The Wit and Wisdom of “Dear Abby”

Dear Teen-Ager

Dear Teen-Ager (Photo credit: Larry He’s So Fine)

Pauline Esther Philips, better known as the advice columnist Abigail Van Buren  or  “Dear Abby”, died on Jan 16th 2013.

Advice columnists, many of whom are women, are often dismissed as being rather trite, lacking in true writing skills. I don’t believe that’s true, and certainly not in the case of the well-loved “Dear Abby” column. Here are some of her pearls of wisdom:-

  • “People who fight fire with fire usually end up with ashes.”
  • “Wisdom doesn’t automatically come with old age. Nothing does — except wrinkles.”
  • “It is almost impossible to throw dirt on someone without getting a little on yourself.”
  • “It’s only work if you’d rather be doing something else.

This high level of wit and insight is perhaps on a par with Dorothy Parker .

Pauline Phillips career as an advice columnist began after she approached the San Francisco Chronicle in 1956, and maintained she could write a better column than the one they already had. She’d taken a journalism course in college, but her previous 17yrs had been spent as a housewife raising two children.  At its peak, “Dear Abby” was syndicated in 1,200 newspapers and reached more than 90 million people worldwide. Sadly, Pauline Phillips developed Alzheimer’s disease. The column continued until 2002, when her daughter Jeanne took over the column and  continues to write it today.

During her years as the columnist, according to the syndicate,  Pauline Phillips advocated “equal rights for women, minorities, people with mental illness and those who are physically challenged,” and her column “promoted AIDS awareness and education, hospice care, the living will, organ donation and also raised awareness about gender apartheid suffered by women in Afghanistan,”

Her response to her queries, though at times lengthy, were often punchy quips:

“DEAR ABBY : Are birth control pills deductible?’ – KAY

“DEAR KAY – Only if they don’t work”

She also had her detractors:

“DEAR ABBY:  Between you and me , I think the people who write to you are either morons or just plain stupid ” – HENRY

“DEAR HENRY  – Which are you?”

To maintain a column for almost fifty years is a fantastic achievement – not bad for someone who’s profession is tarred with the reputation of ‘little skill’. FYI Pauline’s twin sister was Ann Landers (real name Esther Pauline Lederer,) who wrote a rival advice column for the Chicago-Sun Times. Esther died in 2002.

English: Dear Abby star on the Hollywood Walk ...

English: Dear Abby star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pauline Phillips was 94 when she died. In her case, age truly did bring wisdom.

 Do you have any favorite  “Dear Abby” quotes or memories?

Do  share your comments below and if you’ve enjoyed this post, please share it on your favorite social media.

Many Thanks!

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  1. I had no idea that she died. Thanks for this post. I loved reading Dear Abby and Ann Landers. What an achievement for both women to get journalism jobs back in the day.

    I had to look up her quotes because it has been so long since I’ve read her column.

    “If you want children to keep their feet on the ground, put some responsibility on their shoulders.”

    “Fear less, hope more. Eat less, chew more. Talk less, say more. Hate less, love more, and never underestimate the power of forgiveness.”

    “The less you talk, the more you’re listened to.”

    I love the last one because it should be practiced a lot more these days. We seem to have stopped listening to one another, while we prepare to express our thoughts and/or think of our own rebuttal.

    Great post, A.K.!

    P.S. Sorry it took me so long to post here. I thought I saved your blog on mine.
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    • Thank you so much for your comment Denise. Lovely to see you here. Those really are some great quotes of ‘Dear Abby’ that you found. The last one is indeed a lesson for today. There is so much information floating out there, that it sometimes seems like a blur of babble. We try so hard to be heard, when in fact often all we need to do is listen.
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  2. I vaguely remember reading Ann Landers. Maybe that was syndicated in the Boston area when I was a kid and Dear Abby was not? Now, of course, one can choose what to read via the web.

    Loved her response to Henry. Great wit.
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    • Yes , Henry has to be a classic. It’s true Dear Abby may not have been so much on the east coast, and although Abby & Ann are often associated they were quite different. I understand there was some bitter sibling rivalry to start with, but they eventually each settled into their own modes and were very supportive of each other.
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  3. I was an admirer. I don’t have a favorite because there were so many. Love the answer she gave Henry!
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  4. Have to admit I have never even heard of “Dear Abby”. Probably because I have never lived in the United States.

