After a screening of the new documentary Ask Dr. Ruth at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, the 4’7” sex therapist herself emerged. To a packed theater, she told the audience in her heavily German-accented cackle, “I started the trend of being known by the first name—Dr. Phil, Dr. Drew, Dr. Laura …” She paused, not wanting to interfere with the inevitable laughter.
Turning 91 in June, the pint-sized dynamo is having another big moment. At the screening, where she was joined by Ryan White, the director of her documentary, and their interviewer, Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf, Dr. Ruth smiled broadly at the audience, clearly enjoying her time in the spotlight.
The good doctor has been enjoying public acclaim since 1980. At that time, she was a human sexuality post-doctoral researcher at New York Hospital-Cornell University Medical Center, where she delivered a lecture to local broadcasters about the need for sex education and contraception.
WYNY-FM was intrigued enough to offer the educator $25 a week to spearhead a call-in radio show. However, the station’s programming director, unsure if the country was ready for explicit sex advice from a then-52-year-old Jewish immigrant and mother of two with a voice that has been called “a cross between Henry Kissinger and Mickey Mouse,” gave Sexually Speaking the graveyard shift of Sunday evenings at midnight.
The show was an immediate hit, quickly morphing from 15 minutes to two hours and was granted an earlier time slot.
Dr. Ruth’s humor (“I don’t think lovers need to share every secret about their past so I guess that makes me a believer in redactions”) and acceptance of pretty much every sexual orientation and sex practice between consenting adults, sans bestiality, has led to her writing over 40 books. These include Sex After 50: Revving Up the Romance, Passion and Excitement, and Sexually Speaking: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Sexual Health.
She coined the term ‘blue lips,’ meaning women get sexually frustrated too.
The nonagenarian is currently updating her Sex for Dummies book specifically for Millennials. (“I’m very concerned talking just on cell phones and the computer is making them lose the art of conversation,” she says.) There’s no age gap when Dr. Ruth gets talking. She has a gift for making remarks that range from hilarious to shocking—or both. For instance, she used the term “blue lips” to inform a blushing Conan O’Brien that women get sexually frustrated, too.
Her contributions have been recognized, and then some. An abbreviated list of her countless accolades: the Margaret Sanger award for her lifelong commitment to empowering people to talk openly about sex and sexual health (“He won’t use a condom? Tell him goodbye!”) and being tagged #13 of the 55 most important people in sex in Playboy’s 55th anniversary issue. She’s even been the subject of an off-Broadway show starring Debra Jo Rupp, Becoming Dr. Ruth.
With all these achievements, though, we learn through the film that Dr. Ruth is still a restless spirit. Why can’t she relax in the cozily cluttered Washington Heights apartment she has lived in for 56 years? Because then she’d have to “sit” with the childhood tragedy that permeates her life.
An Orphan of the Holocaust
Born Karola Ruth Siegel, Dr. Ruth was an only child cosseted by her parents and grandmother in Frankfurt, Germany. Karola’s father, an Orthodox Jew, taught her to “study, study, study” and bicycled her to school every morning till she was old enough to go on her own. She last saw her father the morning after Kristallnacht when he was arrested by the Gestapo.
Six weeks later, the 10-year-old waved goodbye to her mother and grandmother from a train full of Jewish children bound for a Switzerland orphanage. This “kindertransport” was among a series of rescues taking thousands of refugee Jewish children from Nazi Germany. Karola received letters from her family until 1942, when communication abruptly ended.
Dr. Ruth’s daughter suggests her mother’s ceaseless motion and refusal to share feelings are likely survival mechanisms.
As captured in the new documentary, the most moving scene is Dr. Ruth’s visit to the Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem in Jerusalem to look up the records kept on those lost in the war. Sitting at a computer terminal she finds official confirmation that her father was killed at Auschwitz. Dr. Ruth’s mother is listed as “verschwunden” (disappeared). “I’ll cry when I get home,” is all the extremely private icon allows herself.
During the post-screening talk, Dr. Ruth recalled carrying a doll on the kindertransport and offering the beloved toy to a crying 8-year-old girl. Years later, in the United States the two reconnected, and Dr. Ruth asked, “Irma, do you remember I gave you the only doll I brought from Frankfurt?” Irma drew a blank. The sex therapist told the audience, “I wanted to shoot her.”
Her intense experiences continued. After the war, Dr. Ruth went to Palestine and trained as a sniper for the Haganah (a Jewish paramilitary group) to fight for the Jewish homeland’s independence. On her 20th birthday, Dr. Ruth was shot in both legs, which didn’t stop her from flirting with “a sexy male nurse” while recuperating.
Despite her gregariousness, Dr. Ruth has a bleakness lodged in the soul that she is still, perhaps futilely, trying to out run. In the documentary, her daughter Miriam suggests that her mother’s ceaseless motion and refusal to share feelings are likely survival mechanisms, an artifact of her challenging childhood.
Still Taking Risks After All These Years
The sex therapist has rarely allowed fear or doubt to stop her from taking actions she believed in. When her first two husbands didn’t make her happy, she left. In the case of the second marriage, she made a fresh start despite being a new mother, despite being an immigrant in New York City working as a maid for $1 an hour. Her third marriage, to Fred Westheimer, lasted 36 years until his death in 1996; the couple had a son, Joel. She now has four grandchildren—her biggest joys in life.
Despite a lifetime of taking risks and charting her own path, until now Dr. Ruth has refused to call herself a feminist.
Surprisingly, despite a lifetime of taking risks and charting her own path, until now Dr. Ruth has refused to call herself a feminist. In the documentary, she conceded grudgingly to an insistent granddaughter, “Maybe I am a feminist but I will never burn a bra.”
As she told her enraptured audience at Tribeca Film Festival, there is a new hill left to climb. “If any of you are Oscar voters, vote for the documentary, and I’ll promise you good sex!”
If anyone can make good on that promise, it’s probably the irrepressible Dr. Ruth.
Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW, is a NYC-based therapist, author of three relationship self-help books and editor of the anthology How Does That Make You Feel: True Confessions from Both Sides of the Therapy Couch. She has contributed to many publications including New York, Washington Post, This Week, Reader’s Digest, Observer and vox.com.