The Death of 'Dear Abby' and the Long-running Advice Columnist Family Feud

January 18, 2013

Britt Harvey is an assistant editor at Hazlitt. She's previously written for the Winnipeg Free Press, and has spent an inordinate amount of time...

Jagger and Richards, Lennon and McCartney, Serena and Venus. Tense rivalries between siblings and creative partners have always existed, their performances have even thrived on an unhealthy sense of competition. The death of Pauline Friedman Phillips on Wednesday at age 94—she being the original ‘Dear Abby’—is a reminder that the world of advice columnists is no exception.

In 1918, the future ‘Ann Landers’ and ‘Dear Abby,’ Eppie and Pauline Friedman, were born twin sisters, 17 minutes apart, in Sioux City, Iowa. Both would go on to write gossip columns for their college newspaper. They were even married in a joint ceremony.

But familial harmony came to an end when they began writing competing syndicated advice columns. In 1955, Eppie took over the role of ‘Ann Landers’ when the column’s creator, Ruth Crowley, died. The next year, Pauline launched her rival ‘Dear Abby’ column. The sisters stopped speaking to one another, and Life magazine reported on their rift in an article entitled “Twin Lovelorn Advisers Torn Asunder by Success.”

Fast-forward through the decades and it’s like mother, like daughter.

Jeanne Phillips took over the ‘Dear Abby’ column from her mother Pauline. Margo Howard, Eppie’s only child, went on to write Slate’s ‘Dear Prudence’ column.

When Eppie, who’d written advice columns as Ann Landers for 56 years, died in 2002, niece Jeanne wrote a goodbye column named ‘Dear Aunt Eppie’ in tribute and appeared on Larry King to speak about Landers’s legacy. This prompted an angry response from Margo, Landers’s daughter, who accused Phillips of “flogging her grief at my mother’s death,” and making comments both “despicable and in poor taste.” Margo added that her mother had judged Phillip’s column to be “quite subpar.”

Phillips never responded publicly to Howard’s remarks, though her representatives said she’d already agreed to appear on Larry King before Landers’s death and that she had no control over what King might ask.

You’d think, of all people, the daughters of two advice greats could call a truce, but Howard appears unwilling to wave the white flag just yet.

Howard said she’d be happy to give up the feud. But that she won’t respond “until Jeanne shuts up.”

For more advice column stories you can read Hazlitt’s advice columnist roundtable with Cheryl Strayed (Dear Sugar), Carey Tennis (Salon), Lynn Coady(formerly Globe and Mail), and Emily Yoffe (Slate), here.

Photo by John Gaps: Pauline Phillips (left) with her sister Eppie Lederer (Ann Landers)

Britt Harvey is an assistant editor at Hazlitt. She's previously written for the Winnipeg Free Press, and has spent an inordinate amount of time reading about other people's problems.