    Seems I missed something. Like her wisdom and wit. “Which are you?” , that you quote above, for intstance. The only thing I’m questining is her stand on mentally ill people. Equal rights definitely. But there are far too many psychopats around for comfort. In Europe many of them are mentally ruined by the wars in Iraq which we can all sympatise with. Imagine growing up in Saddam’s Iraq and seeing people blown to pieces, burn alive and other horrendous things over and over again throughout your whole life. But we still would not want to run into one of them in a bad mood on a dark street:-)
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  5. Lovely post, AK. I think columnists like Abby were the precursors of the practical good sense of people like Oprah today. And doubtless her own daughter Jeanne who continues on.

    Thank you for this, AK.

    • Thanks so much Kathleen. Really good point about her being the precursor for such people as Oprah. With so many women having their own shows now, we tend to forget the women who blazed the trail. Good to see you here again – and if you have a website, do click commentluv and your posts will appear. I always reciprocate 🙂
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  6. Oh wow, may she rest in peace. I didn’t know that she had passed on so thank you A.K. for letting us know. I also didn’t know that Ann Landers was her sister. Boy, I learned two new things today.

    My Mom use to read Dear Abby and so she would pass it on to me when she was done. I always loved her advice and some of the smart answers she gave like the one above to Henry. I mean they do just ask for it you know.

    I can relate to her background somewhat because I ended excelling in my career mainly because I just had plain good old common sense. Something so many people lack so it definitely took me far.

    Thanks for this wonderful post and for helping us remember.

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    • Thanks so much Adrienne. Great to see you here! It’s always sad to hear about people we’ve grown up with who have died, but lovely to be able to remember how good they were.
      I think you’re spot on about good old common sense. It’s something people often tend to push aside, looking for a different buzzword to spur them on in a new way, but good manners and good sense will go a long way. I’m so glad to have connected with you:-)
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  7. I remember reading Dear Abby growing up, and my grandma would sometimes clip her advice column out so she could pass Abby’s words of wisdom onto people who could benefit from it. My grandma tried to do this in a well-meaning way, but it didn’t always come across that way 😉 The other day I saw a meme on Facebook regarding Dear Abby being ahead of her time. The text described a reader who wrote, “Dear Abby, a gay couple has moved into my neighborhood. What should I do?” Abby’s response was along these lines, “I suggest you be the one to move out of the neighborhood as it can’t possibly benefit from the presence of people like you.” You gotta love Dear Abby!
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    • I can see the scenario right now as you describe it with your grandma. Always hard to give people advice in a jokey way. Still, using Dear Abby was a good try.
      Thanks for bringing up the meme you saw – I saw that one too printed over a photo – would have posted it but it was licensed. Totally fantastic quote , and kind of says it all – could be used in whatever bigotry someone is trying to throw at you. Thanks so much for the comment Jeri:-)
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  8. I have to admit I didn’t read Dear Abby. But you mentioned her in the same breath as Dorothy Parker and there are two of her sayings that always make me laugh. In referring to Katharine Hepburn, Parker opined that the actress “ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.” In referring to Los Angeles, she said, “there is no there there.” A great wit.
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    • Thanks for those two Jeanette – they’re good ones. Dorothy Parker certainly was a great wit, and I think women such as her and Dear Abby are not necessarily remembered as having the same skill as their male counterparts. It must have been incredibly difficult for women of either era to break into journalism. So kudos to both of them for doing it in her own unique way.
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  9. I had no idea those famous quotations were from Dear Abby. I found her top 10 best quotes and have even USED this one: The less you talk, the more you’re listened to. Never knew SHE said it.
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  10. Ah… the memoires. I remember my mother reading her column and laughing and sighing as she did. My mother was an educated literary so she could see pst the belief that she was a bit “trite” as you say. My mother would often read some of her comments to me and talk about her thoughts. Great memories, those. 🙂 She will be missed.
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  11. Great quotes and a quite lovely tribute to a lady who attempted to help many people during her long lifetime… Indeed, a most worthy achievement!

  12. You know it’s really funny how people judge what’s writing and what’s not! Short form writing is too me the toughest way to convey a message. I struggle with reducing my verbiage but realize that if I have a lot to say and it’s funny I don’t have to edit! Dear Abby was an institution I remember my housewife grandmother reading it, highlighting the words of wisdom and scrapbooking them!

    By the way, wasn’t there an odd story about her relationship with her sister?

    • Thanks for your comment Stephanie. The only story I came across was that Abby and her sister initially had a bitter rivalry because her sister wrote the Ann Landers column. But it seems as the years went by they became good friends again. Good writing does indeed come in many forms and short forms are often seen as ‘less than’ in the same way that small paintings are compared to large ones. But if you think of people like Oscar Wilde and his incredible one-liners, I think it’s all relative. You’re absolutely right as well about editing – to me that’s often what trips up what might have been a decent book.
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