Skip to main content

Pauline Phillips, longtime Dear Abby advice columnist, dies at 94

By Michael Martinez, CNN
March 7, 2013 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: "There is always an answer, even if it's...you can't change anybody but yourself," she said
  • Pauline Phillips was author of the Dear Abby column for decades
  • She used the pen name Abigail Van Buren
  • In 2002, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease

(CNN) -- Pauline Phillips, better known to millions of newspaper readers as the original Dear Abby advice columnist, has died after a long battle with Alzheimer's Disease, her family said Thursday.

She died Wednesday in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at age 94.

Phillips' columns were published in an era when newspaper readers began to prize straight-talking, pithy advice about marriages, children, jobs -- just about anything that troubled people.

Phillips wrote under the pen name of Abigail Van Buren, shortened to "Dear Abby" in newspapers. "Abigail" was taken from the wise woman in the Old Testament and "Van Buren" was one of her favorite presidents.

The first Dear Abby column appeared in 1956, and Phillips solely wrote the advice feature until 2000, when she and daughter Jeanne began sharing the byline.

Click through to see people who passed away in 2013. Click through to see people who passed away in 2013.
People we lost in 2013
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: People we lost in 2013 Photos: People we lost in 2013
1990: 'Dear Abby' on her big break

Jeanne Phillips took the column over full time in August 2002, when the family announced that Pauline Phillips had Alzheimer's.

"I have lost my mother, my mentor and my best friend," Jeanne Phillips said in a statement. "My mother leaves very big high heels to fill with a legacy of compassion, commitment and positive social change. I will honor her memory every day by continuing this legacy."

Pauline Phillips strove to say more with less. Her direct style was captured in her favorite Swedish toast, according to the column's syndication service:

"Fear less; hope more. Eat less; chew more. Talk less; say more. Hate less; love more."

What was your favorite Dear Abby advice?

Before the digital era of journalism introduced such notions as "crowd sourcing" of the public and computerized metrics on readership, Phillips assembled her Q&A columns from queries mailed in from readers. She was able to quantify her following by the number of newspapers who bought her columns -- and by how many readers spent money on a stamp to mail her a letter.

"Dear Abby" is the world's most widely syndicated column, having appeared in 1,400 newspapers with a daily readership of more than 110 million, the syndication service Universal Uclick said.

In another example of her following, Phillips held a survey in 1987 asking readers to send a postcard or note -- anonymously if they wanted -- about whether they cheated on their mates.

Almost 250,000 people responded within three months.

Her twin sister was also a famous advice columnist. Esther "Eppie" Pauline Friedman Lederer, who died at age 83 in 2002 of multiple myeloma, was the author of the newspaper column "Ann Landers."

Phillips, who was born July 4, 1918, in Sioux City, Iowa, ventured into journalism in 1955 at age 37. She called the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and told him she could write a better advice column than what the paper had.

Phillips was surprised when the editor agreed to interview her. She described herself as "an average, middle-aged housewife who had been happily married to the same man for 17 years and had reared two 'reasonably normal' teenagers," according to a statement by the syndicate.

She had never written professionally, though she studied journalism in college. But she asserted she could write an advice column "because all of her life she had been an amateur 'wailing wall without portfolio,' " the syndicate said.

Dear Abby: Kyra Phillips remembers her mentor

Editor Stanleigh Arnold "wanted only to get this self-styled journalist out of his office, so he asked her to write sample replies to some previously published columns. She did, and the rest, as they say, is history," the syndicate said.

The first "Dear Abby" column appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Jan. 9, 1956, the same year it was first syndicated.

Phillips advocated "equal rights for women, minorities, people with mental illness and those who are physically challenged," and her column "promoted AIDS awareness and education, hospice care, the living will, organ donation and also raised awareness about gender apartheid suffered by women in Afghanistan," the syndicate said.

When asked of her greatest accomplishment, Phillips often stated: "Surviving."

In a 1990 interview with CNN's Larry King, Phillips explained the bottom line of dispensing advice:

"There is always an answer, even if it's say, look, pal, you can't change anybody but yourself. You got to play the cards that are dealt you and you have to live with this, do the best you can. But you got to accept what fate deals you," Phillips said.

