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Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Ruth Westheimer
Westheimer in May 2008
Born Karola Ruth Siegel
(1928-06-04) June 4, 1928 (age 86)
Wiesenfeld (Karlstadt), Germany
Other names Dr. Ruth
Citizenship American, German [1]
Religion Jewish
Spouse(s) Manfred "Fred" Westheimer (1961-1997; his death; 2 children)

Ruth Westheimer (born June 4, 1928) is an American sex therapist, media personality, and author best known as Dr. Ruth. The New York Times described her as a "Sorbonne-trained psychologist who became a kind of cultural icon in the 1980s.… She ushered in the new age of freer, franker talk about sex on radio and television—and was endlessly parodied for her limitless enthusiasm and for having an accent only a psychologist could have."[1]


Westheimer was born Karola Ruth Siegel in Wiesenfeld (near Karlstadt am Main), Germany, the only child of Orthodox Jews Irma (née Hanauer) and Julius Siegel. In January 1939, she was sent to Switzerland by her mother and grandmother after her father was taken by the Nazis.[2][3][4] There she came of age in an orphanage, and stopped receiving her parents' letters in September 1941. In 1945, Westheimer learned that her parents had been murdered in the Holocaust, possibly at the Auschwitz concentration camp.[3][4]

Westheimer decided to emigrate to the British Mandate of Palestine. There, at 17, she "first had sexual intercourse on a starry night, in a haystack without contraception." She later told The New York Times that "I am not happy about that, but I know much better now and so does everyone who listens to my radio program."[4] Westheimer joined the Haganah in Jerusalem. Because of her diminutive height of 4 ft 7 in (1.40 m),[4] she was trained as a scout and sniper.[2] Westheimer was seriously wounded in action by an exploding shell during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, and it was several months before she was able to walk again.[3][5]

In 1950, Westheimer moved to France, where she studied and then taught psychology at the University of Paris. In 1956, she immigrated to the United States, settling in Washington Heights, Manhattan.[6][7] She still lives in the "cluttered three-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights where she raised her two children and became famous, in that order." Because of the two synagogues she belongs to, the YMHA she was president of for three years, and a "still sizable community of German Jewish World War II refugees", she remains in the neighborhood.[6] She speaks English, German, French, and Hebrew.

She earned a master's degree in sociology from The New School[8] and an Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University. She completed post-doctoral work in human sexuality at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, training with pioneer sex therapist Helen Singer Kaplan.[3]

Westheimer has written several books on human sexuality, including Dr. Ruth's Encyclopedia of Sex and Sex for Dummies. The full version of Dr. Ruth's Encyclopedia of Sex is currently available online.[9]

Westheimer has given commencement speeches at the Hebrew Union College seminary, Lehman College of the City University of New York, and, in 2004, at Trinity College.[10] She has also taught courses and seminars at Princeton and Yale.[10]

Westheimer was the guest speaker at the Bronx High School of Science in New York in commemoration of Yom HaShoah 2008. She spoke about her life story and the audience of 500 sang "Happy Birthday" in honor of her 80th birthday. At the ceremony she received an honorary Bronx High School of Science diploma. In 2008 she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Westfield State College.

In 2002, she received the Leo Baeck Medal for her humanitarian work promoting tolerance and social justice.

Westheimer has been married three times.[5] Her third marriage, to Manfred Westheimer, lasted until his death in 1997. She has two children, Miriam and Joel, and several grandchildren.

Media career

In 1980, WYNY-FM was NBC Radio's New York City owned-and-operated station. The struggling Adult Contemporary station had recently gone through a makeover in an attempt to build an audience. Part of this rebuild was adding specialized talk shows to the evening and weekend hours. Maurice Tunick was recruited from New York's leading talk station, WOR, where he was talk show producer. As WYNY's Program Coordinator he was responsible for developing new talk shows.

Betty Elam was WYNY's Community Affairs Manager. Her job was to work closely with community groups and the station's public affairs programming. After attending a New York Market Radio (NYMRAD) convention at which Westheimer was a speaker, she was taken with Westheimer's passion, information, sense of humor, and personality and suggested that WYNY do something with her. She made two appearances as a guest on a taped Sunday morning public affairs program. WYNY's General Manager, Dan Griffin, then suggested that Tunick find a way to develop a public affairs show for her.

The show was assigned 15 minutes beginning at midnight on Sunday nights. Being a novice in radio, Westheimer thought it would be a good idea to have guests covering urology, neurology, gynecology, etc.—all areas which could have an effect on sex. While that would be important, Tunick thought a better show would be to not have guests at all but to directly answer listeners' questions. NBC was reluctant to allow live phone calls for a sex advice show, which was considered very risqué in the early 1980s, but Tunick suggested soliciting questions via mail. Westheimer could then control the questions and read them on the air with her answers. Typically each question began with, "I have a letter from a listener who asks..."

The show, Sexually Speaking, using the name "Dr. Ruth", was taped in an NBC Radio studio at 30 Rockefeller Center, NBC's radio and TV headquarters, on Thursday mornings at 11:00 a.m. for airing on Sunday nights at midnight.[11][12] All NBC studios at 30 Rock were accessible from other studios and many offices around the building. A couple of weeks into recording, it was reported that work was stopping in many places in the building on Thursdays at 11 as people were gathering to hear this "cross between Henry Kissinger and Minnie Mouse", as The Wall Street Journal would later describe her.

After two months the show was expanded to an hour and went live, with Westheimer taking phone calls with a 7 second digital delay. Within a year Westheimer had a larger audience on Sunday night at midnight on this struggling station than many New York stations had in morning drive-time. She became known for being candid and funny, but respectful, and for her tag phrase, "Get some".

As "Dr. Ruth", Westheimer became nationally known after several appearances on Late Night with David Letterman in the early 1980s.[13] In less than two years, Dr. Ruth became a household name and was being heard on radio stations across the country.

Her pioneering TV show, also called Sexually Speaking, first aired in 1982 as a 15-minute taped show on Lifetime Cable. It has since increased in popularity and has been nationally syndicated, as has her radio show.

In recent years, Westheimer has made regular appearances on the PBS Television children's show Between the Lions as "Dr. Ruth Wordheimer" in a parody of her therapist role, in which she helps anxious readers and spellers overcome their fear of long words.

She also made a cameo on PBS's Dinosaur Train as an Archeopteryx.

She appeared as herself in episode 87 of Quantum Leap, the episode title being "Dr. Ruth".

Westheimer appeared on Tom Chapin's album This Pretty Planet, in the song "Two Kinds of Seagulls", in which she and Chapin sing of various animals that reproduce sexually. "It takes two to tingle", says the song.

As marketers took "sex sells" literally, Westheimer appeared in commercials for the Honda Prelude, circa 1993 ending with "My advice to you is, 'Get a Prelude.'"[14][15]

Westheimer also worked as a spokeswoman for Clairol Herbal Essences shampoo and body wash, depicting a comical side to her work as a sex therapist. The commercials usually featured a woman imagining that she was using the shampoo on her hair, apparently receiving some sexual charge from it. When the woman snapped back to reality, Westheimer was standing next to her, stating that if the woman liked the shampoo, she should try the body wash as well.[13]

In the January 2009 55th anniversary issue of Playboy, Westheimer appears as #13 in the list of the 55 most important people in sex from the past 55 years.


External links

  • Dr. Ruth's website
  • Internet Movie Database
  • Ruth Westheimer Video produced by Makers: Women Who Make America
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