But with all the wonderful humor, the younger Phillips says she was most impressed with two things: her mother’s compassion and her bravery. The compassion, she says, shone through especially when her mother met her readers. She remembers a young girl coming up at a speaking engagement and saying something quietly, at which point her mother embraced the girl, who wept on her shoulder.
“That is my favorite visual memory of my mom,” she said.
Dear Abby’s advice changed over the years. When she started writing the column, she has said, 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.”
But her bravery, her daughter says, was exemplified even more by her willingness to take on issues like abortion, AIDS, sexism and other hot topics. She caught some flack for writing about homosexuality.
“Whenever I say a kind word about gays, I hear from people, and some of them are damn mad,” she said. “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.”
Phillips didn’t always stop at answering letters; sometimes she called people directly.
“I’ll call them. I say, ‘This is Abby,” she said. “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.”
Her longtime editor, Alan McDermott of the Universal Uclick features syndicate, said he was struck by how she combined that compassion with an infectious sense of humor, and good spirits.
“I don’t think I ever, in all those years, saw her without a smile on her face,” said McDermott, who edited her column for some 20 years. The two would speak on the phone weekly, and he sometimes accompanied her on speaking engagements.
And even though Phillips was a good 30 years his senior, McDermott says, she was not above a little innocent flirting. One morning he called her hotel room, and she quipped, “I think you left you left your toothbrush here,” he remembers with a chuckle.
Pauline Esther Friedman, known as Popo, was born on Independence Day 1918 in Sioux City, Iowa, 17 minutes after her identical twin, Esther Pauline (Eppie). Their father was a well-off owner of a movie theater chain. Their mother took care of the home. Both were immigrants from Russia who had fled their native land in 1905 because of the persecution of Jews.
Two days before their 21st birthday, the sisters had a double wedding. Pauline married Morton Phillips, a businessman, Esther married Jules Lederer, a business executive and later founder of Budget Rent-a-Car. The twins’ lives diverged as they followed their husbands to different cities.
The Phillipses lived in Minneapolis, Eau Claire, Wis., and San Francisco, and had a son and daughter, Edward Jay and Jeanne. Esther lived in Chicago, had a daughter, Margo, and in 1955 got her job writing the advice column. She adopted its existing name, Ann Landers.
Pauline, who had been working for philanthropies and the Democratic Party, followed her sister’s lead. She applied for the advice column without notifying her sister, and that reportedly resulted in bad feelings. For a long time they did not speak to each other, but their differences were eventually patched up. In 2001, the twins, then 83, attended the 90th birthday party in Omaha, Neb., of their sister Helen Brodkey.
The advice business extended to the second generation of the Friedmans. Not only did Jeanne Phillips take over “Dear Abby,” but Esther Lederer’s daughter, Margo Howard, wrote an advice column for the online magazine Slate.