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“I don’t know how to play Canasta,” laughs Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the world’s most famous sex therapist, as we sit down in the Washington Heights apartment where she has lived for 54 years to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast. I had just asked the 91-year-old — who became a household name in her fifties, thanks to her candid discussion of sex on radio and TV and in books, columns, lectures and university courses — what motivates her to continue to work so hard at her age, as opposed to playing Mahjong or canasta like many of her contemporaries. “I want other people to play it because I don’t want them to sit home lonely, so I want them to do all of those things — but it’s not for me.”
Indeed, instead of receding from the public eye, Westheimer is, in 2019, still very much in it, not least because of an acclaimed new documentary feature about her life and work called Ask Dr. Ruth, which was directed by Ryan White, premiered at Sundance in January and was released in theaters in May and on Hulu in June. “The documentary is just beautiful,” its subject gushes. She proudly shows off a statuette from Rotten Tomatoes confirming that the film was “certified fresh,” notes that it landed on the prestigious DOC NYC shortlist and repeatedly urges listeners to check it out on Hulu — which, incidentally, she would like a Hulu publicist in the room to have installed on her television, for free, thank you very much.
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.
Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett and Norman Lear.
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Westheimer was born in 1928 in a village near Frankfurt, Germany, the only child of a couple who were Orthodox Jews. As Adolf Hitler rose to power, they saw the writing on the wall, and, in January 1939, at “the last moment possible,” dispatched Westheimer, then 10, to a children’s home in Switzerland via a Kindertransport. “My parents actually gave me life twice,” she emphasizes. “Once when I was born, and once when they insisted that I had to go with that group of children.” She never saw them again.
After the war, Westheimer went to British-controlled Palestine. She joined the Haganah, serving as a sniper — and being wounded in action — during Israel’s ultimately successful war for independence. She then moved in 1950 to France, studying and teaching psychology at the University of Paris, before immigrating to the U.S. in 1956, where she married three times and had two children.
Even during stints as an impoverished single, working mother in New York, she continued to pursue her own education, received an MA in sociology from The New School in 1959 and then an Ed.D degree from Teachers College of Columbia University in 1970. She then spent seven more years procuring a doctorate at Cornell University under the tutelage of Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan, “a brilliant psychiatrist and psychologist” and sex expert.
Westheimer then launched her own private practice, but it wasn’t long before her life and career took an unexpected turn. A guest appearance on the radio led, in 1981, to her own radio show, Sexually Speaking, which emanated from 30 Rock and made her — a woman with a thick German accent, standing a mere 4-foot-7 — into the unlikeliest of celebrities. No sex therapist had ever spoken as frankly about sex, to as large an audience, as she did, covering topics ranging from erectile dysfunction to female orgasms to the outbreak of AIDS. And she hasn’t stopped since.
When film producer Rafael Marmor approached her about being the subject of a new documentary, she wasn’t particularly interested — until, that is, she saw Marmor’s earlier film No Place on Earth, a doc about a Jewish family which survived the Holocaust by hiding in a Ukrainian cave for more than a year. With Westheimer now on board, Marmor and White set about getting Westheimer to open up about things she had left out of even her own books — about her introduction to sex and the like. They succeeded. One thing she refused to do in the film, however, was to discuss politics — something she subsequently decided to do in our own conversation. “I’m very upset when I see children being separated from parents [at the U.S./Mexico border],” she says, without ever naming President Donald Trump as the party responsible for the policy. “That’s my story.”
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