“Ask Ann Landers” & “Dear Abby”

Ann Landers and Dear Abby

Have you ever heard of the phrase “Anything you can do, I can do better!”? The two women behind the famous and influential “Ask Ann Landers” and “Dear Abby” columns reinforced that idiom. Not only are they related, but twins!

Esther Pauline “Eppie” Friedman (“Ask Ann Landers”) and Pauline Esther Friedman (“Dear Abby”) were born on July 4, 1918 in Sioux City, Iowa. Eppie was “beat” Pauline into the world by 17 minutes. The daughters of immigrants, Eppie and Pauline attended Morningside College in Sioux City. They both studied journalism and psychology and wrote a joint gossip column for the school’s newspaper. In 1939, they married in a lavish double ceremony while wearing matching wedding gowns.

Eppie was the first to start her column when, in 1955, she won a contest at the Chicago Sun-Times to replace Ruth Crowley – the original Ann Landers – who had died. Her first “Ask Ann Landers” column appeared on the October 16, 1955. Eppie assumed the famous nom de plume and began dispersing advice about everything from child-rearing to politics. The column became a huge success. Not just  due to the advice, but because Eppie became Ann Landers. Through her advice, she once said that she was the “general manager of the world.” Often times, Eppie would write the column from home and even in the bathtub. She was considered the most influential woman in the U.S. in a 1978 World Almanac survey. In a 1998 interview when asked about the value of the Ann Landers name, Eppie remarked, “That name is worth at least a million dollars.”

Pauline Phillips, left, who wrote an advice column as Dear Abby, with her twin sister, Eppie Lederer, who wrote a column as Ann Landers, in 1986 at their 50th high school reunion. Photo Credit: John Gaps III/Associate Press/New York Times

Pauline Phillips, left, who wrote an advice column as Dear Abby, with her twin sister, Eppie Lederer, who wrote a column as Ann Landers, in 1986 at their 50th high school reunion. Photo Credit: John Gaps III/Associate Press/New York Times

Pauline’s career started after her sister’s. In January 1956, after recently relocating to the San Francisco area, she inquired to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. She basically told editor Stanleigh Arnold that she could write a better advice column than the one they had. He gave her some letters and told her to bring her responses back in a week – it only took her an hour and a half. She was hired that same day for $20 a week. The first “Dear Abby” column was printed on January 9, 1956 – less than three months after her sister’s debut. Pauline wrote under the name “Abigail Van Buren” – half biblical, half presidential. “Abigail” came from an Old Testament wise woman in the Book of Samuel and “Van Buren” came from the president, Martin Van Buren.

Their competitiveness showed after their immediate successes. “Ask Ann Landers” and “Dear Abby” battled each other for syndication. Eppie and Pauline became estranged and, according to many accounts, they did not speak for five years before reconciling around 1964.

The sisters’ writing styles were quite different. Eppie’s “Ask Ann Landers” was more serious, giving out extensive answers and advocating for the reader while Pauline’s “Dear Abby” was a spitfire with shorter responses laced with sarcasm and directness. Both columns had been referred to as “snappy.” Eppie and Pauline openly opposed racism and supported for equal rights for women, minorities and people with disabilities. They combated injustices with the stroke of their pens and the taps of their typewriters.

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.

No subject was closed, even their personal lives. In 1975, Eppie and her husband divorced. She compiled what she called “the most difficult column I have ever tried to put together” to announce their separation. “How did it happen that something so good didn’t last forever? The lady with all the answers does not know the answer to this one,” the July 1, 1975 column disclosed. She received over 30,000 sympathetic letters.

Eppie wrote the “Ask Ann Landers” column for 47 years. Under her hand, it became one of the most widely syndicated newspaper columns in the world. It reached nearly 90 million readers daily in 1,200 papers. On June 22, 2002, less than two weeks before her 84th birthday, Eppie died of multiple myeloma (a cancer of the bone marrow). She requested that no one would take over the “Ask Ann Landers” column.

“Dear Abby” became the most widely-syndicated newspaper columns in the world as it reached 1,400 newspapers and 110 million readers. Pauline solely wrote the famous advice feature until 2000, when she and daughter Jeanne began writing it together. Two years later, Jeanne took over the column full time after the family announced that Pauline had Alzheimer’s. She passed away on January 16, 2013.

Pauline discusses her “Dear Abby” big break.

ABC News covering Pauline’s death.

Carol Felsenthal, “Dear Ann,” Chicago Magazine (February 2003).
Margalit Fox, “Pauline Phillips, Flinty Adviser to Millions as Dear Abby, Dies at 94,” January 17, 2013.
Michael Martinez, “Pauline Phillips, longtime Dear Abby advice columnist, dies at 94,” CNN, March 7, 2013.
Ann Landers Obituary, Chicago Tribune
Advice columnist Ann Landers dies at 83,” CNN, November 25, 2002.

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  • John White Crow-Rynhart

    I am surprised that there are “no comments” on these two sisters. I personally opine that they are (or were?) truly amazing, and when they are mentioned, they should be considered with the ilk of Mark Twain and Will Rogers ! They brought their own brand of humor to really touchy subjects, as well as to the people, and are part of the history of this country, as we know it. If nothing else, they certainly helped a LOT of people. I guess I have been reading them, on some level or another since about 1961. I thank them profusely for bringing their brand of literature to this otherwise droll life ! Thank you, Eppie and Pauline Comment by John White Crow of Attica, Kansas.

    • Zim

      I agree wholeheartedly with you John! I remember my grandma having newspapers clips of Dear Abby and Ask Ann Landers on her fridge. They dispensed common sense advice – even if it was not all that popular of a public opinion to have.