Dr. Ruth: On to the next thing


Dr. Ruth Westheimer holds her Grammy-nominated spoken word album for children, "Timeless Tales and Music of Our Time."

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Dr. Ruth Westheimer is still going strong and has even been nominated for a Grammy award. CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Martha Teichner recently spent time with her.

"I'm 73 years old. I'm 4-foot-7. I'm not shrinking, and I can't permit myself to shrink. Otherwise, you are not going to see me. You are only going to hear me."

Wherever she speaks, it's somebody's job to make sure there's a box. (She has to stand on a box to see over the podium.)

Her size, the accent, the subject matter – taken together, these might seem unlikely ingredients for celebrity. But not when the celebrity is Ruth Westheimer.

The only thing unlikely about her is that she will ever give up her platform willingly. The word "retire" is not in her vocabulary. Neither is the word "old."

Says Dr. Ruth: "If you would say, 'I'm going to see that old woman Dr. Ruth Westheimer to talk to her, I would say, "Not with me. Goodbye.' I don't think of the word 'old.' I think 'older.'"

And she's got some startling sex advice for all those other "older" people who flock to her lectures.

"I'm very conscious that many people are alone, so that's why I tell them about masturbation," says Dr. Ruth. "Then I say, 'Go out and buy a vibrator. It doesn't have to be the one that I'm suggesting. It can be any vibrator.'"

She's pretty certain nobody else is giving them similar advice.

"To see a woman like me, with my accent, with being four foot seven, with being 73, which I don't hide, talking about masturbation, I'm very grateful they don't walk out," she quips.

Hearing that from a little German Jewish grandmother is exactly why they don't walk out. And so it's always been.

More than 20 years ago, before she became a fixture on television, before anybody had ever heard of "Dr. Ruth," an unknown sex therapist with a Ph.D. in education named Ruth Westheimer agreed to go on the radio in order to get a message across about unwanted pregnancies...

"I didn't start saying, 'Oh, my gosh! I don't know how to do radio! How can I ever do that?' I said, 'I'll try.' That's my philosophy in life."

Is that a pattern that she has lived all her life?

Replies Dr. Ruth, "That's a pattern that I have lived all my life, because, otherwise, what could have happened to me is to become a very sad orphan of the Holocaust."

She was born Karola Ruth Siegel in Frankfurt, Germany. Her parents sent her to Switzerland when she was 10, in order to save her from the Nazis, even if they could not save themselves. For the next 6 1/2 years, she worked as a servant in a Swiss boarding school, scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets.

Passages from the diary she kept at the time are in her autobiography.

"I did that autobiography for a reason," explains Dr. Ruth. "I said, 'I'm grateful that I'm alive. And I have an obligation to contribute something to this world, because otherwise…why was I spared?"

But even an optimist of her determination couldn't ave anticipated the Dr. Ruth phenomenon, what it was like becoming an overnight sensation at the age of 52.

She discovered she liked being Dr. Ruth.

She recalls, "I said to myself, 'One day, this is going to be over, so you're not going to sit there and say, 'What did I do wrong that it didn't last?'"

She set out to make sure it did last -- from TV commercials, to those buckle-up messages in New York City taxis. As long as she feels her serious message about sex isn't being compromised, Ruth Westheimer is willing to be Dr. Ruth for fun and profit.

Available, for example, are Dr. Ruth's Game of Good Sex, videos for Playboy, and 21 books, advice on everything from making love to going off to college, Dr. Ruth explaining where babies come from and how to be a grandparent.

Now there's even a CD of Dr. Ruth reading "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" to music. Best of all, it has been nominated for a Grammy.

To spend time with Dr. Ruth is to get sucked up in the whirlwind of her energy. At Toys R Us in New York City, she could hardly wait 'til she'd finished reading "Little Red Riding Hood" to head for the Ferris wheel.

The ride was like a metaphor for Ruth Westheimer's life: the giddy highs made sweeter by how tough the lows were. She says she is like a particular German doll: If you knock it down, it bounces right back up.

"In German, that's called anstaufmenschen, which means 'lead in its feet.' So even if somebody knocks it down, because that's what life does… give you some knocks. It does all kinds of things that you did not expect, like taking a husband with, you know, with a stroke that he couldn't recover from…"

(Her husband of 38 years, Fred Westheimer, died five years ago.)

"But I have an ability, and I do not know where it comes from, to get up on my feet again. Not that I'm not sad, not that I'm not mourning, but I can get on my feet."

She was on her feet and very excited when CBS News Sunday Morning caught up with her in a Florida bookstore. She was excited because Billboard magazine had taken note of her Grammy nomination.

She swears she doesn't usually do this, but she had scheduled seven lectures, a charity breakfast, and three book signings in five days, this 73-year-old woman.

Dr. Ruth seems almost uncomfortable with the past, but embraces -- grabs would be a better word -- the present and the future.

She is on the lookout for new male friends ("Don't say 'boyfriend.' I'm too old for 'boyfriend.'"), seeking what she calls "interesting companionship."

Sexual companionship?

"Everything," says Dr. Ruth, adding, "I'll tell you what I'm looking for… has to be interesting, has to be somebody who doesn't sit and say, 'What am I going to do with the rest of my life?' I don't care if he works or not, because all I care about that he is engaged in life. He doesn't have to have money. I have enough money. I don't have tget married."

Next topic: What else? Sex.

"I do believe," she says in a lecture, "that any sexually literate couple can be sexually active until they're at the age of 99. I don't want to say to 120. But I say 100."

That's good news for the 1,600 senior citizens who came to hear her at a Florida retirement community.

"If you look around my house," she says, "you see very many turtles. That's the symbol that suits me. A turtle. If it wants to be safe, it stays in one place. It carries its house on top of his back. If the turtle wants to move, it has to stick its neck out. It has to take a risk. Otherwise, it doesn't move. That's me!"

After her lecture, it's as if her fans want to be infected by the contagion of her vitality. But Dr. Ruth can't stay and bask in their affection. She's got to go. She has another lecture to give in 45 minutes -- 30 miles away.

To read more about the Grammys, go to its official Web site.

Original Air Date: 2/17/02
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