“All I’m doing on radio is educating,” stated a bemused Ruth Westheimer in the early eighties. True enough, but she was educating people about sex, in a startling frank and open manner, and thus the diminutive German college professor found herself a most unexpected popular culture icon. With her lilting rasp, open smile, and palpable warmth, Dr. Ruth succeeded in her mission to educate an international audience about sexual issues that had previously been an almost unthinkable subject for public discourse. There is steel behind that grandmotherly charm: Dr. Ruth overcame a tragic childhood as a Jewish war refugee, orphan, and “charity case” to fight for the establishment of a Jewish homeland and complete her education despite arriving in the United States “with absolutely nothing.” Through her many radio broadcasts, television programs, books, lectures, and other projects, Ruth Westheimer has made open, sensible, responsible discussion of sex—in all of its joys and perils—possible for millions of frightened, confused, and curious people. The Washington Post’s Tom Shales once asked, “Once you’ve talked sex with Dr. Ruth, can it ever be as good with anyone else?” Probably not.
Dr. Ruth Westheimer was born Karola Ruth Siegel, in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1928. She was the only child of her Orthodox Jewish parents, and enjoyed a comfortable middle-class lifestyle provided by her father’s wholesale business. The Siegels’ cozy existence was threatened by the Nazi party’s rise to power in the early thirties, and, in the face of progressively harsher anti-Semitic sentiment and policies, Westheimer was sent away to a Swiss boarding school in 1939 to safely wait out the regime’s predations. In all likelihood, this saved Westheimer’s life; she never saw her parents again, and today assumes they were among the millions who perished in the death camps.
Her life was spared, but Westheimer was miserable at the Swiss school, where her outspokenness and precocity failed to endear her to the school’s administration—she was trained only as a maid. She recalls teaching “all the other girls about menstruation,” further irritating her keepers. After Germany’s defeat, Westheimer moved to Palestine, where she joined Haganah, a militant Jewish organization devoted to the establishment of a Jewish homeland. She was famously trained as a sniper, but never actually fired a gun in combat. In this period, Westheimer dropped her first name—“Karola” being a distinctly Germanic appellation—and devoted herself wholeheartedly to Zionism. Plagued by insecurities about her poverty, diminutive height and “ugliness,” Westheimer despaired of realizing her dream to become a doctor and find a mate. When an Israeli soldier proposed to her in 1950, she accepted.
The couple moved to Paris, where Westheimer took a degree in psychology from the Sorbonne, despite her lack of a high school diploma. Westheimer divorced her husband and lived for a time in happy Bohemian dishabille before marrying a Frenchman, moving to New York in 1956, and giving birth to her daughter, Miriam. She again divorced, and earnestly studied English while supporting herself and her daughter as a maid. The irony was not lost on her. She spent evenings taking classes at the New School for Social Research, earning a master’s degree in 1959. Soon after, she found employment at Columbia University, working as a research assistant in the School of Public Health.
She met Manfred Westheimer, an engineer and fellow German war refugee, on a ski vacation in 1961. Similarly short-statured and gregarious, Manfred tempted Ruth down the aisle a third time, and the couple had a son, Joel, in 1964. They would remain married until Manfred’s death in 1997. In 1967, Westheimer became the program director for a Harlem Planned Parenthood clinic, continuing her studies at Columbia in the evenings, focusing on family and sex counseling. She received her doctorate in 1970 and took an associate professor post at Lehman College, teaching sex counseling. In 1977, Westheimer began teaching at Brooklyn College, but was soon fired for reasons she has not disclosed but describes as a devastating blow to her ego.
Westheimer gave a lecture during this period to a group of broadcasters on the importance of promoting sexual literacy. Her audience included Betty Elam, community affairs manager for WYNY-FM, who was taken with Westheimer’s warm, direct approach to the subject matter. She invited Westheimer to participate in a public affairs broadcast and offered her a fifteen-minute weekly show for the princely sum of twenty-five dollars per installment. Westheimer’s Sexually Speaking debuted in 1980, airing at midnight on Sunday. Audience response was swift and decisive; by 1981, Sexually Speaking was expanded to an hour, drawing an average of four thousand callers a night eager to discuss their sexual issues with “Dr. Ruth.” By 1983, Sexually Speaking was the top-rated show in its slot in New York, drawing some two hundred-fifty thousand listeners to each broadcast. Newsweek praised Westheimer’s “effervescent blend of candor, humor, and common sense practicality.” Dr. Ruth was a local star.
She leveraged her growing notoriety into a column in Playgirl magazine and a local television program, Dr. Ruth, on New York’s Channel 5. The publication of her first book, Dr. Ruth’s Guide to Good Sex, followed in 1983. It was a smash hit, and thirty more books have followed. In 1984, the Lifetime cable television network premiered the nightly half-hour program Good Sex with Dr. Westheimer (retitled The Dr. Ruth Show in 1985) to a national audience. Almost immediately, NBC radio began syndicating her WYNY program nationally. Both programs were successful, and Westheimer became a fixture on late-night talk shows, delighting audiences with her infectious good humor, distinctive delivery, and unabashed approach to the discussion of sexual matters. “Dr. Ruth” became a pop-culture icon, her status confirmed by a recurring lampoon on Saturday Night Live.
More television programs followed: Ask Dr. Ruth was internationally syndicated by King Features Entertainment, exposing a worldwide audience to the good doctor’s crusade for sex education. She returned to Lifetime for The All New Dr. Ruth Show, You’re on the Air with Dr. Ruth, and the teen-oriented What’s Up, Dr. Ruth?. In 1992, Nostalgia Television introduced the Westheimer-hosted Never Too Late, aimed at older viewers. She currently appears regularly on PBS’s Between the Lions, helping young children to learn to read.
In addition to her broadcasting duties and career as a best-selling author, Westheimer has produced instructional videos, taught at Adelphi University, Columbia University, and West Point, and has produced three documentaries: Surviving Salvation (1991), examining the plight of Ethiopian Jews, No Missing Link (1999), a look at the transmission of values through generations, and The Olive and the Tree: The Secret Strength of the Druze (2006), a portrait of the Middle Eastern religious community. Westheimer is currently an adjunct professor at NYU, an associate fellow of Calhoun College at Yale University, and a fellow of Butler College at Princeton University. She is also a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine, lectures at universities across the nation, and, astonishingly, maintains her private counseling practice.
Among Westheimer’s many awards are the Liberty Medal from the City of New York, a CableACE Award for The All New Dr. Ruth Show, Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Medal for Distinguished Service, a host of honorary degrees, and a berth on People magazine’s list of the Most Intriguing People of the Century.
She’s still “just educating.”