Dr. Ruth’s curious leap to fame happened in 1980 when she was at a fairly low ebb, having lost her tenure at the college where she taught. There was a 15-minute slot on a radio station at midnight, to be called Sexually Speaking. That led to Good Sex and later, Terrific Sex. “In less than a year I had gone from being an obscure, unemployed college professor to a national celebrity.
“What was it about me that struck such a nerve? The closest I can come to an answer is that people really had a need to talk about sex, and that suddenly here was a little matronly woman with a German accent who did just that. I had a non-threatening image …
“If I had been a tall blonde in a miniskirt and decolletee,” she is fond of saying, “if I had been young and pretty it wouldn’t have worked, it wouldn’t have been believable, it would have been threatening.”
She persuades big-shot celebrities to come on her show, but unfortunately she can’t remember any stories about any of them. “I’m very bad at remembering what they say, and I couldn’t tell you a joke to save my life.” All she could say about Jackie Mason, the comic rabbi, was that she liked him because he was short. Dr Ruth has an unabashed preference for those who share her lack of height.
From the start of her show the problems have been much the same: premature ejaculation (men) and failure to reach orgasm (women); impotence and lack of interest in sex.
Why this lack of interest? Have we all had just too much? “No, it is not a question of more sexual activity leading to less interest. There has always been desire dysfunction. A therapist can usually deal with a serious desire dysfunction if the basic relationship is good. If the basic relationship is not a loving one, or if people are clinically depressed, there is nothing I can do to help. I know my own boundaries.”
What about the new chastity? “I don’t believe there’s such a thing. The only problem today is people being more careful because of Aids, and staying in relationships longer because of that.”
She does not ask them any deeply personal questions: she is suspicious of people who talk about sex, she says. In her book she writes: “By the way, I have a good piece of gossip for you if that’s what you’re interested in: Fred and I sleep in separate bedrooms. The reason is that he snores.”
I ponder why Dr Ruth so failed to capture British hearts. British audiences do not take so readily to the American glib public-forum therapy. Their serious discussions (Donahue, Winfrey) somehow miss the point, confusing revelation with understanding, and perfunctoriness with perception. With Dr Ruth, the embarrassment was rooted in its confused message: was it a comic performance, or just a grotesque piece of showing off?
Ever since Dr David Reuben’s Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask (in 1970), we have been a touch weary about chirpy American sex therapists. Dr Ruth herself likes to recommend a British manual, Dr Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex: it has such beautiful illustrations.
When she hears it is my birthday, Dr Ruth flutters off to find me a gift: a silver-plated spoon, made in Great Britain but engraved “New York”, with a handle in the shape of the Statue of Liberty.
She seems a caricature Yiddisher momma but she says she is not, because she does not cook. “But I am going to be a super-Jewish grandmother at the end of June.
“Right now I’m bursting with pride,” she said. “My son has got his masters in education and has just won a fabulous scholarship to do a doctorate. So we will have three Dr Westheimers in the family.”
Only poor Fred remains a mere Mr, although he has taken an MBA. “But he has started piano lessons. I said I would pay for the lessons if I didn’t have to listen to him practice.”
Now she is going to play herself in a sitcom called Dr Ruth’s House, as a widowed psychologist who lets out rooms.
She insisted she should have a romantic interest. “With the greying of America, I want to show them that there is sex after 60.”