The American Obsession with Advice Columns—and Its Permutations in Academia: Part 1–The Friedman Twins

(In a previous post, I included a paragraph on the sisters who are the topic of this post, but I actually wrote this series of posts first. All of the details here can be pieced together from entries in Wikipedia or a number of other Internet sites if you are willing to pursue the topic single-mindedly, if not obsessively, through a maze of links.)

When I was growing up, Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren, or “Dear Abby,” were household names because the advice columns that they wrote were syndicated in just about every daily newspaper in the United States. Indeed, the columns often ran simultaneously or alternately in the same newspapers. That these two steady, level-headed purveyors of advice were actually sisters seemed more a convenient genetic accident than a reason for skepticism. Although it was commonly known that Ann Landers’ real name was Eppie Lederer and that her sister’s real name was Pauline Philips, I don’t remember anyone ever asking why the pseudonyms were necessary when their actual identifies were so widely known. Eppie Lederer had taken over a long-running column that originated with a Chicago nurse named Ruth Crowley, who focused mainly on topics related to the care of infants and children. Why Crowley took the pseudonym “Ann Landers” has never been explained. Crowley was seldom asked about the source of the pseudonym because, unlike her successor, Crowley kept her real identity a secret from her readers until her relatively early death at the age of 48. Moreover, in the few instances in which she was asked by her associates about the source of the pseudonym, she seemed to shrug off the question, suggesting that it had simply come to her by happenstance.

Although it should have been obvious from the small photos that appeared at the head of their columns, what was less widely known about Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren was that they were twin sisters—whose birth names were inversions of each other. Ann Landers’ birth name was Esther Pauline Friedman, and Abigail Van Buren’s birth name was Pauline Esther Friedman. Although Esther’s nickname, “Eppie,” was widely known (though many no doubt thought that, however unusual it was, it was her given name, rather than her nickname), her sister also had a nickname that stayed with her for her entire life, “Popo.” The sisters attended the same high school and the same college, and when they were 21, they got married in a double ceremony on their birthday, which happened to be the Fourth of July. But when Eppie succeeded Ruth Crowley as Ann Landers (actually, for several months, several other writers had taken a stab at the column before she got it, but the story is often abbreviated for the sake of clarity), Popo shortly afterwards started her parallel column called “Dear Abby.” And from that point on, a deep rift developed between the previously inseparable twin sisters, a rift that would extend throughout most of their lives. Little surprise there, for they had no one to whom they could write for advice on ending their estrangement—except, of course, for each other.

In contrast to the ambiguity surrounding the source of the pseudonym “Ann Landers,” Popo matter-of-factly explained that she had created the name “Abigail Van Buren” by combining the names of Abigail, a figure in the Old Testament, with the last name of the eighth president, Martin Van Buren. Although the pseudonym has obviously resonated and had a great deal of staying power, it must be one of the most strangely conceived pseudonyms in history. (If you’re looking for a something to kill a little time, look up a list of female figures in the Bible and combine their names with the surnames of U.S. presidents.)

In 2002, Eppie died, the pseudonym Ann Landers was retired, but the demand for her column led her daughter, Margot, to continue it under the title “Annie’s Mailbox.” But her heart wasn’t in it, and in the late 1990s, when Herbert Stein wearied of writing the “Dear Prudence” column for the new online magazine Slate, Margot took it up. When she gave up the column a decade later, it was to start a syndicated newspaper column titled “Dear Margot,” and Emily Yoffe became “Prudence.” In the same year that Eppie died, Popo publicly acknowledged that she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and formally stopped writing her column. I say “publicly” because for fifteen years, her daughter, Jeanne Philips, had been writing the column “with her.” Jeanne has continued to write the column, though she is now 70. Her mother passed away just this past year. Nonetheless, “Dear Abby” remains one of the most widely syndicated columns in the world, appearing in almost 1500 newspapers with a combined circulation of more than 100 million. The syndicate that distributes the column has attributed its continued success to its “uncommon common sense and youthful perspective.” But for the more approximately 10,000 people a week who still write to “Dear Abby” seeking advice, there seems to be precious little sense of the ironies amplified by their seemingly infinite well of need.

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