When Dear Abby began giving advice, readers asked: Should you or shouldn't you on the first date?
Thirty-six years later, they're still asking.
Only difference is, in the '50s, what folks worried about doing was kissing. Now it's sex.
And that's one of the tamer issues she deals with.
"I'm shockproof at this point. You begin to question what is normal," said Abigail Van Buren, who was in Baltimore over the weekend to receive an award from Overeaters Anonymous (OA).
While she doesn't condone sleeping together on the first date, the newspaper columnist has changed her mind about premarital sex -- and many other topics.
"Very few people can wait, for a variety of reasons. Who am I to make them feel like sinners? The church does that," she said.
More than 90 million readers count on her common sense, wit and poetry to guide them through life's rockier moments: divorce, death, illness, alcoholism, adultery. Their signatures -- "Sixty Years Old and Stranded," "Morey's Golf Widow," "Always a Bridesmaid" -- sometimes say it all. But rather than feeling depressed, Ms. Van Buren is left energized by helping them.
On this day, it shows. While the photo above her column (which runs daily in The Sun and in more than 1,200 papers), makes her look like a kindly aunt, in person she's all glamour and glitz. Dressed in a fitted purple dress ("Purple is my favorite color"), snakeskin pumps ("I have six pairs") and a chunky sapphire ring ("An I-love-you present from my husband"), she looks younger than 74, although she admits a face lift years ago helped. While she's supportive of OA, she's never personally had a weight problem.
Her demeanor is pure Abby. She doesn't shake your hand as much as cradle it in hers. During conversation, she freely grabs your knee and calls you "honey." As you leave, she tries to persuade you to take flowers, just delivered for her, that she'd have to give away soon anyway.
Despite her reassuring style, being an advice columnist hasn't made her privy to any magical solutions in life.
So what advice would Abigail Van Buren seek from Dear Abby?
"How do you get 50 hours out of 24?" she said.
Now if Dear Abby only had the answer.
Recalling the first answer she ever gave is easier. A young woman wrote: "My boyfriend took me out to dinner. I usually don't drink very much, but on this occasion we each had three martinis. I really can't remember what happened. Did I do wrong?"
Her one-word reply: Probably.
"I was off and running," she said.
As a California housewife and mother of two, she decided to try writing an advice column in 1956, several months after her twin sister made her debut as Ann Landers. Ms. Van Buren, whose real name is Pauline Esther Friedman Phillips, offered to write for the San Francisco Chronicle as a public service. The paper offered her $20 a week, and within months her work was syndicated.
While much has been made of the rift that occurred between Abby and Ann, Ms. Van Buren said the relationship has mended.
"That's gone and forgotten," she said. "When people keep dredging up the problems we've had in the past, it doesn't help a situation any."
In general, many of the 15,000 letters she receives are more serious than they were decades ago -- with AIDS, child abuse and elderly neglect ranking high on the list. She works from her Beverly Hills, Calif., home, which she shares with Morton, her husband of 53 years. She has a staff of seven, including her daughter, Jeanne, and a man who simply opens mail.
On occasion, she admits to having given bum advice. Years ago, she told a nosy mother she should open her son's mail since she believed he was on drugs. The onslaught of mail helped show her she was wrong.
As she's grown older, she's become less inclined to give flip answers. But that hasn't prevented others from criticizing her work. Last week, she endured "the freckle barrage" after writing that a woman embarrassed about her freckles could cover them with cosmetics.
"I just couldn't believe that people were so offended because I wasn't more supportive of people with freckles. [They said] 'You should have told her freckles were adorable.' "
Being second-guessed doesn't bother her.
"If you want a place in the sun, you've got to put up with a few blisters," she said.
Retirement -- the "dirtiest 10-letter word" in the English language -- is not in her immediate future. But with two grandchildren, she realizes she is getting on in years.
"People have started writing to me saying, 'Please don't die.' "