NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of the nation's best-known sex therapist, Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
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If I were interviewing a great mathematician, I'd ask about math; a great musician, music. We all know what Dr. Ruth’s area of expertise is, so you’ve got to ask: For a 45-year-old guy like myself, does she have any particular advice?
“First of all, how fortunate you are — you have a wife, you have a child," she says. “Make sure that you take enough baby sitters. Even if you don't have money for big dinners, [get] baby sitters. I even would say check into a motel for two hours. You don't have to stay the whole night. Get a baby sitter for two hours, check into motel, get some flowers, some champagne, and some bubble bath."
Coincidentally, my wife happened to come along on this shoot, which just happened to be with the nation's most well-known sex therapist. When told Dr. Ruth suggested we get a baby sitter, a motel and flowers, my wife kissed her.
Questions, questions, questions — everyone asks Dr. Ruth questions. She says she takes questions on the street, in airports, everywhere.
“I do get a lot of questions about premature ejaculation,” she says.
Welcome to the world of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a New York City grandmother who was made an orphan by the Nazis, survived the war, immigrated here, and eventually joined the ranks of those known simply by their first name: Dr. Ruth.
"If I was spared having to die in the concentration camps, then I have an obligation to make something out of my life,” she says. “But I didn't know it would be talking about sex all day long."
She still does talk about sex with clients in her private practice, and as a teacher of a course at Princeton University. She's also the author of 26 books, some specifically for kids, some obviously for adults. The latest is called “Musically Speaking: A Life Through Song.”
Then there's her radio and television work, and she's getting ready to work on her fourth documentary this summer.
It all started with a 15-minute radio program here in 1980 called "Sexually Speaking." It went national, and suddenly she was famous, appearing on Johnny Carson and David Letterman. Then she got her own TV show.
“That combination I think of the accent and the age is what helped me to become, what did they call me? A superstar of cable television,” she says.
Before she was Dr. Ruth, she studied psychology at the Sorbonne, got her masters and Ph.D from Columbia University, and researched human sexuality at New York Hospital-Cornell University Medical Center.
But when fame hit, she started lecturing everywhere — lectures that she preferred her husband Fred not attend.
"He would have raised his hand when I asked for questions and he would have said to everybody in the audience, sometimes 1,000 people, he would have said, ÎDon't listen to her — it's all talk,’" she says.
They were married and lived in Washington Heights for more than 35 years. Fred died in 1997.
Dr. Ruth’s success meant she could have moved anywhere in the city, but she chose to stay in Washington Heights. She's helping to raise money for the heather garden in her beloved Fort Tryon Park, where a bench bears her husband's name.
"I never come to this park without sitting here," she says. "It's a sadness, but not painful. It's a sadness of saying how much he would have enjoyed this day, for example. But it's not painful, because he had a very good life and I had a very good life with him.”
Dr. Ruth's public persona is well known, and she seems to be everywhere. The reaction when people see her?
"Very often, people smile,” she says. “You know why they smile? They see me and they think about sex.”
But do they think of her as a sharpshooter? Long before she talked about orgasms and premature ejaculation, Dr. Ruth was trained as a sniper in the Haganah, the underground Zionist movement in Israel in the late 1940s.
Why was she such a good shooter?
“I can't answer that,” she says. “For some reason, I have a talent of being a sniper. So television journalists, if they don't ask me good questions, be careful."
She was born Karola Ruth Siegel in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1928, the only child of Irma and Julius Siegel. She describes her first 10 years at home as “wonderful.”
That childhood was shattered in 1938 on Kristalnacht, when Nazi soldiers burned synagogues and Jewish stores throughout Germany. A few days later the SS came for her father.
“My father was picked up by the Nazis in Frankfurt, and [he] waved,” she says. “I remember that picture as vividly as I remember something from yesterday."
Her mother and grandmother decided that Ruth should join a group of Jewish children who were being taken out of Germany, the Kindertransport. She never saw her family again.
Her name was put on a list of children going to Switzerland, where she spent the war years working as a maid in a school for rich children. But she survived, whereas many of the children taken to other countries like Holland, France and Belgium were eventually murdered.
"Why was I placed on this train to go to Switzerland when thousands, millions of other children were killed in concentration camps? This was something very difficult for people like me,” she says. “I'm now 76, and that sentiment, that feeling of ÎWhy?’ for which there's no answer. By chance.”
She had two brief early marriages before marrying her husband of almost 40 years, Fred Westheimer in 1961. She has two children and four grandchildren.
Was there a more intense desire to have a family because of what she had lost?
“Brilliant question,” she says. “I did a study for my master thesis; I followed 100 children who were with me coming out of Germany into Switzerland becoming orphans, and most of them, I'm not saying all, went into very early marriages because they needed to recreate that family tie."
This is an aspect of the gregarious Dr. Ruth that we usually don't see in public, but it's there, always.
“All of the unhappiness, the misery, the becoming an orphan, the hopelessness and all the other sadness, of course I experienced it, like anybody else would after the Holocaust,” she says. “Here I survived, and Anne Frank didn’t, and many others didn't. I have an obligation to do something with my life."
As she walks through the park where she’s strolled ever since she came to New York, Ruth Westheimer still contemplates life's twists of fate, from the pain of the Holocaust to fame in America.
Pointing to one parkgoer, she says: “This is an Orthodox Jewish woman. If I had stayed in Frankfurt, if Hitler had not come, that’s the life I would have led. I would not have been a Dr. Ruth. I have this joie de vivre. I have this zest for life to say, ÎLook how fabulous — there is an Orthodox woman walking with children, and here are people jogging.’”
Joie de vivre is an old Yiddish expression, right?
“No,” she scolds, jokingly. “It's French — it means Îzest for life.’”