Ask Norman

Dear Norman – A Remembrance

0 Comments 17 January 2013

Good riddance. I never like them….those Friedman sisters. I, for one, never bought into their sleezy midwestern panache nor did I care for their holier than thou attitude. I stood for pragmatic advice a body could use. I was never in it for the money like those chippies. I was in it for mankind. John Donne’s theme in Meditations captures my approach and philosophy:

“any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee”

In case you haven’t guessed Pauline Friedman Phillips, who under the name of Abigail Van Buren, wrote the long-running “Dear Abby” advice column has passed on to the all-you-can-eat-buffet in the sky today. She was 94.

She and her sister Esther “blow hard” Lederer thought they had a lock on the advice column business for over half a century. Esther being responsible for the Ann Landers column.

The two columns differed in style. Ann Landers responded to questioners with homey, detailed advice. Which I could never stomach.  Abby’s replies were often flippant one-liners – which were mildly amusing at best but never at all helpful to the poor soul on the receiving end. But make no mistake about it – neither one provided one iota of significance to mankind.

I’ll never forget a chance run-in I had with Esther on Michigan Ave. November 7th 1956. I saw her sashay by the cafe I was sitting in…enjoying a coffee. I ran out and yelled “goddam you blowhard, you know I started the advice column business last year with the Village Voice. Why do you deny this? Why do you forsake me?”.

Which was true, I did and she did.

She looked back at me with her pert nose and a stench of self worth that made me choke down remnants of an old fashion doughnut I had just eaten. The strumpet would not even dignify my claim with a response.

I stood there, in the unforgiving Chicago winter, without my coat and watched her spin around – skirt raise up an inch and a half – and head south on Michigan. I was filled with rage but satisfied with the glimpse of leg I was afforded. I never liked her but the woman had healthy stems. Nevertheless, if I had to choose one to share martinis with it would have always been Pauline. Mind you at that time I would have had martinis with Dick Nixon, as long as someone else was buying.

At least Pauline willingly expressed views that she realized would bring protests. In a 1998 interview she remarked: “Whenever I say a kind word about gays, I hear from people, and some of them are damn mad. People throw Leviticus, Deuteronomy and other parts of the Bible to me. It doesn’t bother me. I’ve always been compassionate toward gay people.”

But in her compassion always lurked a sense of doubt balanced with a desire to match her sister’s accomplishments. Although she always denied it, that doubt and desire is why she took that job at the San Francisco Chronicle.

In a way its an end of an era. A false era however. At times like this I think of Studs Terkel. Oh, how I wish we were sharing cognac at The Attic with a Charlie Mingus record screaming from the kitchen. Its moments like those where the best advice is always born.

- who has written 512 posts on The Shade.

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