of committing suicide. “She calmed down after I spoke to her,” she recalled.
  9. Phillips became a champion of tolerance for gay people in the 1980s, when she wrote a column in which she referred a reader to Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). ”Nobody can pinpoint the time he or she decided to be a heterosexual or homosexual,” she said in 1991. “It’s inborn.”
  10. Country-folk singer John Prine wrote a song about her back in the early 1970s that deftly (and affectionately) mimicked the way that she chided readers: “Stop wishin’ for bad luck and knockin’ on wood.”

 

Here’s a clip from an interview that Phillips gave to CNN’s Larry King. YouTube Preview Image

 

Photo: Phillips in 1993 (Everett Collection)

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