The Controversial Life and Times of "Dear Abby"

Elise Sole
Secrets to Your Success

The death of "Dear Abby" columnist Pauline Friedman Phillips (a.k.a., Abigail Van Buren) at age 94 after a long battle with Alzheimer's Disease is sad news. Famous for not shying away from controversy and dispensing advice on life topics such as cheating hubbies and rude neighbors in sassy one-liners, she was a mainstay in the morning news, syndicated in hundreds of newspapers around the world since 1956. Here are eight things that tickled us about Pauline.

She was competitive: Although she and her twin sister Esther (Eppie) were close growing up—they dressed alike and both wrote gossip columns for their high school and college newspapers—when Pauline discovered Eppie got a gig writing a column called "Ask Ann Landers", Pauline arranged a secret interview with an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and scored her own advice column, subsequently triggering a eight year-long rift between her and Eppie.

She had a bit of an ego: She started her career as an advice columnist because she says, people were innately drawn to her. “I was cocky,” she said in 1998. “My contemporaries would come to me for advice. I got that from my mother: the ability to listen and to help other people with their problems. I also got Daddy’s sense of humor.”

But she was willing to admit when she was wrong: Although Pauline was reluctant to suggest divorce for readers experiencing martial strife (unlike Eppie who was known for her modern views on marriage), she wasn't stuck in her ways.  “I always thought that marriage should be forever,” she once said. “I found out through my readers that sometimes the best thing they can do is part. If a man or woman is a constant cheater, the situation can be intolerable. Especially if they have children. When kids see parents fighting, or even sniping at each other, I think it is terribly damaging.”

She was a good mom: When her 14-year-old daughter Jeanne asked her for an allowance, Pauline reportedly replied, "What are you going to do for it?" then hired Jeanne to answer letters she received from teenage girls. If Jeanne did a good job, Pauline would include them in her column. If she didn't? Jeanne simply had to re-write them.

She believed in good sex: Although she was born in 1918, an era when women weren't supposed to have much of an opinion about well, anything, her views on sex were progressive. When asked her opinion on Viagra her response was, “It’s wonderful. Men who can’t perform feel less than manly, and Viagra takes them right off the spot.”

She was a feminist: Pauline threw herself into her career, authoring six books and hosting "The Dear Abby Show" on CBS for twelve years, but she didn't dip into any Mommy Wars. “I think it’s good to have a woman work if she wants to and doesn’t leave her children unattended — if she has a reliable person to care for them. Kids still need someone to watch them until they are mature enough to make responsible decisions," she said.

She was a champion for gay rights: Even though she knew she may not be popular for it, she was outspoken about her support of gay people. In a 1998 interview she said, "Whenever I say a kind word about gays, I hear from people, and some of them are damn mad. People throw Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and other parts of the Bible to me. it doesn't bother me. I've always been compassionate toward gay people." And she passed her tolerance down to her daughter. In 2007 when Jeanne took over "Dear Abby" for her mother, she told the AP, "I believe if two people want to commit to each other, God bless ‘em...That is the highest form of commitment, for heaven’s sake.”

She answered to PoPo: Was a cooler nickname ever coined?