“Don’t mention sex to Dr Ruth, she can’t stand it,” hissed the man from the Daily Mirror, who was before me in the queue to see Dr Ruth Westheimer. Dr Ruth is the world’s unlikeliest sex guru: 4ft 7in with a cracked voice and relentless, crinkly smile.
She exerted a briefly awful fascination when Channel 4 showed her Good Sex programs, where she spoke of masturbation and premature ejaculation in her thick European accent (“Oral sex? Do you mean when he comes down on you or when you go down on him?”).
Something in the American psyche finds her lovable, but we found it all laughable: critics said she looked like a cross between Gert Frobe and Mel Brooks in drag. There is still a Dr Ruth’s Good Sex board game gathering dust in the Channel 4 office, with its cellophane wrapper still on.
But now Dr Ruth has written her life story, or rather dictated it to someone called Ben Yagoda. It is worthy of a more inspired title than All In A Lifetime, and it brings her to London, to sit in a room off St James’s filled with bouquets.
That morning she had arrived in London off the night train from Glasgow, and after a swift bubble bath had gone with Peter Ustinov to the breakfast launch of Robert Maxwell’s newspaper, The European. “Bubble bath, champagne breakfast, that’s my life]” she trilled, bustling momma-ishly to get coffee.
I told her Ustinov once described to me how he was showing off his cable television to some po-faced Unesco officials at his home in the Swiss mountains, and switched on at 11 in the morning: and there was Dr Ruth’s unmistakable voice saying: “Remember, girls, a dildo is all very well but there’s no substitute for a penis.”
Her little legs do not reach the floor, her feet in tiny black fairy-tale Ferragamo buckled shoes, size two.
I was sorry that Fred, her third husband, was not with her in London. Fred, 5ft 5in, emerges from her book as the one with the sense of humor. When he meets her first husband David, who is now a big shot in the Israeli government and with whom they are still friendly, he asks him: “Why didn’t you keep her?” And David replies: “I’m glad you have her.”
If asked what it is like to be the husband of Dr Ruth, Fred has a stock reply: “She’s all talk. Remember, the shoemaker’s children don’t get any shoes.”
“Fred has a good sense of humor,” says Dr Ruth. “That’s why our marriage is in its 28th year.”
Her life story is an affecting one. When she was 10 her parents sent her from Frankfurt to Switzerland to escape the Nazis. She never saw them again: she believes they died at Auschwitz. For a while they still wrote their cheerful letters to Meine Liebe Karola (her German name): “Do you remember how you always sang? Enjoy your carefree youth: stay healthy and happy.” The last letter was in September 1941: “May you only have luck, wealth and contentment.”
She led a Cinderella-like existence, sweeping floors and looking after younger children in an orphanage. Yet her diaries are full of happy exclamation marks and cheerful protestations that everything a cake, a marzipan doll was fabelhaft, fabulous; her touching declarations that “I enjoy my chores very much”.
She never complained, because she was constantly reminded she was lucky to be alive. “I understood that the most important thing, no matter how hard your lot, was to be grateful.”
Here is the last entry in her diary, on her nineteenth birthday: “Nineteen years. Nobody congratulates me, nobody knows I have a birthday. It’s sad, but one gets used to everything. One day everything is going to change. I know I need so much love. But I will achieve my goal.”
Later in life she made a study of the other children in the orphanage, for a doctorate thesis, and found that “they had on the whole turned out remarkably well … none were criminals, none had committed suicide, and a remarkably high percentage had achieved a substantial degree of professional success”. She concludes that their early upbringing in good, solid, middle-class German Jewish homes transcended all the unhappiness and loneliness of the orphanage.
To write about her childhood she had to go into therapy. She had never discussed this period of her life before, even with her own children; she didn’t want to burden them with that sadness. She had never wanted to say to them: look how good you have it, and I had such trouble. But they had both been riveted by the manuscript.
She had even got a Swiss diploma as a housemaid, she recalls. “So if I am not Dr Ruth I can always be a housemaid again.” (Although she now earns enough to pay two cleaning ladies.) “You found it interesting didn’t you, and moving?” she asked. “Well it’s important to me to round out my personality, that I’m not just sitting there talking about orgasms.”
By her twentieth birthday she was working on a kibbutz in Israel when an Arab bomb exploded nearby, killing the girl next to her. On the kibbutz she had her first sexual experience, in a hayloft in a barn. “I am still good friends with him and his wife.”
Dr Ruth’s diplomas and degrees have been hard-won at night school, toiling at dollar-an-hour jobs by day. With her second husband she began a new life in New York, in the German Jewish area called Washington Heights where she still lives today.
A year after their daughter Miriam was born they got a Mexican divorce. When she met Fred in 1961, she decided at once to marry him. “He was handsome, intelligent, employed, short, had a car, liked children, and played Jewish folk songs on his harmonica. What could be better?” First, she had to see off his other woman, “who gave great back rubs and made great herring salad”. It took cunning.