Pauline Phillips, a California housewife better known as Dear Abby, died yesterday in Minneapolis at the age of 94. Phillips had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for over a decade, Universal Uclick, her syndicate, wrote. Nearly 60 years ago, Phillips became Dear Abby, and her advice has been read by tens of millions.
In her column, Mrs. Phillips championed equal rights for women, minorities, people with mental illness and those who are physically challenged. The column has promoted AIDS awareness and education, hospice care, the living will, organ donation and also raised awareness about gender apartheid suffered by women in Afghanistan.
The New York Times credits her “comic and flinty yet fundamentally sympathetic voice” for helping to “wrestle the advice column from its weepy Victorian past into a hard-nosed 20th-century present.”
Long before the Internet — and long before the pervasive electronic confessionals of Drs. Ruth, Phil, Laura, et al. — the Dear Abby column was a forum for the public discussion of private problems, read by tens of millions of people in hundreds of newspapers around the world.
Phillips was born in Iowa in 1918, a twin daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia. She studied journalism and psychology in college and wrote a joint gossip column with her sister in the school paper. After marrying and moving to the Bay Area, she told The Los Angeles Times in 1986, she got tired of playing mah-jongg and started looking for something more meaningful to occupy her time with.
She wound up phoning the San Francisco Chronicle and said she thought she could do a better job than the current advice columnist. After showing up unannounced at the appear the next morning in a Dior dress, the editor reluctantly handed her a stack of old issues, telling her to give it her best shot. Not long after she turned in her replies, she was offered the job for $20 per week. She chose her pen name, Abigail, after the prophetess in the Book of Samuel, and her first column appeared January 9, 1956.
It is difficult to overstate the column’s influence on American culture at midcentury and afterward: in popular parlance, “Dear Abby” was for decades an affectionate synonym for a trusted, if slightly campy, confidante.
Dear Abby lives on, however. In 1987, Phillips’ daughter took over the column, which today circulates in about 1,400 newspapers worldwide and has a daily readership of about 110 million. Dear Abby continues to receive about 10,000 letter and email queries per week.
The New York Times compiled a collection of favorite Dear Abby replies:
Dear Abby: My wife sleeps in the raw. Then she showers, brushes her teeth and fixes our breakfast — still in the buff. We’re newlyweds and there are just the two of us, so I suppose there’s really nothing wrong with it. What do you think? — Ed
Dear Ed: It’s O.K. with me. But tell her to put on an apron when she’s frying bacon.
Dear Abby: I have always wanted to have my family history traced, but I can’t afford to spend a lot of money to do it. Have you any suggestions? — M.J.B. in Oakland, Calif.
Dear M.J.B.: Yes. Run for a public office.
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.
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.
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