In 1956, the original "Abby," Pauline Phillips, walked into the San Francisco Chronicle office and told the editor she could write a better advice column than the one the paper was publishing at the time. She had no experience in journalism, but demonstrated her ability to write sagely with sharply controlled language. The Chronicle offered her the job.
The column — which Phillips wrote under the pen name Abigail Van Buren — thrived and became a fixture in American pop culture, frequently being referenced in films and song lyrics.
Phillips wasn't the only successful columnist in the family. Her twin sister, Esther Lederer, inherited the popular Ask Ann Landers column from its creator, Ruth Cowley. As competitors, the sisters had a somewhat tense relationship.
In 1987, Phillips brought her daughter Jeanne on to co-write the columns. After the Phillips family announced in 2002 that Pauline was suffering from Alzheimer's, Jeanne took over the pen name and the column that her mother had written for 46 years.
Jeanne Phillips has said she takes a slightly different approach from her mother to answering some of the 10,000 queries she says she receives each week. The column is the most widely syndicated in the world, appearing in about 1,400 newspapers with a combined readership of about 110 million, according to its website.
"I had to wake up one day and realize that if I was going to do this job, and do it right, then I better be me," Jeanne Phillips told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008. "My style and her style are different. My mother's style was softer. If I have a talent, it's getting to the root of the problem quickly."
Pauline Phillips, born Pauline Esther Friedman in 1918, grew up in Sioux City, Iowa. She and her sister were the daughters of Russian Jewish immigrants. They attended Central High School and Morningside College.
Pauline married her husband, Morton Phillips, in 1939. They had two children. Morton was a salesman, and so the family moved frequently. They arrived in San Francisco in 1956.
Phillips told The Times that the Chronicle editor who interviewed her was "visibly underwhelmed" with her background, but gave her a chance to write a few columns based on some sample letters, which he had loved.
Phillips said her pseudonym came from the Old Testament's Abigail, who was blessed by God for her sound advice. The last name came from former President Van Buren.
Phillips and her staff often consulted experts in medicine, law and religion as they crafted responses.
To her fans, Phillips preached a simple motto: "Take what you've got and go with it."