You’ll be happy to learn that Dr. Ruth Westheimer is every bit as delightful in person as she’s been on hundreds of TV and radio appearances over the past four decades. When the 91-year-old sex therapist visited Closer Weekly’s NYC office in late August, she was thrilled by our special Shirley Temple issue.
“We used to watch her [movies] in my orphanage because it would make everyone smile, and there wasn’t a lot of smiling back then,” Dr. Ruth revealed. But since surviving a rough childhood in Nazi Germany and launching her radio show, Sexually Speaking, in 1980, she’s made many adults smile with her frank and helpful advice, witty take on life and eternally sunny outlook.
“I think the most important thing is to make sure that you are grateful for what you have,” she exclusively tells Closer in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. These days, she’s especially grateful for all the new projects that keep coming her way: writing an update for her book Sex for Dummies and starring in a Hulu documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth, that was the toast of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
We asked the diminutive doc about her kids Joel, 56, and Miriam, 62, her four grandkids and advice for 90-somethings like herself: “You shouldn’t retire, you should rewire!” she tells Closer. “Meaning if you want to do something else, that’s OK!”
Scroll below to read our exclusive interview with Dr. Ruth!
You’ve written more than 40 books. Why return to a new Sex for Dummies edition?
“Because [the publisher] Wiley wanted one! They said, ‘Would you do an updated book and add material for the millennials?’ because the last one was 10 years ago. I didn’t let them finish the sentence — I just said yes. The good thing is you can just read what’s interesting, and look for the drawings of different positions.
How have things changed in a decade?
“We did specific chapters of interest for the millennials, like my concern about loneliness, the art of conversation getting lost because everybody is on their phone, sexually transmitted diseases. I’ll give you a good example from it: I tell millennials that there is nothing wrong with fantasizing about group sex, but don’t do it because somebody will get hurt and somebody’s going to get jealous, because somebody is going to be a better lover.”
How did your new Hulu documentary happen?
“When [producer] Rafael Marmor asked me to do it, I said no. I said, ‘I just did a BBC documentary — enough already!’ [Laughs] Then he told me about a film that he made called No Place on Earth. I said, ‘That’s my story. There was no place for a Jewish girl like me during World War II, no country wanted us.’ I am very, very pleased with the outcome.”
You’ve had quite an interesting life, even years before starting your talk shows. You were in an orphanage at age 10 …
“From age 10 to 17.”
How did you become so upbeat?
“I once did a study with the other children there, and it became very clear that all of us who were in a loving family from age 6 to about 15 made it — none committed suicide, became mentally ill or addicts. I was 10 and a half, in an intact family with parents, grandparents, a village nearby.”
And you later became a trained sniper!
“I was 18 in Palestine [in the Israeli army]. I never killed anybody, but I could have if I had to — I was a very good sharp shooter. I was badly wounded on my 20th birthday on both legs. There was a wonderful surgeon who fixed me so I could dance and ski. But I could have lost my legs.”
Wow! How did you go from that to becoming a sex therapist?
“I wanted to be physician, but I didn’t have a high school diploma. So I said, ‘OK, I’ll be a kindergarten teacher.’ After a while I thought I should do something else. Luckily, I found a position at Planned Parenthood of New York City, worked there for many years and used that data for my doctorate dissertation. Then I realized I didn’t know enough, so I became a sex therapist. I took a course at Cornell Medical Center, and then they asked me to do a radio program, and look what happened!”
You’ve been married three times and say you learned from each one. Any advice?
“Sometimes when a relationship is not productive, you can still be friends. I’m still friends with husband No. 1 — I just saw him this summer in Israel. And I’m still friends with my first boyfriend from the orphanage!”
Why did your nearly 40-year marriage to Fred Westheimer work?
“Very good question. He came from the same background — his parents were saved because they went to Portugal. He was very much a family man, didn’t mind my running around, and he cooked dinner — that was a big thing! Spaghetti and meatballs! He was never married before, I had one daughter and he adopted her. Miriam loved him and he loved her, especially going skiing together.”
Have you seen anyone after him?
“Next question! Even [my co-author] doesn’t know, and he knows a lot!”
Did your kids come to you for relationship advice growing up?
“Never! I’m glad they didn’t, because all I did was leave books around and say, ‘If you have a question, ask me, and if I don’t have the answer I will say so [and] ask an expert.'”
Have you ever thought of retiring?
“I tell people, ‘No way will I ever retire!'”
What else do you want to accomplish?
“I’d like to ski, but it’s not in the cards!”
What are you most proud of?
“Many years ago, when homosexuality was not accepted like it is now, I said that respect is not debatable. Every person needs to be respected — gay people, anybody — and that holds true for people who want to be of the other gender.”
Any mottoes you live by?
“It comes from the Jewish tradition: a lesson taught with humor is a lesson retained. That’s why I am teaching my fifth year at Columbia University Teachers College and my third year at Hunter College [in NYC].”
How’d you describe this time in your life?
“Very successful, because I have four wonderful grandchildren [ages 17 to 28], a daughter and a son-in-law who are professionals, and a son who is a big-shot professor in education in Canada. He wrote a book called What Kind of Citizen? Educating Our Children for the Common Good, and is lecturing all over the U.S. and Canada. My daughter-in-law is also a professor. So I’m never bored with them! Last Sunday I was at dinner with my grandson and he paid for the first time. That was pretty good!”
Do you have any regrets?
“Yes, I’m 4-foot-7. I would have liked to be a little taller!”
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