I am not generally a fan of the term “gal,” but what other word can be used to describe Pauline Esther Friedman Phillips, the beloved creator and author of Dear Abby, who died last week at age 94? With a legion of fans worldwide — the column is carried by 1,400 newspapers and has a daily readership of 110 million people, according to its syndication service — Dear Abby was surely the most widely-read Jewish female writer in the world, an accomplishment all the more impressive considering that she had expected only to be a wife and a mother.
She sought out a career as an advice columnist after helping out her sister Eppie, who had started the Ann Landers advice column, and realized she wanted more from life than to be a bored housewife, she said. Her New York Times obituary describes her as “a trusted, tart-tongued adviser to tens of millions,” who responded to the many letters appealing for her advice in a way which was “often genteely risqué.”
Her column is now written by her daughter, Jeanne Phillips, and receives some 10,000 letters a week, according to its syndication service, Universal Uclick.
A one-woman play, “The Lady With All The Answers,” honoring the late Jewish advice columnist Ann Landers has just opened at New York’s downtown Cherry Lane Theatre. This New York premiere of a play that has been touring regionally is an affectionate portrayal of what the British press refers to as an “Agony Aunt.” In both the United Kingdom and the Bintel Brief, Jewish women who followed in the tradition represented by The Forward’s “Bintel Brief”, which offered advice to disoriented immigrants, felt a need to de-ethnicize their personae.
Like Britain’s Marjorie Proops (born Rebecca Marjorie Israel in East London; 1911–1996, a noted agony aunt in London’s “Daily Mirror,” Esther Pauline Lederer (née Friedman of Russian Jewish ancestry; 1918–2002), not only took over an “Ask Ann Landers” column in 1955, after its creator, Ruth Crowley, died, but also assumed the name Ann Landers in public. Landers had competition in the form of her twin sister Pauline Phillips (born 1918 as Pauline Esther Friedman), who assumed the name Abigail Van Buren to launch the “Dear Abby” column in 1956. In 1992, the immortal actress Estelle Getty proclaimed in an episode of “The Golden Girls”: “Simpletons read Dear Abby, fools read Ann Landers.”
The sisters’ plastic identities may have been partly to blame, and playwright David Rambo, with acclaimed actress Judith Ivey, strive to get past these facades, to widespread critical plaudits. Fortunately, today’s Jewish advice columnists, from Ruth Westheimer to Emily Yoffe, discard any such attempts at pseudo-goyishe identity and thereby remain anchored in reality, like the Bintel Brief of yore.
Watch a preview of the New York production of “The Lady with All the Answers”:
Watch Ann Landers, during a 1958 Canadian television appearance: