If that headline doesn’t ring immediate bells, it’s because she is somewhat better known as “Dear Abby.”
Although her column continues to be written by her daughter Jeanne, Phillips’ passing severs a link to a golden era in syndicated advice-giving. Phillips and her twin sister Eppie Lederer, better known as Ann Landers, were media superstars, their nationally syndicated columns daily institutions for countless readers. It’s difficult to describe their massive audience, their appeal and authority, to the children of an age in which the answer to just about any problem is “Google it.”
In my childhood, Ann and Abby were a zinger-slinging Greek chorus. They dispensed wisdom to the nation on every imaginable subject and some unimaginable, including love, marriage and the best way to hang the toilet paper. (True fact. Landers, who fielded the toilet-paper question, once said that it generated 15,000 responses, making it one of her most commented-upon letters.)
I can’t be the only voracious reader for whom their work provided an education on many topics — some of which my mother would rather have left alone a while longer. I still remember my nine-year-old self running down to the laundry room, where my mom was folding the latest load, to ask what was the big deal about unwed mothers.
“What?!” Her voice went up several keys. “Where did you hear about THAT?”
“Ann Landers wrote about it,” I said.
“Ann Landers writes about a lot of things,” my mother replied tightly.
So did Abby. Like her twin, she did not shy from the controversial. As the San Francisco Chronicle recalls, Abby “replied to letters about serious social issues such as teen sex, divorce, alcoholism and AIDS, and answered them with a mix of candor, common sense and an occasional wisecrack.”
Personally, I suspect that future family historians seeking context and flavor for describing Americans in the mid-20th century could do a lot worse than Dear Abby and Dear Ann. Yes, the advice column survives today online and in print media, but today’s successors don’t have the breathtaking ease with which the sisters moved between deadly serious issues and day-to-day dilemmas. They could reach out to a domestic-violence victim one minute and the next, weigh in on what to do about a bad case of acne.
Though their styles were very similar, consensus often held that Ann (who died in 2002) tended to be the straight-shooter, while Abby had a matchless flair for witty one-liners. The writing from their heyday still has a startlingly fresh appeal — bright, succinct, with a tough-mindedness behind the humor that lent authenticity to their advice-giving. “The audibly human voice … rising above our collective impersonality, ” was how Cornell University professor David I. Grossvogel described Ann’s appeal, and that could be said of Abby’s as well.
(A compilation of Pauline’s columns, The Best of Dear Abby, appears to still be available, at least in Kindle edition. Grossvogel’s out-of-print study, Dear Ann Landers, is worth seeking out for those interested in the evolution of Eppie’s advice over the years.)
And truly, Abby had a way with a zinger that you just don’t see anymore:
Dear Abby: I have always wanted to have my family history traced, but I can’t afford to spend a lot of money to do it. Have you any suggestions? — M.J.B. in Oakland, Calif.
Dear M.J.B.: Yes. Run for a public office.
RIP, Dear Abby.
As I once wrote, gifts and bequests can carry a double edge for the institutions which receive them.
Here is an interesting problem for the Brooklyn Museum, as reported today by the New York Times. A major bequest made in 1932 of nearly 1,000 fine paintings and artifacts seemed at first like a wonderful windfall, but is now, to some extent, a white elephant.
The huge collection was left to the museum by Col. Michael Friedsam, head of the legendary Altman department store and an associated philantrophic foundation.
First snag: About a fourth of the items were either forgeries or misattributions or basically not up to snuff in some way. So the museum wouldn’t mind selling the 229 pieces it no longer wants (but has to spend lots of money storing).
Second snag: Friedsam’s will specified that nothing could be disposed of without permission from the executors. And the last executor died in 1962.
Sounds like a job for a forensic genealogist. From the Times’ story by Patricia Cohen:
Noting that the will specified that the art should go to the colonel’s brother-in-law and two friends if the collection were not kept together, Judge Nora Anderson told the museum in December 2011 that it must search for these three men’s descendants before she would rule.
Nothing’s ever simple, right?
The Genealogical Society of New Jersey, as noted previously, was compelled to reschedule their annual meeting last month, what with Superstorm/Hurricane/Whatever It Was, We Hate It Sandy reorganizing life for everyone in so many unwelcome ways.
The rescheduled meeting is this Saturday, Dec. 8, at 10:30 a.m. in the Pane Room of the Alexander Library at Rutgers University.
Gayle Ann Livecchia will speak, appropriately enough, on “Using University Archives for Genealogical Research.” UPDATE: The society announced a change in speaker and topic: Claire Keenan Agthe will speak on ”Copyright for Genealogists.” Date, time and place remain the same. And hey, it’s also a great topic.
The meeting and lecture are free and open to the public, but do RSVP by emailing Programs@GSNJ.org.
The Alexander Library is at 169 College Ave., New Brunswick. Check the Genealogical Society of New Jersey website for more information!
It was 20 years ago, but I can still hear it as if it were yesterday — the voice of a friend on the phone as we battened down the hatches for Hurricane Andrew, knowing we were leaving but overwhelmed at choosing what to take and what must stay.
“Grab whatever photos you can,” she said. “Grab the things you can’t replace.”
Here in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, every day brings new stories of good news and bad news from towns we love. And in yesterday’s New York Daily News came a heartening tale about reuniting storm survivors with those irreplaceable family photos.
Jeannette Van Houten set up a Facebook page to post more than 3,000 family photos that were found strewn around Union Beach, New Jersey, a small seaside town destroyed by the storm. It’s giving families — many who have lost everything — a chance to reunite with some treasured mementos.
Van Houten’s Facebook page can be found here.
Among the many, many events rescheduled or relocated due to Sandy’s trip through the Northeast is the annual meeting of the Genealogical Society of New Jersey (GSNJ). According to membership chair Joan Lowry:
Due to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the potential for additional bad
weather this week, GSNJ has postponed the Annual Meeting that was to be
held this coming Saturday, 10 November. The meeting will be rescheduled
shortly. More information will be posted on GSNJ website and by email as
soon as it becomes available.
My heart hurts so much tonight. The power loss and our rapidly chilling house seemed beside the point as we sat in our shadowy kitchen, peering at the photos sliding across the screen of the smartphone, and I had to believe what the captions said.
That this had been a boardwalk. An amusement pier. A row of little shops where you could grab a Coke or a tube of sunscreen or some boardwalk fries.
The Jersey Shore, to those of us who really know it, has always been so much more than the loudmouthed reality show that stole the name and made it a punch line.
“That was my childhood,” said my oldest, staring at a neat row of concrete blocks on the smartphone screen. The caption called it the Spring Lake boardwalk.
“Mine too,” I said.
Well, not Spring Lake, in my case. But Manasquan. Point Pleasant. Wildwood. Ocean City once. Seaside Heights for sure, as a teenager – who didn’t?
I have a sister who lives a mile from one of those former boardwalks. Walking the boardwalk along the Atlantic, the sun just rising, the salt breeze blowing and the day just starting, is one of the joys of her life.
I can’t reach her yet. I know that on Monday, as the storm was prowling off the coast, we talked about what we were dreading and what we thought we were prepared for.
But nothing prepares you for the sight of nothing, in place of something that was so beautiful and uplifting to the spirit.
And no, it will never be the same, as my kids keep saying. I want to hush them, and say they are wrong, but they are not. And yes, it does break my heart.
I do believe it will be back, though. It will be just as wonderful. Different, but wonderful.
Perhaps to come to terms with what we are just beginning to understand, my kids and I began talking about the summers, all the summers down the shore. I wanted them to have the shore the way I had the shore when I was little, and they did.
Just as I did, they have memories of the good stuff and the bad stuff and the sometimes scary stuff, like the ride at Seaside Heights where my older child was too scared to get on until the operator said, “See this coin? I’m going to put it on the floor, and it’s not going to move.” And she rode, and it didn’t.
Or like the first time my youngest got rolled by a wave at Long Beach Island. She was maybe a year old, and I thought I was standing in a good spot but you know how tricky the Atlantic can be. One of those breakers got us good, and broke her out of my hold, and she went pinwheeling, somersaulting through the shallows as I splashed after her frantically.
Oh no, her first wave and it’s a horror show! She’s traumatized for life, I was thinking. My husband and I dragged her up and shook the water off her and thumped her back, crying, “Are you all right? Are you?”
She beamed up at us, grinning ear to ear.
“More!” she said.
The shore will be back. And so will we.
This past weekend I had a blast volunteering at The Genealogy Event in Manhattan. Along with other members of the APG Metro-New York City chapter, I was at the Living Library Lounge helping event attendees with research questions.
Then I went home to deal with the reality of an impending Weather Event called Sandy. Talk about a change of pace.
Although … I did notice that storm-preparation advice has two principles in common with effective-research advice.
1. Have the right equipment in your toolbox.
2. Stay organized and try not to get overwhelmed by all the details.
It’s always fascinating talking to other people about their genealogy triumphs and setbacks. Every family has its own puzzle pieces that just refuse to come together. There also seems to be a pattern in people’s research experience (to me, anyway) that occurs as one leaves the brand-new beginner phase and segues into the intermediate level. You wake up and realize that you don’t just have a couple of sheets of information; you’ve got a couple of binders full. Everything looks interesting and everything is worthy of following up. What do you do next, and why?
As I found myself saying to a number of people the other day, the more you discover, the more important it is that you develop visual and organizational systems for keeping track of what you have already done and prioritizing what you will do next.
Family tree charts, whether in the cloud or on your hard drive, are the foundation of Keeping Track, naturally. But like the binders or file boxes, they can also be overwhelming when you’re trying to home in upon a specific person or problem. In those cases, you need other tools that can narrow your focus more effectively.
For instance: Don’t just collect census images; keep a census log for each family group with notes about what you’ve found and what it tells you about what you need to ask next.
Or, for ancestors who insist on dropping in and out of sight, consider compiling a timeline of what you know so far about the events of each life. (Timelines have the most amazing way of highlighting inconsistencies and faulty assumptions.)
How you do these things is really a personal choice. Some people love spreadsheets. I myself am fond of simple tabular charts in Word, because for me they are quick and easy to assemble.
But however you perform them, organizational cues are invaluable for those times when life happens and you drop your research on a certain person or line for a while. If you’ve laid the groundwork properly, you’ll be able to come back to your files and know where you left off instantly, rather than spend a afternoon looking at images you’ve already looked at, and figuring out why you thought they were important in the first place. This is just a waste of time. Almost as much a waste of time as trying to find D-cell batteries the day before a major storm is supposed to hit.
Speaking of which, to all in the path of Hurricane Sandy, good luck and stay safe.