Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Dr. Brothers—The Doctor is Out

America fell in love with the wholesome, blond shrink.

Somehow she kind of got lost in the shuffle.  Dr. Joyce Brothers died in her New Jersey home on Monday, but the news was overshadowed by the whoopla over the announced retirement of another woman television pioneer, her near contemporary, Barbara Walters. . Brothers was 85, Walters is 83.
Both women grew up in comfortable secular Jewish homes—Walters amid the show-biz glitz of her nightclub owning father, Joyce in a serious and accomplished home presided over by law partner parents, Estelle and Morris K. Bauer.  Walters was encouraged to enter her father’s world.  Joyce Bauer was expected to succeed academically, and she did.
Of the two, the psychologist burst into fame and became an enduring fixture on television, radio, and in print five years before Walters became the Today Girl.
Joyce Bauer was born on October 27, 1927 in Brooklyn, New York.  She attended and graduated from Far Rockaway High School in 1944 as a star pupil.  Then it was on to Cornell University where she double majored in home economics and psychology, a common path for accomplished women who were none the less expected to quickly marry, settle down and raise a family.
Which she did, marrying Dr. Milton Brothers, an internist in 1949.  It was a long and apparently happy and rewarding marriage that ended with her husband’s death 40 years later.  She had one daughter.
But marriage did not end either her academic career or her ambitions.  She went on to graduate school at Columbia University and was able to earn her PhD in psychology with a boost from the prestigious American Fellowship of the American Association of University Women in 1952. 
She had left a teaching position at Hunter College after the birth of her daughter 1955 when she overcame a natural shyness and with the encouragement of her husband who was impressed by the breadth of her knowledge in many subjects, tried out for most popular program on television—The $64,000 Question.  At first she thought she might compete in home economics or psychology, her undergraduate majors, but the producers seeing an attractive but diminutive blonde encouraged her to answer questions on boxing history. A topic about which she knew next to nothing.
But she did know that she was a fast study with an almost photographic memory.  In a few weeks she read everything about boxing that she could lay her hands on—reportedly more than 20 volumes—and  made herself an expert.  She sailed through the questions, which became ever more arcane.  America was riveted to their sets. She became the first and only woman to win the big prize and was an overnight celebrity photographed with real ring legends like Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Marciano.  She even became the first woman to provide color commentary for a telecast of a boxing match—the 1957 bout where Robinson lost the middle weight crown to Carmine Basilio.
Although the quiz show craze was ended in 1959 when a competing program, Twenty One, was shown to be feeding answers to Charles Van Doren and other contestants, no hint of impropriety ever brushed Brothers.
At any rate Brothers emerged from the show a national celebrity.  The following year she was cohost of a sports talk show.  But as she became in demand for appearances on radio and television talk shows where she began to pitch herself as a resource on psychology.  She was well spoken, had a fine sense of humor, and did not couch her conversations with the Freudian jargon the public had come to expect from shrinks.  And of course, she was beautiful.
In 1958 she was licensed as a psychologist in New York State and given her fist television show—an afternoon advice program on NBC’s New York affiliate.  It was one of the first “call in shows” in which Dr. Brothers gave calm, clear, advice on love, family problems, and mental health.  Despite some professional criticism that she was “practicing” with “patients” she knew nothing about, both her show and the format were a hit. 
Later she would matter-of-factually say that, “I invented media psychology. I was the first. The founding mother.”  Her local show went on to the network.  Over the years it was followed by several syndicated and radio programs like  The Dr. Joyce Brothers Show, to Consult Dr. Brothers, Tell Me, Dr. Brothers, Ask Dr. Brothers, and a more general interest lifestyle talk show,  Living Easy with Dr. Joyce Brothers.
Jack Paar and later Johnny Carson made her a staple of the couch on the Tonight Show.  She was one of the top ten most frequent guests during Carson’s tenure.  She was also called on as an expert on more serious programs.
Good Housekeeping signed her up for a monthly article in the top selling women’s magazine that ran for nearly 40 years.  In the ‘70’s she launched a newspaper advice column that went head-to-head with iconic sisters Dear Abby and Ann Landers which ran in more than 350 papers at its peak.
With the sexual revolution of the ‘60’s, Dr. Brothers was not afraid to tackle touchy subjects and was no prude, if not as explicit as Dr. Ruth Westheimer would become.
She often found herself in demand to act in television sit coms and even movies, usually, but not always, playing herself.  She famously was on Laugh-In.  She was a semi-regular celebrity panelist on several game shows including  Match Game, the 1968 revival of What’s My Line?, The Gong Show, Showoffs, Body Language and Hollywood Squares.  Her movies included Dear God, Lover’s Knot, Beethoven’s 4th, and Analyze That.
Dr. Brothers also authored a number of best-selling books including Ten Days To A Successful Memory in 1964, Positive Plus: The Practical Plan for Liking Yourself Better in 1995, and Widowed in 1992, a guide to dealing with grief, written after the death of her husband in 1989.
Although Dr. Brothers slowed down some, she never really retired and was available for still frequent calls from radio and TV until shortly before her death.
Dr. Brothers was a role model for women in broadcasting and for all of the television and radio shrinks that came after.  Many of them not nearly so perceptive, generous, or supportive as the original.  Among those who publicly commented on her death were right wing radio Hadrian Dr. Laura Schlessinger and unctuous TV shrink Dr. Phil McGraw, neither of whom is qualified to hold her coat.

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