The Joy of Dr. Ruth
Published in TC People
By Joe Levine
Photography by Shannon Taggart
“Put this down—this is how I operate.”
Dr. Ruth—Ruth K. Westheimer, 83-year-old, four-foot-seven-inch sex therapist extraordinaire (and orphan, Holocaust survivor, former paramilitary sniper and, not least, TC alumna)—is motioning gleefully to a trio of visiting magazine folk in her office on East 49th Street as she dials her rabbi on her iPhone. While she waits, she cups her hand over her mouth. “I used to belong to three synagogues—orthodox, conservative, reform. Now it’s only two—the reformed shut down.”
Westheimer informs the rabbi she’s found someone to design the synagogue’s monthly newsletter, pro bono, and hands the phone to the startled art director. “Here, talk to him. I promise you good sex for the rest of your life.”
Over the next 90 minutes, Westheimer obliges her visitors by putting on lipstick and modeling a red beret she wore to Buckingham Palace (Prince Philip is a fan). She passes around a miniature ornamental turtle that someone brought from Mexico City for her collection (“The philosophy of my life is a turtle—if it stays in one place, it’s safe because it carries its house on its back, but if it wants to move, it has to stick its neck out”) and twice dials her longtime “Minister of Communications,” Pierre Lehu, to check on the address of friends who will be taking her to a Hasidic wedding.
“Pierre has helped me write 19 of my 36 books,” she confides proudly. “I talk and he types on the computer. It’s a wonderful relationship.”
Told that she seems to have a full calendar, Dr. Ruth nods briskly. “I was teaching at Yale and Princeton for six years, and when that ended I was worried. I’m 83, what if that’s it, and now I’m sitting at home? But it turns out I stayed busy.”
This is perhaps an understatement. Tomorrow she’s throwing a party to launch her new YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/drruth (check out the clips of her telling Jerry Seinfeld to get married and visiting Condomania in Los Angeles with Arsenio Hall). In a few weeks she’s going on a cruise to Morocco (she gives lectures and does signings in the ship’s bookstore) and, oh, yes, she’s producing a new documentary on the Haredim, ultra-Orthodox Jews who have begun serving in the Israeli military.
“I go to Israel every year, and I wanted to do a movie. But I’m a very impatient person—you know that German proverb? ‘Dear God, give me patience...immediately!’ So a documentary is perfect, because I can do it in a summer.
“I love the King David Hotel. They’ve got the names of all the celebrities who have visited, when you walk out from the dining room. There’s Jacqueline Kennedy. There’s Danny Kaye. And there’s Dr. Ruth Westheimer. I always check to see if my name is still there.” She laughs her high-pitched, girlish laugh. “It’s good to be Dr. Ruth.”
THE FIRST AND ONLY
Before there was Dr. Phil and Dr. Laura and all the other TV and radio self-help personalities, there was the tiny woman with the German accent. If Dr. Ruth was not the first big-name sex therapist—before her, as she always acknowledges, there was Kinsey, Masters & Johnson, and her own mentor, Helen Singer Kaplan—she was surely the first to take to the airwaves.
“There’s no one like me—put that down,” she tells her office visitors. “I know how to treat men who aren’t getting an erection and women who aren’t getting an orgasm, but I’m also interested in the psychology and the relationship. That’s why I call myself a psychosexual therapist. Also, I answer in a way that’s humorous but doesn’t make fun. Because it says in the Talmud that a lesson taught with humor is a lesson retained. I can’t tell a joke—I’m a German Jew, we don’t understand jokes—but when someone asks a question I see the opportunities for humor.”
As good as she is on screen or radio, Westheimer is at her best with a live audience. Last spring, at TC’s Academic Festival, she listened, frowning, to a long and rather technical question about the connections between sex and sense of smell, then pronounced with finality, “If someone’s dirty, I don’t want to have sex with him.” To a Brazilian woman who confessed to thinking about someone other than her partner during sex, she replied, “You can fantasize about the whole Brazilian soccer team—just don’t tell him.” Other questions became pretexts for bridging to stories she has told countless times, always with genuine relish at winning fresh laughs.
“My late husband, Fred Westheimer—a wonderful man, we were married for 38 years,” she told the audience. “I never permitted him to come to any of my talks, and you know why? Because when I asked for questions, he would raise his hand and say, ‘Don’t listen to her, it’s all talk.’ But one time, I made an exception. Fred loved Diane Sawyer, and when 60 Minutes came to our apartment I didn’t have the heart to say, ‘Fred, you can’t be at home.’ So we’re sitting down, the cameras are rolling, and Diane Sawyer turns to Fred, first question, and says, ‘So, Mr. Westheimer, how is your sex life?’ To which Fred says, ‘The shoemaker’s children don’t have any shoes.’ ”
Westheimer’s success owes at least in part to the fact that no one else working this territory seems quite so much like your grandmother—that is, if your grandmother were given to matter-of-factly discussing foreplay and masturbation. But she also brings a unique outlook to her craft.
“She takes no second on earth for granted,” says Lehu, who helped put her early radio shows on the map. “There’s not a night she stays home, and if she has no plans, she’ll go to Lincoln Center, and they’ll always find her a seat. You have to remember that she lost everything, her parents and her home—so she looks at her grandkids and says, ‘Hitler didn’t want me to have these children, I’m going to enjoy them even more.’ ”
Hope Leichter, Elbenwood Professor of Education and Westheimer’s thesis adviser at TC in the late 1960s, believes Westheimer’s sincerity sets her apart.
