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People Top 5
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- April 15, 1985
- Vol. 23
- No. 15
Ladling Out Explicit Advice Like So Much Chicken Soup, the Airwave Adviser Is Now Even Making a Movie
Her voice is prophylactic. In fact it sounds as if someone had just goosed the Little Old Winemaker. "They told me I should get speech therapy for my German accent," she says. "Thank God, I never did it." Beyond mere Germanness, her speech pattern is more eccentric than the EKG of a fibrillating patient. Her r's rev up and take off—rrreally, terrrrrific, rrrrright. Or she can bark like a stalag guard. All this has allowed Dr. Ruth to talk nationwide about VD and orgasm and clitoral pleasure without offense or titillation. Never once has she had to hit her "dump" button because of some obscene caller. Dr. Ruth arouses only respect, the kind Golda Meir would've gotten had she been a gynecologist.
At 4'7" Dr. Ruth isn't short, she's positively embryonic. She has often bought clothing in the juvenile department. Under that mushroom cap of blond hair, her round face might look like a bare knuckle, but the crinkling, laugh-lined eyes and mouth ward off severity. And her energy level is higher than that of a charged particle. She will draw people down to her; they get stoop-shouldered around Dr. Ruth. No dead air here—her giggle is crazed and weirdly audiogenic. Great introducer of stranger to stranger. "This is—you must meet—come, come!" Finger jab, hand clap, pirouette, heel bounce, manic as an Ewok. The kind of drive and zest you'd need to run what must be the largest group-counseling session ever gathered.
Her phone clients come from some sexual Pop Warner league. They are often painfully young, fearful and spectacularly misinformed. Tom, for instance, has heard that menthol cigarettes will make him sterile. "A new one on me," says Dr. Ruth. "I'll give you credit for this myth in my next lecture." Her wit and kindness lighten the antiseptic tone. "An orgasm is just a reflex, like a sneeze." (Gesundheit, was it good for you, too, dear?)
The telephone, not the personal encounter, has become America's preferred instrument of intimacy. Our children make acquaintance, socialize, court each other by ear. "People don't have a marketplace where they can hang out anymore," says Dr. Ruth. "And we don't live in extended families where people had an aunt maybe that they could talk to. We live very isolated lives." She can relate to this. Dr. Ruth's own mental soundness was preserved by a social support group made up of 100 Jewish children.
In 1939 10-year-old Karola Ruth Siegel and 99 other refugee children left Frankfurt am Main for Switzerland—part of a token international effort to rescue German Jewry. Young Karola Ruth never saw her parents again. Her family had been a close one, and the elder Siegel, a notions wholesaler, spoiled his only child—"in a good sense," she says. "I didn't want to go." Afterward those 100 Jewish children comforted and stood spiritual watch over each other. But the Swiss, their custodians until 1945, "did terrible things with us," says Dr. Ruth. "They decided that a girl like me, with no parents, refugee...I was a welfare case. So they trained us all to be maids. I don't even have a high school diploma."
That inauspicious educational send-off doesn't show at an American Psychotherapy Association colloquium on "Media and Sex"—except, now and then, when trace elements of jealousy appear in the audience. Some of her professional colleagues appear to resent whatever free couch time Dr. Ruth has been bouncing off the ionosphere. But her prompt wit and good nature make them careful. Dr. Ruth, standing on a chair, calls herself "educator," not therapist. "I teach," she tells them. "Instead of having a classroom I have the whole United States. People say, 'Westheimer, you might make a mistake on the air.' And I say, 'You're absolutely right. But then my friends can correct me.' " It's a good counterpunch; there is some applause. And afterward every fourth person seems to want a piece of her. Can I be on your referral list, your new cable TV show? Dull as molded plastic they sound, by comparison. But then if they were really interesting, they'd be patients, not psychotherapists.
In a quiet aside she will say, "These therapists, they're all adored in their groups. I offer competition. It's not an ethical issue, it's an issue of economics and jealousy. And ego. The limousines, the hairdresser on the set [delighted, spontaneous hand clap] all of it is a lot of fun. Look, if somebody else were doing what I'm doing, I also would get envious." And off to Saks in her mink to be mani-and pedicured.
