Sex therapist Ruth Westheimer - Photo by Todd Plitt, USA TODAY
By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY
Ruth Westheimer emerged on the national scene in the 1980s, a 50ish, pint-sized (4-foot- 7) sex therapist, whose explicit advice about sexual functioning and relationships - in a heavy German accent - made her a pop-culture hit. Known simply as "Dr. Ruth," she was everywhere on radio and television, with spots on late-night TV and the cover of People.
Dr. Ruth may not be as visible as she once was, but she still gets around, especially for someone approaching her 85th birthday: She has almost 74,000 followers on Twitter. She talks about masturbation on her own YouTube channel. She teaches a class every spring at Columbia University. She's featured on the cable station Shalom TV. Her 39th book, Dr. Ruth's Myths of Love, is due this fall.
There's even a new one-act play about her life.
Becoming Dr. Ruth opens with a week of previews starting May 31 in Hartford, Conn.; the writer says he's in discussions to get it produced off-Broadway this fall.
Aside from talking about sex, Ruth Westheimer's life is widely unknown.
Born in Germany as Karola Ruth Siegel, she last saw her family on Jan. 5, 1939, at age 10, when she was sent, along with other Jewish children, to an orphanage in Switzerland, where she lived for six years. Then she moved to Palestine, where she was trained as a sniper in the Haganah, the forerunner of the Israel Defense Forces.
"I never killed anybody, but I know how to throw hand grenades and shoot," Westheimer says.
Though severely wounded by shrapnel in both legs on her birthday in 1948 during the War of Independence, she recovered and moved to Paris, where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne. Her doctorate, however, is not in psychology but in education. Along the way, she married three times and had two children, all well before she became famous as Dr. Ruth.
She notes that each of her marriages played an important role in her relationship expertise, but after divorcing twice, "the third one was the real marriage," she says. Her 1961 marriage to Fred Westheimer lasted until his death in 1997.
Maurice Tunick worked on her first radio program, Sexually Speaking, in 1980. "I like to say I knew her before she was Dr. Ruth," he says.
"She was natural and easy to listen to," adds Tunick, now a vice president at SiriusXm Satellite Radio in New York. Her show had no guests; he felt that "she should be the star - a one-on-one with Ruth and the listeners."
Daughter Miriam Westheimer, 56, who works in international education in New York, says her mother's attitude is based on thinking "You don't know what tomorrow brings, so make every moment worthwhile."
Such thinking inspired playwright Mark St. Germain of Pound Ridge, N.Y., to write the play about her.
"She has a heroic spirit. Everything she has gone through in her life. She had a lot of difficulties. She's transcended them," he says. "I've never met someone more positive or filled with life. And she's always fascinated with everyone around her."
Longtime friend Harold Koplewicz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in New York, says that what makes her unique is her resilience.
"Ruth is the model for all of us," he says. "Her ability to bounce back and be productive no matter the environment or her age is quite extraordinary."
Her son, Joel Westheimer, 50, a professor of education at the University of Ottawa in Canada, says the play "captures very well a lot of the themes that define her life."
"What the show does is reveal a side of her that's there but wouldn't be so close to the surface," he says. "It captures her really accurately. The set is frighteningly real. It looks just like her apartment. I was in that apartment since I was 2 years old."
Westheimer says losing her family at such a young age shaped her life.
"It was always in back of my mind the importance of relationships - the importance of family."