It was a lesson about celebrity power rankings.
First, George Clooney was in the room, talking up the TV adaptation of Catch-22 that he has done for Hulu. He directs and acts in it. Clooney is beyond A-list. And he’s witty, so easily and breezily charming a room full of TV critics.
But that was piddling star power. Soon after, along came Dr. Ruth Westheimer to tell us critics about the documentary Ask Dr. Ruth, made for Hulu and recently screened at Sundance. (Details on when and where it will be available in Canada are coming later.) Made by Ryan White, who accompanied her to the critics’ press tour, it chronicles her early life and her career talking about sex on TV and radio.
She’s 90 years old now. And man, is she sharp. Funny, precise and eloquent, she had the journalists in the palm of her hand. She was worshipped like a goddess. As one of the leading U.S. critics said later on social media, “I cannot stress enough how important Dr. Ruth is to people who were growing up in households where sex is never discussed. Not just in terms of her demystifying it but letting people understand that it is a normal part of life and that its enjoyment is a birthright.”
We learned a lot about Dr. Ruth. A lot.
For instance, she can handle a gun. She’s a sharpshooter.
“I don’t talk about that every single day. But believe me, I didn’t forget it because when I went to Israel, all of us went into some unit to defend that country. And for some reason I was trying to be a sharpshooter.” Pause. “I haven’t touched a gun since Columbine, you know.” After another pause for a beat, she says, “I can still throw hand grenades at journalists, if they don’t ask me good questions.”
Also, there are some things she just won’t talk about: “You will never know how much money I have and with whom I am sleeping.” That brought the house down. Then a journalist, a young man at the back of the room, asked her what she finds sexy. “Well first, you stand up and come here and I will tell you if you’re sexy or not,” she fired back, to peals of laughter.
She is worried about millennials and their sex lives. Or lack of it, really. She explained that unlike the early 1980s, when she began doing syndicated radio and TV shows about healthy sex, "I do not get any questions these days about premature ejaculation or women not being able to have an orgasm.” Then she tried to wave away some chuckles of laughter and got serious. Young people today make her fret.
“Today, most of the questions I get are about loneliness, about not finding somebody to share their life and experience with, not just sex. I’m very concerned that young people are going to lose the ability, the art of conversation.” She says she bans computers and smartphones from her classroom at Columbia University. She’s doing a new edition of her book Sex for Dummies, “mostly for millennials.”
She’s had an extraordinary life, as the documentary reveals. Born in Germany, her family “spirited her away” on a train from Frankfurt to an orphanage in Switzerland in 1938, when she was 10. She lost her entire family in the Holocaust. In that orphanage in Switzerland she was obliged to drop out of school as a teenager, because young women such as her were not expected to get an education. What she did, though, was borrow the school books of a friend – her first boyfriend – who was finishing school, and studied them and tried to memorize his notes.
“We had to learn to be housemaids," she says, ruefully. “And I have the official diploma of the Swiss House Maid. So, well, I don’t have a high-school diploma, but I have a few honorary doctorates now!”
The tangled tale of her journey to Israel, then to France, where she went to university and began teaching psychology and then on to the United States and more academic achievement, is told in the doc. And then, of course, her story pivots on her start on radio and TV, with her show Sexually Speaking, offering non-judgmental advice about sex in her heavy German accent. She became a talk-show favourite, adored by Johnny Carson and David Letterman, and by their viewers.
She made one startling revelation to us, when asked how she had given “the talk” about sex to her own children. She didn’t. She gave them books about sex and told them to read the books. She did, however, agree to give a talk about sex to her grandson’s Grade 4 class. “He hasn’t recovered,” she says dryly.
Inevitably, the matter of sex and the transgender community came up. Westheimer, ever the academic, said, “I am not an expert on that whole issue of gender. I hope and wait for a scientifically validated study from a reputed university to learn more about it.” She did say, with some force, “Every person has to be respected,” and that she is “very worried” about suicide among “those people who feel they are trapped in the skin of another sex and become very depressed.”
Then, with an uncanny understanding of her audience and of the power she has, she began wisecracking about her age. She declared she will never retire and she has “a zest for life.” She was skiing until a few months ago. She’s not as steady on her feet as she once was, but she declines to use a cane. “Instead of walking with a cane, I decided to walk with good-looking guys,” she declared, and again brought the house down.
Later, I saw Dr. Ruth walking through the hotel, taking the arm of Ryan White. She moved slowly but with determination. I stopped and told her she had given a wonderful press conference. She beamed and told me, in that unmistakeable voice, “You are a kind journalist. I hope you are a good one.”
Then I watched as a Hulu executive approached her with great caution and deference. The exec, a woman, was very tall, a commanding presence. Dr. Ruth stared up at her and, with a wave of her hand, commanded the executive to come sit with her in a corner. She did. Dr. Ruth has that power.