Editor’s note: This article was first published in 2013.
Sioux City native Pauline Phillips gained fame and millions of fans as writer of the “Dear Abby” newspaper advice column, but she maintained ties to her hometown throughout her illustrious life.
Better known to newspaper readers as Abigail Van Buren, Phillips and twin sister Esther Lederer, who became an advice columnist under the pen name Ann Landers, were a dual, and sometimes dueling, force in newspaper advice columns for more than a half century. The pair graduated from Sioux City’s former Central High School in 1936 and attended Morningside College there as well.
“They never forgot Sioux City,” said Grace Linden, curator of the Sioux City Museum and Historical Society. “The city never forgot them.”
Bruce Miller, a columnist for the Sioux City Journal, wrote following Phillips’ death in 2013: “Both were proud of their hometown. Both were eager to sing its praises. Abby, though, was more user-friendly. She’d call out of the blue, just to talk. She sent notes, too, and always seemed like the folksier one of the two…”
Lederer started the pair’s column writing in 1955, taking over a Chicago Sun-Times advice column called “Ann Landers.” Lederer died in 2002.
Phillips followed suit in January 1956, writing the “Dear Abby” column for the San Francisco Chronicle.
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.
Phillips officially ceded the column duties to daughter Jeanne Phillips in 2002, who made the column her own.
“If there’s a party up there, my mother is sparkling, and she’s the life of the party,” Jeanne Phillips said shortly after her mother’s death. “She was wonderful — an amazing, charismatic, caring, caring woman. She loved and had a deep concern for other people.”
High school, college, marriage in Iowa
Born on the Fourth of July in 1918, the sisters started life as Pauline Esther Friedman and Esther Pauline Friedman, the youngest daughters of Russian Jewish immigrants Abe and Rebecca Friedman, a grocer and theater owner in Sioux City. Her parents had fled Jewish persecution in their native land.
Pauline was known is “Po-Po” for short, while Esther, who was 17 minutes older, became “Eppie.”
Though both had blue eyes and coal black hair, the identical twins did not look exactly alike. In her 20s, Landers had surgery on her nose, which she said was done to correct a deviated septum.
The Friedman sisters began their column writing for the Morningside campus newspaper, the Collegian Reporter. They compiled a gossip column called “The Campus Rat,” using their first initials, “PE-EP,” as a byline, according to a Morningside history written by former faculty member Timothy Orwig.
The Friedman sisters left Morningside without degrees to marry in a 1939 joint wedding, “the highlight of the social season,” Orwig wrote. (Both would later receive honorary degrees.)
Three rabbis officiated and more than 750 guests attended. Pauline married Morton Phillips of Minnesota, heir to the family’s liquor-business fortune.
The idea of having a career didn’t occur to either twin until age 37, when Lederer started her Ann Landers column.
In San Francisco, Phillips approached the editors of the Chronicle and said she could do a better job than their current advice columnist. The editor, the story goes, handed her a few letters to answer in hopes of getting her out of his hair. She returned with replies that same day and soon she became the Abby in “Dear Abby.”
In her 1981 book, “The Best of Dear Abby,” Phillips explains how she came up with her moniker: “I took the ‘Abigail’ from the Old Testament, for Abigail was a prophetess in the Book of Samuel. I chose ‘Van Buren’ from our eighth president, Martin Van Buren, because I liked the aristocratic, old-family ring.”
“She went by ‘Abby’ in her personal and professional life, unlike Ann Landers who was very much ‘Eppie’ in her personal life,” said Alan McDermott, who edited her columns for decades. “Even Mort (Abby’s husband) called her ‘Abby.'”
At one point, the columnists together received a reported 15,000 letters each week and had an estimated 200 million readers. Yet while Phillips became an international star and author, she and her sister returned many times to their hometown for reunions and their double 65th birthday celebration in 1983.
Sisters’ columns differed in style
The two columns differed in style. Ann Landers responded to questioners with homey, detailed advice. Abby’s replies were often flippant and occasionally risqué one-liners, like some of those 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: Never mind what he’d like, give him a tie.
Dear Abby: What inspires you most to write? — Ted
Dear Ted: The Bureau of Internal Revenue.
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?
Phillips admitted that her advice changed over the years. When she started writing the column, she was reluctant to advocate divorce.
“I always thought that marriage should be forever,” she explained. “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.”
If the letters sounded suicidal, she took a personal approach: “I’ll call them. I say, ‘This is Abby. How are you feeling? You sounded awfully low.’ And they say, ‘You’re calling me?’ After they start talking, you can suggest that they get professional help.”
The three biggest problems for which she dispensed advice, Phillips once said, were marriage, guidance for young people and romance.
Both Phillips and sister Lederer caused the occasional controversy. In the 1970s, both were accused of recycling letters. In the 1980s, both warned that Halloween candy had been sabotaged with razor blades — though there has never been a documented case of such tampering.
Phillips was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1996, “but she had it many years before,” said her daughter, Jeanne Phillips of Los Angeles.
Phillips said her mother taught her about human nature and “not to be too judgmental because we’re all human.”
Des Moines Register copy editor Tom Longden, USA Today and the Associated Press contributed to this article.