Remembering Pauline Phillips, A Woman With A Sharp Pen

Jan 20, 2013
Originally published on January 20, 2013 7:05 am
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For decades, people in need of advice, comfort and better manners wrote letters addressed to Dear Abby. What they received was always pithy, sympathetic and often laugh out loud funny. For example: Dear Abby, I know boys will be boys, but my boy is 73 and he's still chasing women. Any suggestions? Annie. The reply: Dear Annie, Don't worry. My dog has been chasing cars for years, but if he ever caught one, he wouldn't know what to do with it. The woman who held that sharp pen was known as Abigail Van Buren, but her real name was Pauline Phillips. She died this past week at the age of 94. Amy Dickinson writes the advice column Ask Amy and is one of many columnists who have followed in the years since Dear Abby began dishing out advice. Amy Dickinson joins me now. Thanks for being here.


MARTIN: So, what was it, Amy, about Dear Abby that spoke to people, do you think?

DICKINSON: Well, you know, I love the phrase dishing out advice because there's a little bit of dish to it. Dear Abby was a real original. You know, she started writing her column in the 1950s when, you know, at least the popular notion of what America was like was that people maintained a facade that all was well. And one of the things I think Dear Abby and Ann Landers both did was to open us up to the idea that everybody has problems.

MARTIN: She was a sympathetic ear for many people but she also did have this tone of authority. She was giving you advice and it came from a place of knowing. What gave her that authority?

DICKINSON: She's part of a genre honestly of advice columnists - and I'm one of those. We are untrained amateurs really. She studied psychology in college but she wasn't a psychologist. But she was like the smartest gal you knew and someone who you know will tell you the truth. I always say friends tell each other the truth. And Dear Abby really embodied that.

MARTIN: You saw her as a competitor I imagine, but I imagine you also looked to her as someone who paved the way. What did you learn from her?

DICKINSON: Well, she really created this amazingly, I think, American juggernaut, honestly, of confessional columns. And I admired how she got people to open up. And I, you know, frankly I love her writing style, I love her wit. And so Dear Abby was the grandmother of all of that. And it's going very, very strong still.

MARTIN: That's Amy Dickinson. She writes the Ask Amy column for the Chicago Tribune and syndicated papers all around the country. Amy, thanks so much for talking with us.

DICKINSON: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.