In 1985, I was hired to be half of a new morning radio show on WYNY, NBC’s owned-and-operated FM station in New York. At the vast majority of stations, morning drive hosts are the most popular personalities. But I knew that wouldn’t be the case for us because WYNY was the flagship station of Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s show.
Before Dr. Ruth became a national phenomenon (on radio, on TV, and in print), she had this little Sunday night show on WYNY. Because the subject of her show was sex and she was absolutely frank with everyone who called, the show garnered a large audience. Part of her appeal was that Ruth didn’t use euphemisms to describe body parts. I couldn’t say orgasm or penis or vagina in morning drive, but she said them regularly.
I ran into Ruth several times in the WYNY offices at 30 Rock, and she was always a pleasure to talk to — even though our conversations were never about sex. She always had a giggle and a smile, and no matter how many times we crossed paths, she never failed to introduce me to her producer, Susan Brown, as if it were the first time.
With all that as background, I’m happy I finally came upon the 2019 Hulu documentary, “Ask Dr. Ruth,” which not only goes into her professional success, but her personal struggles, too. That includes losing her parents and other family members in the Holocaust. She got out of Germany on the Kindertransport, special trains that took Jewish children to Switzerland and elsewhere to keep them out of the reach of the Nazis. The doc includes pictures, film, and Ruth’s own narration of the horrors she’d left behind and the difficulty of essentially being an orphan forced to begin life again. The scenes of her visiting Yad Vashem — the World Holocast Remembrance Center in Israel — are especially touching.
There’s also a segment of “Ask Dr. Ruth” that shows her advocacy at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, and how she used her platforms to teach so many people — gay and straight — about what that disease was doing to the LGBT community.
More than three-quarters of a century after the end of World War II, there aren’t many Holocaust survivors left. But I’m glad that, at 93, Ruth is still around, continuing to speak honestly about reproductive health and sexual pleasure. At a time when right-wing zealots are attacking abortion and contraception, her lessons are more valuable than ever.
“Ask Dr. Ruth” is a reminder of how this four-foot-seven German immigrant flourished in the US by opening minds, loosening inhibitions, and making her listeners and viewers so much better informed.
Streaming now on Hulu.