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Original 'Dear Abby' advice columnist dies at 94

9:53 PM, Jan 17, 2013   |    comments
Pauline Phillips and Jeanne Phillips of 'Dear Abby' (Photo by Jean-Paul Aussenard/WireImage)
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By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY

She was known as advice maven Dear Abby, a persona she invented well over a half-century ago. Pauline Esther Friedman Phillips, who died Wednesday afternoon at age 94, was buried today in a small family ceremony.

Phillips, who had Alzheimer's disease, died in Minneapolis where she moved in 2002. That year, her daughter Jeanne Phillips officially assumed the Dear Abby title, according to publicist Gene Willis of Universal Uclick, the independent syndicate that distributes the column to a daily readership of more than 110 million.

"If there's a party up there, my mother is sparkling and she's the life of the party," Jeanne Phillips said today. "She was wonderful -- an amazing, charismatic, caring, caring woman. She loved and had a deep concern for other people."

Phillips, of Los Angeles, says her mother taught her about human nature and "not to be too judgmental because we're all human."

Phillips has been at her mother's bedside the past week. She says her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1996, "but she had it many years before."

Abby started life as Pauline Esther Friedman, of Sioux City, Iowa, but was better known by her childhood nickname "Popo." It wasn't until she created Abby that the internationally syndicated columnist would become a household name, public speaker, radio broadcaster and author of five books.

Abby's career dishing out relationship counsel began shortly after her twin sister, Esther Pauline Friedman Lederer, called "Eppie," had gotten into the business of advising others in 1955. Her sister would also take a pen name - Ann Landers - when she took over writing the so-named existing newspaper advice column in Chicago.

The way Abby tells it in her 1981 book The Best of Dear Abby, she approached the San Francisco Chronicle about replacing the current advice columnist. In 1956, the suburban homemaker, volunteer and mother of two teens took the pseudonym Abigail Van Buren and never looked back.

She was Abby, say those who knew her best.

"She went by 'Abby' in her personal and professional life, unlike Ann Landers who was very much 'Eppie' in her personal life. Even Mort (Abby's husband) called her 'Abby,'" says Alan McDermott, her editor since 1980. He still edits the column for the Kansas City, Mo.-based Universal Uclick.

"I supposed one indication of her influence is that if you said 'Dear Abby,' 90% of the American people would know who you're talking about," he says.

"She allowed all kinds of topics that might not have been talked about before in an everyday public forum. But in addition to her legacy of addressing important social issues, she also had a column that was fun and lighthearted. She took delight in puns and clever word play," he says.

McDermott says he last saw Abby in 2001 when she and her daughter were awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for their radio program. Jeanne Phillips owns the legal rights to the Dear Abby pen name.

In her 1981 book, Abby 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."

Helen Thomas, 92, a veteran journalist and close friend, said Thursday she learned of her friend's death Wednesday evening. Jeanne Phillips says Thomas was the first person she called.

"She was a real leader. She made a great contribution to the world," Thomas says of Abby.

But on a personal note, Thomas adds, "she was a great friend," noted for "her generosity, her kindness, her goodness."

In a 2007 interview with USA TODAY, Thomas said that Abby had a "tremendous heart and tremendous compassion."

"People related to her and she understood them," Thomas said. "She always was upbeat and gave the best advice she could. She was never flippant with people's problems."

Thomas said she met Abby in 1975 when both appeared on a television talk show hosted by Dinah Shore. Thomas had written a book about the White House.

"She loaned me her limo to go to different places to promote the book," Thomas said. "I thought 'This has got to be a great woman.' "

Abby's columns addressed more than just problems of the lovelorn. She tackled prickly relationships, sex, illness, equal rights, AIDS awareness and hospice care, among other topics of the times.

McDermott says he and Abby used to have weekly conversations to go over the columns. He described her as "bright, charming, engaged and curious."

"She was a genuine person - the kind of persona she radiated in the column was who she was as a person," McDermott says.

The rival advice columns penned by the twins apparently caused some familial ill will. Despite the fact that they had a double wedding in 1939, many reports have said they feuded and later reconciled. Abby's sister died in June 2002.

Abby had often said her daughter helped her since the column began, offering a younger perspective to some of the questions. But it wasn't until December 2000 that Abby acknowledged Jeanne's participation in earlier years. At that time, the longtime resident of Beverly Hills moved to Minneapolis, where her husband Mort had kept a residence because of business interests.

In 2003, Abby's family, along with an anonymous donor, contributed a total of $10 million to the Mayo Clinic for its Alzheimer's research. The facility was renamed the Abigail Van Buren Alzheimer's Disease Research Clinic.

Abby is survived by her husband of 73 years Mort Phillips of Minneapolis; daughter Jeanne Phillips and husband Walter Harris of Los Angeles; four grandchildren and two great granddaughters. She was preceded in death by three siblings and a son, Eddie Phillips.

"She had a great impact on our society," said Thomas. "She was sparkling, really."

McDermott says the column today addresses "the same questions with a modern spin. The culture is different now, but human nature is still full of challenges."

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