Long before the Internet ““ and long before the pervasive electronic confessionals of Dr. Ruth, Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, et al. ““ the Dear Abby column was a forum for the public discussion of private problems, read by tens of millions of people in hundreds of newspapers around the world. It is difficult to overstate the column’s influence on American culture at midcentury and afterward: in popular parlance, Dear Abby was for decades an affectionate synonym for a trusted, if slightly campy, confidante. –
Pauline Phillips, Flinty Adviser to Millions as Dear Abby, Dies at 94

IT ALL began at the San Francisco Chronicle and spawned an entire industry that’s still going strong.

She phoned The San Francisco Chronicle, identifying herself as a local housewife who thought she could do better than the advice columnist the paper already had. “If you’re ever in the neighborhood,” the features editor said rhetorically, “come in and see me.”

Mrs. Phillips took him at his word and the next morning appeared unannounced in the newsroom in a Dior dress. She prudently left her chauffeured Cadillac around the corner.

If only to get rid of her, the editor handed her a stack of back issues, telling her to compose her own replies to the letters in the advice column. She did so in characteristic style and dropped off her answers at the paper. She arrived home to a ringing telephone. The job was hers ““ at $20 a week.

Pauline Phillips’s twin sister, Eppie Lederer, followed her sister as “Ann Landers,” offering competing advice. Dear Abby and Ann Landers had a rivalry that estranged the two sisters for five years, according to reports.

My start writing on the web came in 1996 with my trademarked advice column, “What Do You Want?” for the LA Weekly. I was their relationship consultant, my actual title, and also took the opportunity to write about politics whenever I could sneak it in, particularly the politics of sex.

However, “What Do You Want?” wasn’t called an advice column, because of the antsy feeling from the publisher that because I didn’t have a Ph.D. and therapy license I might run afoul and get the paper in trouble. That sort of thing never bothered the San Francisco Chronicle when Dear Abby blasted off.

If it hadn’t been for Dear Abby, I wouldn’t have had my column.

Godspeed, Pauline.

“…if Damon Runyon and Groucho Marx had gone jointly into the advice business, their column would have read much like Dear Abby’s. With her comic and flinty yet fundamentally sympathetic voice, Mrs. Phillips helped wrestle the advice column from its weepy Victorian past into a hard-nosed 20th-century present.” [New York Times]