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Arts & Life

Inside The Life Of Famous Sex Educator, Dr. Ruth

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Everybody knows Dr. Ruth, right? Diminutive, accented, slightly impish as she speaks on the fine points of sex. Dr. Ruth Westheimer brought sex into America's living rooms and kitchens in a time when frank talk about it was considered off-color and out of bounds in broadcasting. But Dr. Ruth was more guarded in speaking about her own life story - a young German Jewish girl who became a refugee during World War II whose parents died in the Holocaust.

The new documentary "Ask Dr. Ruth," now out on Hulu, profiles Dr. Ruth Westheimer as she turns 90 years old.

RUTH WESTHEIMER: Ninety-one.

SIMON: Well, you'll be 91 in June, right?

WESTHEIMER: Yes (laughter).

SIMON: Happy birthday in advance, Dr. Westheimer

WESTHEIMER: Thank you. Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: You've joined us from your apartment in New York. You've lived in that apartment 64, 65 years?

WESTHEIMER: True. And I'm not moving. And I'm looking out on the majestic Henry Hudson. And it's a beautiful view.

SIMON: Well, that's wonderful. Listen; I saw this film.

WESTHEIMER: Good.

SIMON: And (laughter) your son and daughter, who clearly love you, say in the film they don't recall you ever talking to them about what I'll call the facts of life. Is that how you remember?

WESTHEIMER: That's right. That's correct. And as you'll remember, my son Joel...

SIMON: Yeah.

WESTHEIMER: He's absolutely right. I did bring books home, probably exactly for their age, but I kept them away from my talking about sex from morning to night. And something that did not get into the film...

SIMON: Yeah.

WESTHEIMER: ...Fred Westheimer, who passed away 20 years ago - he also said the shoemaker's children don't have shoes (laughter).

SIMON: Oh, I think I know what you mean.

WESTHEIMER: So I like to quote that.

SIMON: All right.

WESTHEIMER: Yeah, but they all knew that I worked for Planned Parenthood, that I did my doctoral dissertation following 2,000 women and their contraceptive history and abortive history at a time when abortion was illegal. So they knew that, but I didn't bring it home, it's true.

SIMON: Well, I mean, you have grandchildren, so clearly, they found out somehow, right?

WESTHEIMER: Yes. Now it's a different story, but I wouldn't talk about their romantic life ever.

SIMON: Dr. Ruth, I have to ask you about your early life, when you were a child, in fact, and found refuge in an orphanage in Switzerland. This film shows you returning to Israel and discovering, I think for the first time, how your parents died.

WESTHEIMER: No, it's not the first time. I already knew that they were deported from Frankfurt to Lodz - Litzmannstadt, the Germans called it. And I already knew that they went to Auschwitz. However, what I saw really the first time is to have it in their register at Yad Vashem - that's the memorial station in Jerusalem. And I wanted - I did that purposely. It was difficult for me, especially to see next to my mother the German term verschollen - V-E-R-S-C-H-O-L-L-E-N - which means disappeared.

SIMON: How do you - Dr. Ruth, after all these years, how do you think that all those experiences affected you growing up, and now even?

WESTHEIMER: OK, so there's no question. I have always said I'm not a Holocaust survivor because I was not in a camp. Now, I'll tell you something, Scott. I have stayed away from politics because I talk about sex from morning to night. These days, I've changed my mind, and you NPR people have to know about this.

SIMON: OK.

WESTHEIMER: I do talk about how upset I am when I see children being separated from their parents because that's the story of my life. And I'm also very upset if abortion would become illegal again. And I'm very sad if there is not enough funding for Planned Parenthood.

SIMON: You became a sniper in the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. You were in your late teens. What did you do?

WESTHEIMER: So just watch out, Scott. If that broadcast is not good, watch out what I'll do to you.

(LAUGHTER)

WESTHEIMER: So I was very well trained. I was on the rooftops of Jerusalem to watch over the Israeli soldiers who checked every car that came into Jerusalem. Fortunately, I never had to throw a hand grenade, but I could do it if I - if there would have been a need.

And then I was very badly wounded at the very beginning of the War of Independence on both legs. That's not why I'm short. I would have been short anyway. There was a brilliant German Jewish surgeon who fixed my feet. I later on became a black diamond skier, and I can still dance a whole night if I find a good partner.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: There is more open talk about sexuality these days. You are often credited for that. Has more talk about sexuality in both men and women been part of the women's - the movement for women's equality?

WESTHEIMER: No question. Because from the beginning, I said a woman has the responsibility for her own sexual satisfaction. And that has certainly helped the movement. But as you saw in the film, my granddaughter and daughter want me to say that I'm a feminist.

SIMON: Yeah.

WESTHEIMER: So finally, I gave in. And I said, OK, I'm a feminist, but not a radical feminist. I don't want them or anybody else to burn their bras (laughter).

SIMON: Dr., your terrific son, Joel, says in this film...

WESTHEIMER: Yes. Oh, say that again.

SIMON: Your terrific son, Joel.

WESTHEIMER: (Laughter) I like that.

SIMON: Your son, Joel, says in this film that you don't talk about your early years very much because that's part of your survival mechanism.

WESTHEIMER: That's true.

SIMON: What do you feel about that?

WESTHEIMER: That is correct. And my daughter also says that. And that's one of the reasons I kept them away from all of the public media, including NPR (laughter). And then eventually, now at the age of almost 91, I have changed my mind with this film. And I have to tell you something, Scott.

SIMON: Yeah.

WESTHEIMER: When people ask me what is my proudest achievement in life, in addition to making everybody sexually more literate, my proudest achievement is four grandchildren. And you NPR people, loud and clear, Hitler is dead, and my four grandchildren are fantastic in their lives.

SIMON: Dr. Ruth Westheimer - she's the subject of "Ask Dr. Ruth," a new documentary on Hulu on the occasion of her 90th - soon to be 91st - birthday. Thanks so much for being with us.

WESTHEIMER: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(YOUR LOVE KEEPS LIFTING ME) HIGHER AND HIGHER")

JACKIE WILSON: (Singing) Your love, lifting me higher than I've ever been lifted before. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 3, 2019 at 10:00 PM MDT
The audio for this story incorrectly states that the documentary Ask Dr. Ruth is currently out on Hulu. The documentary premieres on Hulu on June 1, 2019.