She is survived by her husband of 73 years, Mort Phillips; daughter Jeanne Phillips; grandchildren, Dean Phillips, Tyler Phillips, Jay Phillips, Hutton Phillips; and two great-granddaughters, Daniela and Pia.

Private services have been held.

People we've lost in 2013: The lives they lived

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
January 6, 2014 -- Updated 0030 GMT (0830 HKT)
Click through our gallery to remember those we lost this year.
January 2, 2014 -- Updated 0055 GMT (0855 HKT)
Actor James Avery, who played the beloved Uncle Phil on the hit 1990s sitcom "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," has died. He was 67.
January 1, 2014 -- Updated 1959 GMT (0359 HKT)
Dr. John W.V. Cordice, the surgeon who operated on Dr. Martin Luther King after he was stabbed in Harlem in 1958, died in Iowa. Cordice was 95.
January 2, 2014 -- Updated 0128 GMT (0928 HKT)
Joseph Ruskin died of natural causes in a Santa Monica, California, hospital. He was 89.
January 1, 2014 -- Updated 2119 GMT (0519 HKT)
Jeffrey Ian Pollack, who directed the popular 1990s films "Booty Call" and "Above the Rim" and produced "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" has died. He was 54.
December 23, 2013 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian gun designer whose AK-47 rifle became the weapon of choice for many national armies and guerrillas around the world, died.
December 22, 2013 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Ned Vizzini, who shot to fame at a young age for his teenage novels focusing on youth depression and anxieties, committed suicide at age 32.
December 19, 2013 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Al Goldstein, the foul-mouthed publisher of Screw magazine and pornography pioneer died in New York. He was 77.
December 31, 2013 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
Actor Daniel Escobar, who played a teacher in "Lizzie McGuire," died from complications of diabetes in Los Angeles. He was 49.
December 19, 2013 -- Updated 0041 GMT (0841 HKT)
"Great Train Robber" Ronnie Biggs -- one of the most notorious British criminals of the 20th century -- has died, his publisher told CNN. He was 84.
December 17, 2013 -- Updated 0117 GMT (0917 HKT)
Ray Price, the Nashville star whose trademark "shuffle" beat became a country music staple, has died at age 87, his agent said.
December 17, 2013 -- Updated 0223 GMT (1023 HKT)
Oscar-winning actress Joan Fontaine died, her longtime friend Noel Beutel said. She was 96.
December 16, 2013 -- Updated 1240 GMT (2040 HKT)
Actor Peter O'Toole died peacefully in a hospital at 81 years old.
December 16, 2013 -- Updated 1238 GMT (2038 HKT)
Tom Laughlin, the actor who wrote and starred in the "Billy Jack" films of the 1970s, died at age 82.
December 12, 2013 -- Updated 0056 GMT (0856 HKT)
Jazz guitarist Jim Hall, who played with the jazz greats of the 20th century and influenced the younger ones, has died, his family said. He was 83.
December 10, 2013 -- Updated 1346 GMT (2146 HKT)
Actress Eleanor Parker, nominated for three Oscars and known for her "Sound of Music" role, died Monday at 91, her family said.
December 6, 2013 -- Updated 0440 GMT (1240 HKT)
Freedom fighter, statesman, moral compass and South Africa's symbol of the struggle against racial oppression.
December 5, 2013 -- Updated 0218 GMT (1018 HKT)
Bill Beckwith, who co-hosted HGTV home-improvement show "Curb Appeal," has died. He was 38.
December 2, 2013 -- Updated 1458 GMT (2258 HKT)
Actor Paul Walker, who shot to fame as star of the high-octane street racing franchise "Fast & Furious," died in a car crash in Southern California. He was 40.
November 30, 2013 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Paul F. Crouch, co-founder of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, died at age 79.
November 29, 2013 -- Updated 2342 GMT (0742 HKT)
Jane Kean, who played diverse roles during a long career but was best known as Trixie on the TV revival of "The Honeymooners," has died. She was 90.
November 25, 2013 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Singer Wayne Mills, whose "outlaw country" songs center on honky-tonk life, died in a Nashville bar shooting.
ADVERTISEMENT