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Dear Abby Columnist Dies At 94

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The woman behind the hugely popular advice column Dear Abby has died. Pauline Phillips passed away at the age of 94. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this remembrance.

KAREN GRISBY BATES, BYLINE: As Abigail Van Buren, Pauline Phillips was a czarina of common-sense advice. She spent several decades handing out snappy one-liners in her widely read columns that at bottom, revealed a crisp, no-nonsense streak. To a young woman who wondered if her commitment-shy boyfriend was going out with her for what he could get, Abby replied, I don't know - what's he getting?

It was the kind of direct response that earned Dear Abby a place in American culture for several generations - and on its playlists. Seventies soul crooner George Jackson wanted Abby to advise the girlfriend who dumped him, to take him back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

GEORGE JACKSON: (Singing) Abby, anything you might say would help me in a great big way. Abby...

BATES: Even the Dead Kennedys needed to check in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAR ABBY")

DEAD KENNEDYS: (Singing) Dear Abby, got a problem...

BATES: Phillips got into the business a few months after her identical twin, Eppie Lederer, began giving out pragmatic advice as Ann Landers. In 1991, Phillips told talk show host Larry King that she started out by telling the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle she'd be a great replacement for the paper's current advice columnist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PAULINE PHILLIPS: So he said, well, what do you do? I said, I'm a Hillsborough housewife. I didn't have a Social Security number; I'd never worked a day of my life. I did volunteer work.

BATES: But her sample columns showed the housewife - from the very tony San Francisco suburb of Hillsborough - knew how to speak to people from all walks of life. She was hired, and her advice empire grew and grew. So did her sister's, and there was some well-documented rivalry there. For a few years, the women stopped speaking to each other. But they reconciled, eventually.

Before Dear Abby and Ann Landers, advice columns were tediously earnest or filled with sugar-coated sanctimony. Abby and Ann told it straight. Husbands sometimes cheated, friends sometimes gossiped. Babies sometimes got started before the walk down the aisle. The point was to get through the tough spots with integrity and grit.

An advice-seeker once asked if she thought about dying much. Abby's typically brusque reply: No, it's the last thing I want to do.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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