If America is about self-invention and self-help, then Pauline Phillips, who was 94 when she died on Jan. 14, was a patron saint of the nation. Born the younger of identical twins, she became famous as Abigail Van Buren, a made-up name under which she wrote a popular newspaper column that doled out such pithy, warm and tart advice about how to conduct one’s life and romances that its title became a universal signifier for any sidekick confidante: “Dear Abby.”
Her chief rival was Ann Landers–who also happened to be her older twin Esther–and the sisters would be estranged for much of the height of their careers. (TIME called them “Sister Confessors” in a story from 1957, the year after Abby followed Ann into the advice business.) While Ann could be discursive, Abby was often so hilariously direct and concise that some people at first thought her work was intended as parody or satire. After a newly minted 21-year-old woman wrote to her about having consumed three martinis, half a bottle of wine and two brandies, then asked, “Did I go wrong?” Abby replied, “Probably.”
But the advice seekers were real and the counsel genuine, often reflecting the liberal ethos she and her sister shared, championing a frankness about sex and sexuality that guided Americans through a time of immense social transformation. At its most popular, her syndicated column was read by tens of millions of people all over the world. Phillips, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease more than 10 years before her death, bequeathed the Dear Abby name to her daughter Jeanne, who continues to turn out advice for that perpetual constituency, the lovelorn.
This text originally appeared in the Feb. 4 issue of TIME magazine.
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