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Pauline Phillips; for decades, America’s dear confidante

Mrs. Phillips began her career by training hospital volunteers. ‘‘I learned how to listen,’’ she said in 1989.

AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Mrs. Phillips began her career by training hospital volunteers. ‘‘I learned how to listen,’’ she said in 1989.

Dear Abby: My wife sleeps in the raw. Then she showers, brushes her teeth and fixes our breakfast — still in the buff. We’re newlyweds and there are just the two of us, so I suppose there’s really nothing wrong with it. What do you think? — Ed

Dear Ed: It’s OK with me. But tell her to put on an apron when she’s frying bacon.

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NEW YORK — Pauline ­Phillips, a California housewife who nearly 60 years ago, seeking something more meaningful than mahjong, transformed herself into the syndicated columnist Dear Abby — and in so doing became a trusted, tart-tongued adviser to tens of millions — died Wednesday in Minneapolis. She was 94.

Her syndicate, Universal Uclick, announced her death on its website. A longtime resident of Beverly Hills, Calif., Mrs. Phillips, who had been ill with Alzheimer’s disease for a decade, had recently lived in Minneapolis to be near family.

If Damon Runyon and Groucho Marx had gone jointly into the advice business, their column would have read much like Dear Abby’s. With her comic and flinty yet fundamentally sympathetic voice, Mrs. Phillips helped wrestle the advice column from its weepy Victorian past into a hard-nosed 20th-century present.

Dear Abby: I have always wanted to have my family history traced, but I can’t afford to spend a lot of money to do it. Have you any suggestions?— M.J.B. in Oakland, Calif.

Dear M.J.B.: Yes. Run for a public office.

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Mrs. Phillips began her life as Abigail Van Buren in 1956 and quickly became known for astringent, often genteelly risque, replies to queries that included the marital, the medical, and sometimes both at once.

She was also known for her much-publicized professional rivalry with her identical twin sister, advice columnist Ann Landers.

Long before the Internet — and long before the pervasive electronic confessionals of Drs. Ruth, Phil, Laura, et al. — the Dear Abby column was a forum for the public discussion of private problems, read by tens of millions of people in hundreds of newspapers around the world.

It is difficult to overstate the column’s influence on American culture at midcentury and afterward: In popular parlance, ‘‘Dear Abby’’ was for decades an affectionate synonym for a trusted, if slightly campy, confidante.

Even now, Dear Abby’s reach is vast. (Mrs. Phillips’s daughter, Jeanne, took over the column unofficially in 1987 and officially in 2000.) According to Universal Uclick, Dear Abby appears in about 1,400 newspapers worldwide, has a daily readership of more than 110 million — in print and on its interactive website, dearabby.com — and receives 10,000 letters and e-mails a week.

Politically left of center, Mrs. Phillips was generally conservative when it came to personal deportment. As late as the 1990s she was reluctant to advise unmarried couples to live together. Yet beneath her crackling one-liners lay an imperturbable acceptance of the vagaries of modern life.

Dear Abby:Our son married a girl when he was in the service. They were married in February and she had an 8½-pound baby girl in August. She said the baby was premature. Can an 8½-pound baby be this premature?— Wanting to Know

Dear Wanting: The baby was on time. The wedding was late. Forget it.

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The youngest of four sisters, Pauline Esther Friedman, familiarly known as Popo, was born in Sioux City, Iowa, on July 4, 1918. Her twin, Esther Pauline (known as Eppie), beat her into the world by 17 minutes, just as she would narrowly beat her into the advice business.

Their father, Abraham, was a Jewish immigrant from Russia who had made his start in the United States as an itinerant chicken peddler and, in an archetypal American success story, ended up owning a chain of theaters.

The twins attended Morningside College in Sioux City, where they both studied journalism and psychology and wrote a joint gossip column for the school paper.

As close as they were, the intense competitiveness was already apparent.

‘‘She wanted to be the first violin in the school orchestra, but I was,’’ Mrs. Phillips told Life magazine in 1958. ‘‘She swore she’d marry a millionaire, but I did.’’

In 1939, Pauline Friedman left college to marry Morton Phillips, an heir to a liquor fortune. She was married in a lavish double ceremony alongside Eppie, who, not to be outdone, was wed to Jules Lederer, a salesman who later founded Budget Rent A Car.

As a young bride, Mrs. Phillips lived in Eau Claire, Wis., where her husband was an executive with the National Pressure Cooker Co.

‘‘It never occurred to me that I’d have any kind of career,’’ Mrs. Phillips told The Los Angeles Times in 1986. ‘‘But after I was married, I thought, ‘There has to be something more to life than mahjong.’ ’’

She took up civic work training hospital volunteers.

‘‘I learned how to listen,’’ Mrs. Phillips told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 1989. ‘‘Sometimes, when people come to you with a problem, the best thing you can do is listen.’’

In 1955, Eppie Lederer took over the Ann Landers column for The Chicago Sun-Times. A rank beginner soon swamped by a flood of mail, she began sending batches of letters to her sister — for advice, as it were.

‘‘I provided the sharp answers,’’ Mrs. Phillips told The Ladies’ Home Journal in 1981. ‘‘I’d say, ‘You’re writing too long (she still does), and this is the way I’d say it.’’’ She added, ‘‘My stuff was published — and it looked awfully good in print.’’

So good that when The Sun-Times later forbade Lederer to send letters out of the office, Mrs. Phillips, by this time living in the Bay Area, vowed to find a column of her own.

She phoned The San Francisco Chronicle, identifying herself as a local housewife who thought she could do better than the advice columnist the paper already had.

‘‘If you’re ever in the neighborhood,’’ the features editor said rhetorically, ‘‘come in and see me.’’

The next morning, Mrs. Phillips appeared unannounced in the newsroom in a Dior dress. She had prudently left her chauffeured Cadillac around the corner.

If only to get rid of her, the editor handed her a stack of back issues, telling her to compose her own replies to the letters in the advice column. She did so in characteristic style and dropped off her answers at the paper. She arrived home to a ringing telephone. The job was hers — at $20 a week.

Mrs. Phillips chose her pen name, taking Abigail after the prophetess in the Book of Samuel (“Then David said to Abigail ‘Blessed is your advice and blessed are you’ ’’) and Van Buren for its old-family, presidential ring. Her first column appeared Jan. 9, 1956, less than three months after her sister’s debut.

An immediate success, the column was quickly syndicated. But with Mrs. Phillips’s growing renown came a growing estrangement from her twin, as Dear Abby and Ann Landers battled each other in syndication. According to many accounts, the sisters did not speak for five years, reconciling only in the mid-1960s.

Lederer died in 2002, at 83. Besides her daughter, Jeanne, Mrs. Phillips leaves her husband of 73 years, Mort; four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. A son, Edward, died in 2011.

Until her retirement in 2000, Mrs. Phillips remained a trusted adviser in a world that had evolved from discussions of the dainty art of naked bacon-making to all manner of postmodern angst.

Dear Abby:Two men who claim to be father and adopted son just bought an old mansion across the street and fixed it up. We notice a very suspicious mixture of company coming and going at all hours — blacks, whites, Orientals, women who look like men and men who look like women. ... This has always been considered one of the finest sections of San Francisco, and these weirdos are giving it a bad name. How can we improve the neighborhood?— Nob Hill Residents

Dear Residents: You could move.

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