Since 1956, trouble-plagued Americans have been writing letters to “Dear Abby,” a clever advice column offering words of wisdom to troubled readers. The woman behind the pen name “Abigail Van Buren” was Pauline “Popo” Friedman Phillips, who died Wednesday at age 94 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. Offering Miss Manners-style advice with a sharp and witty kick, Dear Abby became a nationwide sensation, and the syndicated columnist would go on to write five books, host a radio show, and speak publicly across the country. In 2002, the brand was taken over by Pauline’s daughter Jeanne Phillips, who will continue the legacy after her mother’s death.
“Abby” offered plenty of excellent one-liners during the nearly 50 years she wrote the column, but her best might have been her cold call to an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, requesting a chance to write their advice column.
“I suppose you can write a better one,” he told her. “Fall in line. A lot of people tell me that.”
“Then maybe it’s time you listened,” was her quick retort.
And the rest is history. Here are some fun and classic replies from the modern-day agony aunt.
About four months ago, the house across the street was sold to a “father and son”—or so we thought.
We later learned it was an older man about 50 and a young fellow about 24.
This was a respectable neighborhood before this “odd couple” moved in. They have all sorts of strange-looking company. Men who look like women, women who look like men, blacks, whites, Indians. Yesterday I even saw two nuns go in there! They must be running some sort of business, or a club. There are motorcycles, expensive sports cars and even bicycles parked in front and on the lawn. They keep their shades drawn so you can’t see what’s going on inside but they must be up to no good, or why the secrecy?
We called the police department and they asked if we wanted to press charges! they said unless the neighbors were breaking some law there was nothing they could do.
Abby, these weirdos are wrecking our property values! How can we improve the quality of this once-respectable neighborhood?
Up in Arms
Dear UP: You could move.
Our son was married in January. Five months later his wife had a 8 1/2-pound baby girl. They said the baby was premature. Tell me, can a baby this big be that early?
Dear Wondering: The baby was on time, the wedding was late.
I am a girl who will be 16 in two months, and my mother finally agreed to let me go in cars alone with boys. Well, to make a long story short, this real neat kid who is 18 asked to take me to a drive-in movie last Friday night, and I was on Cloud Sixteen because I’ve loved him for a long time. My mother said I had to be in by twelve-thirty. Well, at exactly twelve-twenty-two we pulled up in front of our house and we started to talk, and since it was two-ten before we noticed what time it was. Boy, did we ever say good-night fast. Abby, I swear to God all we did was talk, but I guess my mother doesn’t believe me. Now she’s grounded me for a whole month. Do you think this is fair? How can I get my mother to give me another chance?
Dear Grounded: In means in the house, not in front of it. I think the penalty is a little stiff for the crime, but since you’re such a great talker, maybe you can talk your mother down to two weeks.
I have always wanted to have my family history traced, but I can’t afford to spend a lot of money to do it. Any suggestions?
Sam in Cal
Dear Sam: Yes. Run for public office.
I know boys will be boys, but my ‘boy’ is seventy-three and he’s still chasing women. Any suggestions?
Dear Annie: Don’t worry. My dog has been chasing cars for years, but if he ever caught one, he wouldn’t know what to do with it.
What’s the difference between a wife and a mistress?
Dear Bess: Night and Day.
I joined the Navy to see the world. I’ve seen it. Now, how do I get out?
Abby: Simple. Go to your superior officer and say these 2 words: I’m Gay.
I’m writing concerning the letter about ethnic stereotyping. Comedian Red Skelton used to tell a story that perfectly ridiculed such stereotyping:
A man was seated next to a Chinese gentleman at a banquet. Attempting to make conversation, the man said in Chinese pidgin, “You likee food?”
Just then his table partner was introduced to the crowd. He walked to the dais and delivered a beautiful speech in perfect English. When he returned to the table, he turned to his seat partner and said, “You likee speech?”
Jack Runninger in Rome, GA.
Dear Jack: I’m sure the man was left speechless.
And a classic poem that embodied Abby’s best advice:
I am a bachelor in my early 30s. I don’t share an apartment with a female because of my high moral standards, and I am not yet ready for marriage.
When I used to share an apartment with another bachelor, people assumed that we were gay.
I now have a very nice place of my own. However, if I have bachelor friends over, I am still perceived as being gay. And if I entertain a female friend, people say I am bisexual. (I just can’t seem to win!)
Why is it that a single man cannot have friends over for a simple card game or to watch TV without people thinking there’s something sexual going on?
I am straight, and I am sick of all this ugly talk. What can I do to stop this vicious gossip?
Joe from Little Rock
Dear Joe: Unless you can be certain who is behind these allegations, and prove that their ugly accusations have “damaged” you—there is nothing you can do other than to ignore it. Those who know you already know the truth. And anyone who would base an opinion on unfounded rumors is not someone you would want as a friend.
Your letter brings to mind a poem that I published several years ago. It first appeared as a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal. (Personally, I think it’s worth framing.) Read on:
My name is Gossip. I have no respect for justice.
I maim without killing. I break hearts and ruin lives.
I am cunning and malicious and gather strength with age.
The more I am quoted, the more I am believed.
My victims are helpless. They cannot protect themselves against me because I have no name and no face.
To track me down is impossible. The harder you try, the more elusive I become.
I am nobody’s friend.
Once I tarnish a reputation, it is never the same.
I topple governments and wreck marriages.
I ruin careers and cause sleepless nights, heartaches and indigestion.
I make innocent people cry in their pillows.
Even my name hisses. I am called Gossip. I make headlines and headaches.
Before you repeat a story, ask yourself:
Is it true? Is it harmless? Is it necessary?
If it isn’t, don’t repeat it.