By Bill Brioux
One of the biggest – and at the same time smallest – TV stars of the ‘80s is back to save your sex life.
Dr. Ruth Westheimer shocked some listeners and viewers with her straight-ahead sex advice on several syndicated radio and TV shows from 1980 through 1990. Back then, she was 4-foot-7. At nearly 91, her height has diminished, but not her voice or her convictions.
The peppery, diminutive sex therapist is the focus of a new documentary featured at the most recent Sundance film festival called “Ask Dr. Ruth.” The film, by director Ryan White, premieres in May on the U.S. streaming service Hulu and is expected to be available in Canada soon.
Swiping left or right had a whole other meaning back when Westheimer was in her TV prime. Earlier this year at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif., she admitted that things have definitely changed over the past few decades in the sex advice business. For two things, she said, people are no longer looking for answers to things such as premature ejaculation or achieving an orgasm. “That has been done,” she told critics.
Westheimer is more concerned about a millennial generation who can’t seem to mingle without a mobile device in their hands. “Young people are going to lose the art of conversation,” she fears. She says she gets far more questions these days about loneliness than lubricant.
Some topics, she admits, are beyond her scope as a therapist. Asked about transgender issues, Westheimer says more research is needed before she could weigh in with any authority, although her golden rule is everyone must be treated with respect.
During the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, she was a sought-after guest on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson as well as “Late Night” with David Letterman. On one early visit to Letterman, a member of the audience boasted that his girlfriend had a habit of tossing onion rings onto an erect part of his anatomy. This, of course, got Letterman’s attention.
On every subsequent Letterman appearance, when she arrived in New York at 30 Rock and walked into the late night talk show’s green room for guests, there waiting for Westheimer was a full plate of onion rings.
Things were not always fun and games for Westheimer. Born in Germany in 1928, her last memory of her father was seeing him arrested and taken away by Nazi soldiers during the purge of the Jews in 1939. An only child, she was sent at age 10 to an orphanage in Switzerland by her mother and grandmother and never saw them again. She learned at the end of World War II that her entire family had been killed in the Holocaust.
“They all perished,” says Westheimer. In the documentary, she travels back to Jerusalem and shows director White the record of their death.
“Next to my mother it says the German word verschollen. That’s a horrible word. It means disappeared.”
Westheimer wants to remind Millennials as well as future generations that the Holocaust really happened and that it was not only against the Jews. “It was against homosexuals; it was against Gypsies and let’s not forget it was also against people with disability.”
Still teaching and writing, including updating her 1995 best seller “Sex for Dummies,” Westheimer has no plans to retire. “I tell everyone not to retire but to re-wire.” It saddens her that she recently had to give up alpine skiing. Otherwise, she says, “I think I am very fortunate that I’m so healthy. These days, I hold onto good-looking guys instead of walking with a cane.”
Her third husband, Manfred Westheimer, died over 20 years ago. Together they had two children and she says she has “the best four grandchildren in the world.”
She did not teach her grandchildren about the birds and the bees but she did come to her grandson Ari’s fourth grade class in New York and did a sex talk there.
“He said he has not – now he’s 27 – he hasn’t recovered since.”