At this moment, no doubt, the most enviable thing about Dr. Ruth is the feature movie she is in with Gerard Depardieu and Sigourney Weaver. Her considerable role was written for Linda Hunt—another world-class short person—but Hunt either couldn't or wouldn't speak French. Dr. Ruth auditioned for director Daniel (The Return of Martin Guerre) Vigne and, za-oui, was cast. A Woman or Two is now filming in France. "I tell you why I'm so excited about it. I studied in Paris and was very, very poor. I lived in a three-flight walk-up and the toilet was three flights down. Now, to go back and walk down the Champs-Élysées with a film crew and Gerard Depardieu...." Dr. Ruth does a little dance—her pleasure can also be explicit.
But before Paris came Israel. Ruth, very much a Zionist even now, went there from Switzerland at age 16, shucking off both her too-Germanic first name and her parents' Orthodox faith in the process. She did kibbutz time (tomato and olive picker) and trained as, yes, a sniper. "For some strange reason I can put five bullets into that red thing in the middle of the target. And I knew how to assemble a Sten gun with my eyes closed. Then I went to study as a kindergarten teacher. I wanted to be a physician, but I knew that without money and without family—well, it would be impossible." Young Ruth's lust for knowledge was almost fatal. On her 20th birthday the attack siren went off, but she wouldn't go into the boring shelter until she had some decent reading material. WHAM! Happy birthday! A high-explosive shell just about took both ankles off. "I would've been even shorter," she says.
But never a pushover. "I wrote in my diary then, 'Nobody is ever going to want me, because I'm short and ugly,' " she remembers. "But I have some courage, I guess." In 1950 she wed the man she describes as "the first guy who offered to marry me." Ruth and first guy set off for Paris—he to train in medicine, she to learn psychology at the Sorbonne and direct a kindergarten. That marriage was scrubbed for lack of interest. He went back to Israel; she had America on her itinerary. "But before I came here I met a young man, very good-looking, French. And I said, 'Let's go to the States.' When I knew that I was pregnant, I legalized the love affair."
What? Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the bright apostle of contraception, didn't use any?
"I wanted the child. I didn't use contraception on purpose."
And now, on her hour-long Lifetime cable TV show, Dr. Ruth is telling some less purposeful young woman about contraceptive jelly. Good Sex!, first seen in September, has become a spin-proof success, doubling viewership in its Thursday nighttime slot. Dr. Ruth will advise the phonelorn, then for variety do simulated counseling with celebs, including Burt Reynolds, Cyndi Lauper, Dick Cavett and Ben Vereen. In the beginning cable-system owners watched Dr. Ruth with sweaty palms. "At first we had two people from standards and practices here," says her line producer, John Lollos. "Then one person. Now none. They're so confident, despite the graphic language." By midnight New York time, when the show is over, a yacht-size chartered limo is waiting. Dr. Ruth will suggest that they all hit the nearest disco. Lollos and her co-host, Larry Angelo, groan. They're too tired. Dr. Ruth shrugs a pair of 56-year-old shoulders. Dull as sponge dice, these men.
She has beefalo stamina. Radio show, college lectures, TV show, colloquiums, private practice, film—plus continuing study with her mentor, Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan, at New York Hospital. As adjunct associate professor in the Cornell Medical College Department of Psychiatry, Dr. Ruth participates in weekly seminars given by Dr. Kaplan. In addition, Dr. Ruth's Guide to Good Sex has 100,000 paperback copies in print. More Ruthian wisdom is in manuscript. Due later this year: First Love, a guide to sex information for young people, and in the spring of 1986, Loving Couples, something of a wise, saucy marriage manual. For recreation Dr. Ruth will ski whenever she can. Dr. Ruth will even water ski. In fact skiing (and shortness) finally got her a durable husband.
But not until after four hard years as student and non-English-speaking single mother in the Inwood section of Manhattan. Ruth and her handsome French husband had soon said adieu. "Intellectually it was just not tenable," she explains. "He got the car and I got the child." (The child was Miriam. Now 28, she teaches English as a second language at Queens and LaGuardia colleges.) Back then Ruth worked as a housemaid at a dollar an hour while studying nights at the New School. "I was poor," she says, "but I always had friends." Not to mention a boyfriend named Hans, who unwisely took her skiing one day in 1961.
