Two hours later, she returned with replies that were "mostly flip, saucy one-liners," she later recalled, and was hired the same day.
On Jan. 9, 1956, she wrote, "with my participles dangling and my infinitives splitting, I was launched in my writing career" — and terrified that nobody would write in.
Her husband advised her to "copyright your pen name and own it yourself." She decided on Abigail Van Buren, combining the names of a biblical character and a favorite president.
From the start, letters poured in and the column was soon sold to a syndicate. Her little "hobby," as she always called it — insisting that her husband and family were her career — had landed her in the big time.
But success came with a price, a heartbreaking rift with her twin, who felt betrayed when her sister started her own column. Their seven-year rift ended when her sister broached a reconciliation. Esther's daughter, Margo Howard, would also write an advice column, for the online magazine Slate.
"Dear Abby" had come a long way from Sioux City, where the Friedmans' well-off father owned several movie theaters.
At Morningside, a local Methodist college, the vivacious and popular twins started a gossip column, "Campus Rats."
They dropped out of college to marry in 1939, two days before they turned 21. They wore identical gowns in a double ceremony and went on a double honeymoon.
Their husbands were men of vastly different means. Pauline had met hers, Morton Phillips, at a University of Minnesota fraternity dance. He came from great wealth while Eppie's husband, Jules Lederer, was a millinery salesman who later joined the Phillips business empire. (A 1975 Ann Landers column announcing her divorce caused a kerfuffle.)
Early in their marriages, the two couples lived in Eau Claire, Wis., where Phillips refined her listening skills while volunteering at a local hospital.
Dear Abby: "Our daughter-in-law was married in January. Five months later she had a 9-pound baby girl. She said the baby was premature. Tell me, can a baby this big be that early?"
"The baby was on time. The wedding was late. Forget it," was her rejoinder.
The letters could be so outrageous, Phillips was forced to deny they were invented, saying nobody "could make up situations to equal those that turn up in my daily mail."
Over time, she was as much counselor as entertainer. Readers were coping with drug abuse, incest, rape and domestic violence. As the divorce rate escalated, "Dear Abby" — whose traditional Midwestern values included a conviction that marriage was forever — amended her thinking. (Besides her sister, both of her children would divorce.)
Although she disapproved of sex before marriage, she wrote that girls who were sexually active should be given birth control pills. As early as 1975, she took a "love and let love" attitude toward homosexuality, once writing that she tended to agree with the titled English lady who said of sexual practices that "she didn't care what people did, just as long as they didn't frighten the horses."
A nonsmoker, she crusaded against smoking and in 1994 caused a stir when she suggested that legalization of recreational drugs was "an idea to consider."
Much of her column material was provided by philandering spouses, despite her own 1986 survey, which found that an overwhelming majority of readers claimed to have been true to their vows.
Dear Abby: "What is the cure for a man who has been married for 33 years and still can't stay away from other women?"
"Rigor mortis," she replied.
Some readers sought quick and easy solutions while others just wanted to confess or were lonely. "They trust me," she once said, "and the price is right." But she added, "Some are kooks, some fabricate problems, but I can usually spot the phonies."