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Remembering Pauline Phillips, Arbiter of Love and Life Advice as ‘Dear Abby’

January 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Pauline Phillips, whose "Dear Abby" column offered tough but sympathetic advice about love and life to readers around the world, died at the age of 94. Ray Suarez discusses Philips' career with Amy Dickinson, the Chicago Tribune's signature advice columnist for "Ask Amy."
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RAY SUAREZ:  Finally tonight: remembering the original “Dear Abby.”  That’s the name tens of millions of newspaper readers around the globe recognized for more than four decades. 

The woman behind the pen name Abigail Van Buren was Pauline Phillips, born 94 years ago in Sioux City, Iowa.  She provided snappy, frank advice in a column that appeared eventually in more than a thousand papers in its heyday before the age of the Web. 

Amy Dickinson, who writes the advice column “Ask Amy” is one of many columnists who have followed in the years since.  And she joins us now. 

Welcome to the program. 

What was it about Abigail Van Buren.  Was it her tone, her life experience, her sympathy?  What made her so credible to so many readers? 

AMY DICKINSON, Columnist: Well, you know, I think it’s amazing when I think about it, because she started something over 60 years ago that’s really basically still going very strong. 

What it is was, you know, she wasn’t a doctor, she wasn’t a psychologist, she wasn’t really trained, so to speak.  But what she was, was very practical, Midwestern, commonsense, and she was really the ultimate listener.  She — people trusted her.  And you could tell from reading her column that she was very genuine, she was very wise, she was super snappy, which I love, of course. 

And, you know, she just created a tremendous legacy. 

RAY SUAREZ:  She occasionally doled out tough love, occasionally even contacted people who wrote her she that she thought might be in real trouble.  Did she earn a kind of authority?  You mentioned she wasn’t a doctor, but she must have had some kind of authority after all that time.

AMY DICKINSON:  Well, part of it is, it is in the writing.  It’s the authority that your auntie has or that that smart mom next door has, the idea that she would respect you while she was listening to you and sometimes respect you enough to dole out a little smack if you needed it.

It’s funny.  Just yesterday, I was composing my own column.  And I actually wrote the line — I wasn’t aware of her passing, of course — but I wrote the line, “That’s the tough part of tough love.”

And in a way, that line is — it started with “Dear Abby.” 

RAY SUAREZ:  Well, you could see the country and its mores changing over time through her column with the kind of things, the kinds of problems that readers brought to her.  Does that continue to this day?  Can you see America changing in the kind of problems that Americans have? 

AMY DICKINSON:  Oh, absolutely. 

And when you go back, as I have done, and read her columns from the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, they’re very much a capsule of their time.  The fact is, though, the questions change, but the advice really remains constant, in that it’s smart. 

Letters I get, I mean, I probably get 50 queries a day about Facebook, about social media and its impact on relationships.  But the advice I give, it’s grounded in the sorts of things that “Dear Abby” was talking about in the ’50s and ’60s. 

RAY SUAREZ:  You know, Amy, when you replaced Ann Landers in the Chicago Tribune, in fact, “Dear Abby”‘s sister, her twin sister yet, there was no question that the paper was going to find another advice columnist and keep the franchise going.  The only question was who was going to do it, and you were chosen. 

Why is it, in this day in age, in 2013, when there’s so many sources and so many kinds of information, that it’s felt that that’s an essential component of a newspaper? 

AMY DICKINSON:  I just think that this is the genre that’s really tried and true.

And, Ray, where would we be if you opened your newspaper to the back and the jumble and the comic strips and the crossword puzzle, and where would you be if you didn’t see an advice column there?  It’s very much a part of what we have come to expect in newspapers.  And, frankly, it’s about the only place in a newspaper where readers really communicate directly with the writer. 

RAY SUAREZ:  You mentioned that you sort of went to school on Abigail Van Buren’s columns over the years.  Are there any that stand out today or her ways of handling things that stick with you and you have even modeled yourself after? 

AMY DICKINSON:  Well, mainly, it’s the — it’s sort of this genuine honesty that I felt she conveyed really well.

There was also a lot of compassion.  And I think it’s very easy to sort of stand up there and tell people what to do.  But to do it with warmth and kindness and compassion, while still occasionally serving up a nice helping of tough love, that’s tricky.  And she was a master. 

RAY SUAREZ:  Amy Dickinson writes the “Ask Amy” column for the Chicago Tribune and syndicated papers all around the country. 

Thanks for joining us.  

AMY DICKINSON:  Thank you.