"I went up the mountain with my boyfriend, Hans. He was six foot. We were very uncomfortable because a T-bar pushes us up. So, when the bar was on my behind, it was on Hans' ankle. On top somebody introduced me to Fred Westheimer. And I told Hans, 'I'm going up the mountain with that short one.' " Fred and she were married nine months later. Fred, a mellow 5'5", also a German-Jewish refugee, has called her "my one serious ski accident." A telecommunications consultant, he adopted Miriam and eventually fathered a son, Joel, now 21 and a junior at Princeton. "Ho ho," says Dr. Ruth. "I have children like nobody's children."
Meanwhile her academic career was moving as slow as a court calendar. She got her master's from the New School in 1959. Then she became a research assistant at the Columbia University School of Public Health. In 1970 she got her doctorate in education from Columbia. Later she lectured at Teachers College. Around 1967, after all this intellectual foreplay, she found her vocation in that four-letter word, zeks. Dr. Ruth was made project director at Planned Parenthood in Harlem. "I had to wonder, what's the matter with these people?" she recalls. "They talk about sex from morning to night." And now she does. For six years Dr. Ruth taught in the Department of Sex Education at Lehman College in New York. But budget cutbacks terminated her associate professorship ("I wept when I got the telegram"), and in 1977, in a career move that would brutalize her emotionally, she became associate professor at Brooklyn College. "I got fired," she says. "I thought it was the end of my life. It made me feel as I did when I got kicked out of Germany. Angry, helpless, rejected. As it turns out, it was my big break."
One day soon afterward she gave a speech on sex education. Betty Elam, former community affairs manager of WYNY, heard her. Cautiously, a 15-minute segment was arranged for Dr. Ruth at 12:15 a.m. The world, it would seem, has been on hold ever since.
On hold, evidently, along with her housekeeping. They should revoke that Swiss maid's diploma. "This isn't a body. This is just junk I haven't got to," she says, ignoring one big, suspiciously lumpy table covered with a sheet. Fred and Ruth still live in upper Manhattan, in a hilly, brown-gray, low-rise neighborhood marked yet by German-Jewish immigration. Their apartment is haimish (cozy, informal), with upright piano, WYNY microphone, ski equipment, much indoor greenery and a small nation of dolls and figurines, plus a miniature Swiss chalet and her custom-built three-story dollhouse, with "Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Sex Therapist" on the door. Books stand by gravely, of the ominous Excessive Venery or Love, Sex and Aging sort. "We are both," says Fred, "incurable pack rats."
Her shows—both TV and radio—have taken some criticism because of their plumber-like, tab-X-into-slot-Y approach. But, for all that explicitness, Dr. Ruth is less kinky than a frozen clothesline. "I'm staying on the middle road. That's why I don't get much flak from Orthodox Jews or the Catholic Church. I also don't get many way-out calls—those people sense I have nothing to say to them. Outrageous, weird sex—that's not people's experience." Mention incest or S&M and she'll say, "I don't want to hear about it."
She is also clearly a moral relativist. Aside from those practices long prohibited by the Judeo-Christian canon—sex with children, violence, adultery—her attitude is that consenting adult people may do whatever might turn them on (as long as they do it with contraception). But if your religion has forbidden, say, sex before marriage or sex after marriage, she will support that, and refer you to the local priest, rabbi or Planned Parenthood outlet. "I'm a square," she has often said with some pride.
Still, Dr. Ruth does fret about the state of sex education in America. "I know that young people are listening. At 10 p.m. they're in bed under the blankets, the earplug of the transistor radio in." She doesn't mean to compete against mother and father. But it is better that the birds and the bees speak with a German accent than not at all. "I don't do my program for children," she says. "But at least they get factual information, better than they get on the streets. Masturbation, for instance. I'm not trying to raise a generation of masturbators. But I'm saying the myths are wrong—that you won't have to wear glasses, your hair won't fall out if you do it. Parents and schools and churches and synagogues have to lay the foundation in terms of values and beliefs. I'm not out to offend anyone. I'm also not a missionary for sex. Waiting is fine."
Dr. Ruth doesn't expect to be a star forever. But she has already had more than her allotted 15 minutes, and she has found herself in more pleasurable positions than the Kama Sutra could devise. "Donahue told me, 'Don't you ever have a program opposite mine,' " she says. "When it's all over I'm going to say I had a good time. Then I'll do exactly what I did before. Meanwhile I've got a lot of nice new clothing."
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