Many years ago, when I was a teenager, I met Pauline Friedman Philips from Sioux City Iowa, who died on Wednesday after a long bout with Alzheimer's. Known to her friends as "Popo" and to America as Abigail Van Buren, "Dear Abby" and her twin sister Ann Landers were big deals post World War II, pre-Internet -- when people for the most part read newspapers, remained optimistic and conciliatory, and were willing to follow columns from non-therapist women of a certain age dishing common sense.
Their heyday was the 1950s through the 1970s, a time when snark was more a quip than a shaft, and ironing was more valued than irony. Women were restlessly discarding aprons, blacks were marching on Washington, and gays pointed a tentative toe out of the closet. We believed more in therapy and redemption back then, and the homilies of moderate Midwestern women who could easily be your well-off aunts were taken to heart by much of the country.
Ann Landers was the homier, more traditional writer. Abby was the wise-cracker. She wrote things like: "If you want a place in the sun, you've got to put up with a few blisters." And, "The less you talk, the more you're listened to."
Identical twins who had both married into money and who both wrote advice columns, Ann had a nose job and Abby retained her original proboscis, and as someone conscious of the bump on my own nose, I admired Abby for her non-vanity as much as for her writing. I knew that Ann didn't speak to Abby when Abby had followed in her advice-giving footsteps, so the shunned, nosy underdog was my columnist of choice.
One day in the late 1950s, when I was editor of my high school newspaper, I was told that I would join a bunch of other teen writers to meet Abigail Van Buren at a press conference. I was duly excited, as she was one of the most recognized newspaper women in America.
She was around 40, but looked much older, and strode into the room in her plummy silk suit, with heavy makeup and stiff tresses locked down with hairspray. She reminded me of one of my rich friend's moms. I was writing a column at the time for the Miami Beach Sun about high school life, and to me she seemed a put-together role model.
Abby spoke for awhile about writing and life and I can't remember what she said, but I do remember her strong Midwestern twang. I was excited that there would be a question and answer period; I had written my question on the purple notepaper with my monogram that I kept in my purse.
She was handed the questions and she began answering them in serious tones. Most were variations about how to become a successful writer. And then, near the end of her talk, I saw her lift my purple paper. My question was: how does she think her advice differs from her sister's?
And she read the question. Except she read something entirely different. Something she wanted to be asked so that she could answer what she wanted to say. She read it with poise, as if she were reading it from my writing. She had no intention of answering my question.
And naive me was shocked that she hadn't confronted the obvious. Shocked that she was acting with duplicity and carefulness. I learned more from Abigail Van Buren's action than from what she said. The world had changed for me in that room, and thanks to her I walked out a lot less naive.