The twins spent their growing-up years together. They dressed alike; they both played the violin; they wrote gossip columns for their high school and college newspapers. They attended Morningside College in Sioux Falls. Two days before their 21st birthday, they had a double wedding. Pauline married Morton Phillips, a businessman; Esther married Jules Lederer, a business executive and later founder of Budget Rent-a-Car. The twins’ lives diverged as they followed their husbands to different cities.
The Phillipses lived in Minneapolis; Eau Claire, Wis.; and San Francisco and had a son and daughter, Edward Jay and Jeanne. The Lederers lived in Chicago and had a daughter, Margo. In 1955 she applied for and was given the job of writing the advice column. She adopted the existing column’s name, Ann Landers.
Mrs. Phillips, who had been working for philanthropies and the Democratic Party, followed her sister’s lead, though she insisted it wasn’t the reason for her decision. She arranged for an interview with an editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and presented sample columns, arguing that the paper’s lovelorn column was boring. The editors admired her breezy style, and she was hired.
Searching for a name for the column, Mrs. Phillips chose Abigail from the Bible and Van Buren from the eighth American president. Within a year she had signed a 10-year contract with the McNaught Syndicate, which spread her column across the country.
“I was cocky,” she admitted in 1998. “My contemporaries would come to me for advice. I got that from my mother: the ability to listen and to help other people with their problems. I also got Daddy’s sense of humor.”
Mrs. Phillips applied for the advice column without notifying her sister, and that reportedly resulted in bad feelings. For a long time they did not speak to each other, but their differences were patched up. In June 2001, the twins, 83, attended the 90th birthday party in Omaha, Neb., of their sister Helen Brodkey.
The advice business extended to the second generation of the Friedmans. Mrs. Phillips had announced in 2000 that her daughter would share her byline. Her sister’s daughter, Margo Howard, wrote an advice column for the online magazine Slate.
Aside from the Dear Abby column, which appeared in 1,000 newspapers as far off as Brazil and Thailand, Mrs. Phillips conducted a radio version of “Dear Abby” from 1963 to 1975 and wrote best-selling books about her life and advice.
In her book “The Best of Abby,” Mrs. Phillips commented that her years writing the column “have been fulfilling, exciting and incredibly rewarding. … My readers have told me that they’ve learned from me. But it’s the other way around. I’ve learned from them. Has it been a lot of work? Not really. It’s only work if you’d rather be doing something else.”
Associated Press writer Bob Thomas in Los Angeles contributed to this article.
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