“So, what should I do?”
All of us have had that moment when a friend looks desperately in our eyes and asks for advice. There’s something very intimate and powerful about two friends sitting together trying to figure out life’s problems.
Perhaps that’s why Pauline Phillips — known to the world as “Dear Abby” — was so beloved. She doled out advice for years after her first column appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1956 and became a household name. Though we didn’t know her, we felt like she cared about the people who wrote in with questions about infidelity, love, workplace drama, and a myriad of other issues.
As a kid, I couldn’t get enough of her. Every day, I began at the back of the newspaper and worked my way forward — from Beetle Bailey, to Dagwood, to her advice column. After all, nothing is more interesting than other people’s problems. In my mind, she was a worldly June Cleaver — a feisty, yet kind maternal figure who gave wisdom freely.
But what kind of advice did she give?
In the 1950s, she advised against divorce and warned against premarital sex. But over the course of her life, she liberalized her views. The Wall Street Journal records her evolution: “In 1970, she published a reader’s letter asking whether homosexuality was a disease — as the American Psychiatric Association said at the time. ‘It is the inability to love at all which I consider an emotional illness,’ she replied.” In 1984, she referred a distraught parent of a child who claimed to be gay to Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. In 1998, she addressed concerns about her advice to gay people. “Whenever I say a kind word about gays, I hear from people, and some of them are damn mad. People throw Leviticus, Deuteronomy and other parts of the Bible to me. It doesn’t bother me.” By the time her daughter Jeanne took over her column in 2002, Abby believed divorce was perhaps a better option than letting the kids feel the acrimony between their parents in the home. Her daughter Jeanne pushed the moral envelope even further, by saying “it’s okay to be gay,” receiving an honor from the Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, advocating for same-sex marriage, and encouraging pregnant teens to visit Planned Parenthood.
In other words, “Dear Abby”’s advice was always charming, winsome, and breezy, but it morphed to reflect the current mores of the nation. At the height of her popularity, her daily readership reached 100 million people making her influence incalculable. Funny how a column can hold such sway over so many people’s views.
When Ms. Phillips began writing, she chose to go by a pen name. (Her twin sister, who also had a popular advice column, went by Ann Landers.) The first part of her pen name — Abby — came from the Biblical passage: “Then David said to Abigail ‘Blessed is your advice and blessed are you.’” She borrowed the last name — Van Buren — from the 19th-century American president. In a way, her alias — and its two-part inspiration — painted a picture of the type of advice she would give over the years. Abigail Van Buren’s name — and her column — was part Bible, part politics.
Sadly, the politics won out.