Barbara Kay: Ann and Abby reigned supreme with common sense for ordinary people
In this Feb. 14, 2001 file photo, Pauline Friedman Phillips, right, the nationally-syndicated advice columnist best known as "Dear Abby," and her daughter Jeanne Phillips, pose after the dedication of a Dear Abby star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles.
Pauline Phillips, better known as the famous long-running advice columnist, Abigail Van Buren – “Dear Abby”- has died at the age of 94 in Minneapolis.
For decades Pauline Phillips and her twin sister Esther – a.k.a. Ann Landers – were rivals and (sometimes) friends in the niche they had carved out. Both were bright, feisty, supremely self-confident Jewish women, something of a novelty at a time when neither women nor Jews in general were as well-represented in journalism as they are now.
Ann and Abby reigned supreme over the advice journalism scene with their hugely popular syndicated columns from the early 1950s until the turn of this century (Phillips’ daughter took over for Abby in 1987 when she was sidelined by Alzheimer’s). For women of my generation, Phillips’ passing conjures memories of the conformist cultural era in which their moral absolutism flourished.
As someone who came to journalism late in life, I have a special fondness for Ann and Abby, because their advice columns represented my first specifically journalistic influence. As a teenager I was sublimely indifferent to the editorial section of the newspapers we received morning and night, but I was passionately interested in human relationships. I preferred Ann, partly because I discovered her first, but also because she seemed to me more serious than Abby, who I felt was a bit too fond of her own cleverness and a tad too addicted to flippancy. (I sometimes felt I took Abby’s readers’ dilemmas more to heart than she did.)
Ann’s column appeared in 1955, when I was an impressionable 13. In the unriven cultural environment of the 1950s, right on the cusp of religion’s total capitulation to therapy culture, Ann and Abby were high moral priestesses. Later of course they became targets for ridicule from bien pensants.
But in spite of their alleged superannuation, their columns remained a cherished feature of newspapers all over America long after the counter-culture had supposedly put a stake through the heart of their judgmental style of advice-giving. The social theorists had no use for them, but ordinary people always did.
The counter-culture wasn’t even a glimmer on my youthful horizon when I glommed onto Ann and Abby. Culturally speaking, I was not primed for inter-generational antagonism. Mine was a receptive and biddable mind for authorities I trusted. Though something of a tomboy and rebellious in trivial ways – feigning indifference to disapproving stares, I wore jeans on the subway! – I was immutably bourgeois at heart, so Ann and Abby and I were on the same cultural page.
I liked their common crisp, dryly humorous “voice”, which radiated ethical clarity and common sense in equal measure. They didn’t trade in the passing parade of the news cycle, but in what I considered the far more fascinating domain of real people’s personal problems.
The people who wrote to Ann and Abby were generally stuck in some intractable conflict with others – parents, spouses, in-laws, children, lovers, friends – wielding some emotional or psychological or financial hold they were obliged to come to ethical terms with. Stuck too with their human shortcomings, yearnings, resentments, loyalties and dreams, inarticulately struggling amidst myriad obligations and limited options in staking out their modest claims for personal happiness. And they were so desperate for a solution they were appealing to a newspaper columnist to decide their fate. What power opinionated columnists had. (Was that the seed of my future career?)
I was particularly bemused by Ann’s suppliants’ lack of personal and social insight into how they had gotten themselves into their messes. I was fascinated as well as by their timorousness in confronting those who were making them miserable, even when justice was on their side. So many woeful hearts poured out tales of long-endured abuse, borne in silence to preserve family or social-circle peace.
I credit Ann and Abby with reinforcing my natural conservatism. I had always assumed certain characteristics of human nature were immutable (still do), and was therefore open to learning life lessons from my elders. Ann’s and Abby’s columns were case studies in the limits of freedom from responsibility without negative consequences, as well as the rewards, both for oneself and one’s loved ones, that come from embracing maturity and realistic expectations.
Farewell, Dear Abby. What an American success story you were. No special education, no moneyed forebears, no affirmative action for your sex or ethnicity: With nothing but your native wit and the hutzpah you came by so honestly, you and your sister helped to positively shape or reshape the lives of – is “millions” too many? I am one of them. Thank you.