There were ten candles on Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s birthday cake earlier this month — nine per decade, and “one for good luck.” When she sees the photograph, she says, “I certainly blow out the candles with gusto. Not like a 90-year-old, but like a 50-year-old!”
The renowned sex therapist published a graphic autobiographical novel earlier this year, Roller Coaster Grandma, one of 40-plus books she’s written throughout her career, and she’s now planning to tour college campuses and host a TV show for millennials.
On June 4, her family and friends hosted a birthday party for 320 friends at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, where Westheimer is a board member. Guests included her two children, four grandchildren, a Nobel Prize–winning physicist, and many leaders of the Jewish community: “At least five rabbis and seven doctors!”
Photographer Gillian Laub arrived with Westheimer and followed her until the party’s end. Below, see the celebration, along with Westheimer’s thoughts on each photograph.
4:47 p.m., entering the party: “I have the habit of always saying thank you to police and guards who watch us. And the dressmaker Zang Toi gave this outfit to me for free! The red blouse is made with a special material imported from Italy. I was born in Wiesenfeld in Germany and ‘Wiese’ means meadow, so when my daughter saw this blouse, she said, ‘That reminds me of where you were born.’”
5:25 p.m.: “This is Tom Chapin and me rehearsing the song that we did about the seagulls.”
Their song “Two Kinds of Seagulls,” released on Chapin’s 2000 album This Pretty Planet, received a Grammy nomination, and they performed it together at the birthday party.
5:37 p.m.: “This was at the entrance during the reception with the hors d’oeuvres — maybe so they wouldn’t forget for whom the birthday party was!”
5:56 p.m.: “The former mayor of New York, Mayor [David] Dinkins, brought me a bottle of champagne with two glasses. I was very happy. This [photo on the right] is a picture of me in the kibbutz in Israel.”
6:03 p.m.: “This is Ann Oster and Rita Lerner. They are on the board of directors of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, like me. This is Dr. Cliff Salm [center].”
6:12 p.m.: With Joseph Grayzel, pictured right.
6:13 p.m.: “Here is Doctor William D. Phillips, Nobel Prize winner, physicist. He’s very tall, he loves me. Every time he sees me, he gets on his knees! I love it. A Nobel Prize winner in physics on his knees!”
7:02 p.m.: “This is a good friend of mine, Bonnie Kaye. The program listed all of the people who organized the party — including my daughter and her husband, my son and his wife, and more — and all the people who gave me things for free.
“It was a wonderful party. First I performed with Tom Chapin. My daughter and my son did a duet singing about me and wishing me well. There was a wonderful orchestra, Golam Music. And 40 singers in the Zamir Chorale performed a musical chorale that my son and my daughter commissioned, by the composer David Burger. It’s called “Shirei Nafshi (Ma’amarei Dr. Ruth)” and has the songs of my childhood in the melodies and a song of the synagogue that I like very much, which reminds me of my background in Frankfurt.
“I was very moved that my entire past was respected in the musical tribute. When I saw my four grandchildren perform for me, I knew that Hitler and the Nazis lost, and I won.”
7:28 p.m.: “This is my friend [Dr.] Nily Falic [chairman emeritus and former president of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces in the United States]. She’s Israeli-born, but she lives in Miami and Jerusalem.”
7:30 p.m., from left: Robert Nederlander, Yue-Sai Kan, Zang Toi, Petra Němcová, Carol Alt, and David Hryck.
9:04 p.m.: “On the cake was written many, many times, ‘Happy 90th Birthday Dr. Ruth.’ Doris Schechter gave us this enormous cake for free — she is a Holocaust survivor, and she has the restaurant My Most Favorite Food on 72nd Street.” Behind her, from left: Jeffrey Tabak, Esq., her son Joel Westheimer, and daughter-in-law Barbara.
9:10 p.m.: “This is Petra taking a selfie with me!”
9:12 p.m.: With Kenneth Podziba, president and CEO of Bike New York, and his wife Julie. “I’m not a bicyclist but my son is. Look, they’re giving me a nice kiss.”
10:05 p.m.: “This was at the end of the night. My daughter arranged the balloons, white and blue for the Israeli flag.”
10:29 p.m.: “I was thinking in the last moment [when I left], we could start right away, again. Usually I take flowers home from every event, that’s my signature, and I love flowers. These were donated by Jeff [Jeffrey Tabak, Esq.], an attorney who does all my work and is on the board of the museum, and his wife Marilyn. I took this rose centerpiece the next day for brunch in New Jersey [with the cousins of my late husband]. They came especially from Boston for the party. The flowers lasted another two weeks.
“I was very, very happy. Every year there’s something for my birthday, but never something so grandiose like this. This was the biggest one, so let’s see what happens for my 100th!”
This interview has been edited and condensed.