Dr Ruth Westheimer, 91, pictured, is the world’s most famous sex therapist – although she only began on that part of her career when she hit her 50s
As the world’s most famous sex therapist, Dr. Ruth Westheimer is the author of more than 40 books, has fronted TV advice shows and met everyone from Princess Diana and Elizabeth Taylor to Presidents Obama, Clinton and Trump.
Yet she remains unequivocal about one of her proudest achievements: ‘It was wonderful,’ she says, ‘to teach the British about orgasms!’
Her TV show, Good Sex!, made for eye-opening viewing when it aired on C4 in the Eighties, but viewers couldn’t help but warm to the diminutive therapist as she talked about ‘rrrrrelationships’ and ‘errrrroticism’ in her distinctive German burr, punctuating her advice with that trademark high-pitched giggle.
She revolutionised the way people — not least us uptight Brits — talked more openly about sex, ‘And I loved coming to England,’ she says. ‘It made me smile to think of the British with their umbrellas and top hats being in bed.’
Dr. Ruth is 91 (which explains the top hat reference), though in matters of sex, she shows no signs of slowing down.
She has just finished work on a new edition of her best-selling book, Sex For Dummies — which even made it into an episode of Friends (Ross was given the guide as a joke, but after impressing Rachel with some new moves, he exclaims: ‘Who’s laughing now?’).
In June Dr. Ruth was in England to take part in an Oxford Union debate on pornography, ‘and just last night I was [in a hotel] and plenty of young people recognised me. At the age of 91 and a half — you must say the half — that makes me very happy.’
There is little that doesn’t make Dr. Ruth happy — she is one of the most joyful people you are ever likely to meet. But it is a joy which has been extremely hard won.
Born in Germany in 1928, the only child of Orthodox Jews, she was just ten when she lost both her parents in the Holocaust.
She spent the war in an orphanage in Switzerland then, in her early 20s, joined Haganah — an underground militant organisation fighting for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine — and became a sniper, ‘Luckily, I never had to kill anybody,’ she says, ‘but if I’d had to, I could have.’
She eventually moved to New York and was well into her 50s by the time her career as a sex therapist took off. Her incredible story is told in a new documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth and, as she herself explains in the film: ‘I have an obligation to live large and make a dent in this world.’
Dr Ruth, pictured, with one of her 40 books, is one of the world’s most famous sex therapists. She has recently updated the book Sex for Dummies, which was even used in an episode of Friends
At just 4ft 7in, Dr. Ruth has lived larger than most. When Burt Reynolds appeared on her show in 1984, ‘I thought, “here I am, an immigrant, a refugee, an orphan of the Holocaust. I’m sitting with Burt Reynolds and I’m touching his moustache!”’
Comedian Robin Williams did a skit about her during one of his live shows and she once advised a somewhat relieved-looking David Letterman not to bother searching for a woman’s elusive G-spot as, ‘we have enough problems with those things that we know about’.
She met Princess Diana at an awards ceremony in New York two years before her death, ‘and I thought she was wonderful,’ says Dr. Ruth. ‘I thought her contribution to mankind was in how humane she was.’
Dr. Ruth, who herself was one of the most calming voices during the height of the Eighties Aids panic, admired how much Diana did for the cause. ‘And when she shook hands with somebody who had AIDS [in 1987], that was remarkable.’
Did Diana ever ask Dr. Ruth for advice? ‘No, she did not, but I can tell you if she would have asked me for advice, you would not have known about it!’ she says.
‘I never ever would have talked about it. But, of course, famous people did ask me for help. They were like anybody else and they would often tell me their problems because they knew I knew what I was talking about and wasn’t just a celebrity talking off the top of my head.
‘I was also fortunate because my office was not in a fancy part of the city and was in a building where there were many doctors, so no one would know who they were going in to see.’
For a woman who spends most of her time talking about sex, Dr. Ruth is surprisingly discreet and, if not prudish, certainly conservative
For a woman who spends most of her time talking about sex, Dr. Ruth is surprisingly discreet and, if not prudish, certainly conservative.
She is in favour of both marriage and monogamy, ‘and I believe in relationships and I believe that people should be with a partner. I’m not saying people should have the same partner their whole lifetime — I was married three times. But I believe in the importance of good sex and a good relationship.’
Moreover, at 91 (and a half), she still has the ability to shock. ‘Now, I’m going to say one thing to the people of Great Britain and it’s not going to be popular, but nobody — no man and woman, no two men and no two women — has any business being naked in bed if they haven’t decided to have sex.
‘So this idea that they can be naked in bed and then say: “I changed my mind” is dangerous. In America, there is a saying that God didn’t give men enough blood for two heads and I say it, even though I know some people disapprove.’
She is in favour of pornography, although she prefers the term ‘erotic material’, and is all for couples using it to ‘introduce some new concepts to your sex life’, as long as neither party finds it offensive.
When it comes to us Brits, despite our having phased out top hats, she still finds us more reserved than our American counterparts. ‘But the issues are the same,’ she says.
‘Before, women might have complained about their orgasms, but now I talk a lot about loneliness, for people of all ages, even young people.