“When you get into sex education, there’s a divide between helping people and just saying things that titillate,” says Leichter, whom Westheimer routinely credits for admitting her despite an exam she flunked at the New School. “It can be a wavy line. But for Ruth, being a sex therapist is a way of being joyous. She has a serious message, about contraception and the importance of relationships and family. But she’s had a very tough life, and what she does is all about asserting her power to overcome and move beyond.”
Equally important, Leichter says, Westheimer enjoys her celebrity but has never been seduced by it. “She’s very generous and very loyal. When my husband passed away, she called me. And her social skills are amazing. She can walk into a room with all these people tagging along after her, and she remembers everyone’s names and makes all these connections—not just for herself but for others, as well.”
A CITIZEN OF THE WORLD
Westheimer was 51 and working with Helen Singer Kaplan at Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences when she fielded a request to talk about sex education to the managers of community affairs programs at New York City radio stations. A week later, WYNY offered her a 15-minute, Sunday evening spot at a quarter after midnight, and “Dr. Ruth” was born. Yet in the grand tradition of American self-invention, it was not the first time Westheimer had reimagined herself.
“My name was Karola Siegel,” she writes in the opening line of her autobiography, All in a Lifetime. “I was 10 years old. The day was January 5, 1939, and I was at the railroad station in Frankfurt, Germany, saying good-bye to my family.”
An only child reared by loving parents, Karola was leaving for a group home in Switzerland as part of the kindertransport, the effort that spirited Jewish children out of Nazi-occupied countries just prior to World War II. She would never see her parents or grandparents again.
Karola took care of younger children while working long days mopping floors and cleaning toilets. Girls weren’t allowed to go to school, so instead of a high school diploma, she earned a degree in Swiss housekeeping (one reason she is inordinately proud of not only her own subsequent academic accomplishments, but also those of her two children: Miriam, a TC graduate and expert on home instruction for preschoolers; and Joel, a sociologist at the University of Ottawa).
At 17, unable to stay in Switzerland and unwilling to return to Germany after the war, Westheimer and several friends emigrated to Palestine. She changed her name to Ruth (Karola was deemed too German), lived on kibbutzim, joined the Zionist underground militia known as the Haganah, and learned to clean machine guns with her eyes closed. On her 20th birthday, after war erupted with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Westheimer ignored a warning siren to run up to her room and retrieve a book that had been a birthday present. As she returned to the first floor, a bomb exploded outside, killing another girl and nearly blowing off her legs. She recuperated for months in a ward full of male soldiers, a situation she reports enjoying immensely (if chastely). Space was so tight, and she was so small, that she slept on a bookshelf.
Eventually Westheimer met her first husband (of three), realized her dream of becoming a kindergarten teacher, studied psychology at the Sorbonne and made her way to the United States, where she earned a master’s in sociology from The New School and a doctorate in community and family studies from Teachers College. She worked at Planned Parenthood and wrote her doctoral thesis on the contraceptive use and abortion histories of more than 2,000 women. It was another step toward becoming Dr. Ruth, but the connection with Leichter, then chair of a department called Home and Family Life, may have been even more fruitful.
“The catalog description of our department talked about how education takes place in a wide variety of settings and about preparing people to create new roles as well as fill existing ones,” Leichter says. “If you look at what she went on to do, I think we helped give her the tools to invent herself.”The invention process did not end with the emergence of Dr. Ruth. Westheimer has written books on grandparenting, power as an aphrodisiac, great erotic art throughout history and the role of music in her own life. She has also made several documentaries on the integration of ethnic minorities into Israeli life, including Ethiopian Jews, the Bedouin, the Druse, the Circassians and now the Haredim. Each focuses on issues of preserving culture, material that leads into choppy waters, particularly for a self-proclaimed Zionist who resolutely ducks questions of politics. In the film on the Bedouin, several Bedouin talk openly about how Israel has taken away their nomadic freedom.
“Look, I’m very concerned about Israel these days, but I’ve been concerned about Israel for 20 years,” Westheimer says, shrugging. Bottom line: “We Jews need a country so what has happened will never happen again.”
Still, posterity will likely remember Westheimer as the sex therapist with a charming combination of innocence and wisdom. Her YouTube site is part of an effort to educate a younger crowd. (She also has 14,000 followers on Twitter.) And playwright Mark St. Germain, who wrote Freud’s Last Session, is writing a play about her with Debra Jo Rupp in the lead role. The set will be modeled on Westheimer’s Washington Heights apartment, where she’s lived for more than 50 years.
A few days after the interview in her office, Westheimer hosts a reporter there. She proudly shows off more of her turtles; some Chinese art with hidden erotic panels; a ram’s-horn shofar from Jerusalem; and a ceremonial sword given to her by Jewish cadets at West Point. Still, it’s the photo of her with Paul McCartney that catches the visitor’s eye.
“Ah, the Beatle,” she nods judiciously. “That was at Yale’s graduation two years ago. We ran into each other on line, and he says, ‘Hullo, Ruthie.’ And I said, ‘Sing me, something.’ He sang, ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ Suddenly there’s a big crowd standing around us, and a reporter snapped a picture.” She laughs. It’s good to be Dr. Ruth.
To view Dr. Ruth's talk on sexual health at last spring's TC Academic Festival, visit: http://blip.tv/teachers-college-columbia-university/dr-ruth-s-guide-to-sexual-health-5101386