But I think what did change [in Britain] is that you took all the knowledge from American sex researchers such as Masters and Johnson and Helen Singer Kaplan [Dr. Ruth’s mentor] and used it. People are more willing to say “orgasm” now.’
After almost half a century advising us, she says no question has surprised her, ‘but they’ve definitely changed’.
Where once women fretted about their performance, now ‘I get more questions about taking the time for sex, making sure you have a relationship and you aren’t hopping into bed.’
Dr Ruth made it possible for people to talk about their sex lives when many taboos were broken such as the 1967 move The Graduate featuring Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman
And while she worries about millennials’ fixation with their phones, she has noted that ‘younger people accept more than they used to that their parents or even grandparents do engage in sex’.
As for the older among us, Dr. Ruth advises: ‘No sex in the evening when they’re tired. The best way for older people to engage in sex is after a good night’s sleep.’
Her interest in the subject had first been piqued when, as a youngster, she discovered a book on her parents’ bookshelves entitled, The Ideal Marriage — a sex manual which deemed itself ‘explicit, detailed and direct’.
Yet, if that was a normal moment of childhood exploration any semblance of normality in her childhood was to come to an abrupt end with the onset of the World War II.
In 1938, her father was sent to a labour camp by the Nazis and, realising Ruth was in danger, her mother and grandmother put her on a train to Switzerland where she spent her remaining childhood in an orphanage.
It was the last time she saw her family. ‘I always say my parents gave me life twice,’ says Dr. Ruth, ‘once when I was born and then when they made the sacrifice of sending their only child to safety. I still think of them often.’
Does she wonder what they would have made of her career? ‘I sometimes shudder thinking of it,’ she admits, ‘because they were old-fashioned. But when they realised how old-fashioned I am and how I’m all for marriage, I think they would have been OK.
‘And I wouldn’t have predicted it, but not having the constraints of a traditional family meant I could [later] make all the decisions about my life and my profession by myself.’
She married her first husband, an Israeli soldier, in 1950. They moved to Paris where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne. But when her husband decided to return to Israel, they divorced and she sailed with a French boyfriend to New York
She married her first husband, an Israeli soldier, in 1950. They moved to Paris where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne. But when her husband decided to return to Israel, they divorced and she sailed with a French boyfriend to New York.
She became pregnant, married him and, although the relationship didn’t last — she once said, ‘he was wonderful but I was very bored and the relationship needed more than good sex’ — her love affair with America did.
She remained in New York, where she lives to this day, and supported herself and her young daughter Miriam, now 62, by working as a maid while also studying for a Master’s degree.
By the Sixties, she was working for Planned Parenthood, a birth control organisation in Harlem, and a career in sex education was born. In 1980, when a New York radio station couldn’t find anyone willing to discuss sex on their show, Dr. Ruth did it for free and became such a hit she was offered her own radio show, Sexually Speaking.
It led to her TV show, Good Sex!, which turned her into a worldwide star and frequent chat show guest. Both Terry Wogan and Jonathan Ross hosted her on their shows (she in turn declared them ‘very sexy’), as did the acerbically brilliant Joan Rivers.
Were the two women friends? ‘No, not great friends,’ she admits. ‘A friend has to be earned by a long-standing relationship. But I had a great time on her programme [Can We Talk?] and she flew me over on Concorde and gave me a driver with a fancy British car.
‘She said the best orgasm she ever had was when she could say: “Charge it to Saks Fifth Avenue!”’
One wonders what her third husband, engineer Fred Westheimer, made of his wife’s career. They married in 1961 and had a son, Joel, now 55. Dr. Ruth says: ‘The last one was the real marriage.
‘I was very lucky that he was proud of my career and, as my son said, he didn’t mind cooking dinners when I was out giving lectures. Whenever people would ask Fred about his sex life, he would say, “The shoemaker’s children don’t get shoes!”’ She giggles.
Dr Ruth married her third husband, Fred in 1961. When asked about his sex life, Fred, who died in 1997 once replied: ‘The shoemaker’s children don’t get shoes!’
Fred died in 1997, ‘and every day I miss him, but I don’t let it paralyse me,’ she says. ‘Of course I do feel lonely but I know what to do about that.
‘I go out a lot and last night I saw the band Queen featuring Adam Lambert as the lead singer, at Madison Square Garden with 20,000 cheering young fans, so that’s one pastime that keeps me alive.’
Despite her frankness about sex, her own love life is strictly off limits. ‘Do I have a boyfriend? Next question! But I will tell you that after Fred died, I did not actively look for somebody.
‘I have not tried internet dating, but I’m not against it and I do not want other people to be lonely.’
She once described Meghan Markle as lucky to have met and married Prince Harry in today’s climate, ‘where everyone is on their phones’ and where the internet ‘gives people unreasonable expectations like a Prince Charming will come riding in on a horse’.
But as she says now, with ‘a divorced bi-racial woman [marrying] a prince’, she is glad that, ‘even the royal household is going forward in terms of the 21st century.’
So would she ever offer Harry and Meghan any advice on their sex life? ‘Even if they would come to see me,’ she says, giggling, ‘you know that I would not tell you!’
- Ask Dr. Ruth comes to Picturehouse Cinemas for one day only on Thursday, August 29. Following its theatrical release, it will be available for digital download from September 9 and on DVD from September 16.