Dr. Joyce Brothers, On-Air Psychologist Who Made TV House Calls, Dies at 85

May 20, 2013 | Faculty

By MARGALIT FOX

May 14, 2013

Joyce Brothers, a former academic psychologist who, long before Drs. Ruth, Phil and Laura, was counseling millions over the airwaves, died on Monday at her home in Fort Lee, N.J. She was 85.

Her daughter, Lisa Brothers Arbisser, confirmed the death.

Dr. Joyce Brothers, as she was always known professionally — a full-name hallmark of the more formal times in which she began her career — was widely described as the mother of mass-media psychology because of the firm, pragmatic and homiletic guidance she administered for decades via radio and television.

Historically, she was a bridge between advice columnists like Dear Abby and Ann Landers, who got their start in the mid-1950s, and the self-help advocates of the 1970s and afterward.

Throughout the 1960s, and long beyond, one could scarcely turn on the television or open a newspaper without encountering her. She was the host of her own nationally syndicated TV shows, starting in the late 1950s with “The Dr. Joyce Brothers Show” and over the years including “Ask Dr. Brothers,” “Consult Dr. Brothers” and “Living Easy With Dr. Joyce Brothers.”

She was also a ubiquitous guest on talk shows like “The Tonight Show” and on variety shows like “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.”

She was a panelist on many game shows, including “What’s My Line?” and “The Hollywood Squares.” These appearances had a fitting symmetry: It was as a game-show contestant that Dr. Brothers had received her first television exposure.

Playing herself, or a character very much like herself, she had guest roles on a blizzard of TV series, from “The Jack Benny Program” to “Happy Days,” “Taxi,” “Baywatch,” “Entourage” and “The Simpsons.”

She also lectured widely; had a call-in radio show, a syndicated newspaper column and a regular column in Good Housekeeping magazine; and wrote books.

Dr. Brothers arrived in the American consciousness (or, more precisely, the American unconscious) at a serendipitous time: the exact historical moment when cold war anxiety, a greater acceptance of talk therapy and the widespread ownership of television sets converged. Looking crisply capable yet eminently approachable in her pastel suits and pale blond pageboy, she offered gentle, nonthreatening advice on sex, relationships, family and all manner of decent behavior.

It is noteworthy, then, that her public life began with fisticuffs. The demure-looking, scholarly Dr. Brothers had first come to wide attention as a contestant on “The $64,000 Question,” where she triumphed as an improbable authority on boxing.

Joyce Diane Bauer was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 20, 1927, and reared in Queens and Manhattan. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornell, with a double major in home economics and psychology, followed by a Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia.

In the late 1940s and early ’50s, Dr. Brothers taught psychology at Hunter College. By the mid-’50s, while her husband, Milton J. Brothers, was pursuing a medical residency, she had left the academy to stay home with their baby daughter.

Milton Brothers’s residency paid $50 a month. Joyce Brothers, who had a steel-trap memory, decided to supplement their income by appearing on a quiz show. She settled on “The $64,000 Question,” produced in New York and broadcast on CBS. On the show, contestants answered a string of increasingly difficult questions in fields of their choosing.

Dr. Brothers quickly saw that the show prized incongruous matches of contestant and subject: the straight-backed Marine officer who was an expert on gastronomy; the cobbler who knew all about opera. What she decided, would be more improbable than a petite psychologist who was a pundit of pugilism?

She embarked on weeks of intensive study, a process little different, she later said, from preparing to write a doctoral dissertation. She made her first appearance on the show in late 1955, returning week after week until she had won the top prize, $64,000 — only the second person, and the first woman, to do so. She later won the same amount, also for boxing knowledge, on a spinoff show, “The $64,000 Challenge.”

In the late 1950s, amid the quiz-show scandals (which included revelations that contestants on some shows, “The $64,000 Question” among them, had been fed correct answers), Dr. Brothers was called before a grand jury. In an exercise that was curiously reminiscent of her appearances on the shows, she was peppered with arcane boxing questions to test her authentic knowledge of the subject. She passed handily, and no taint of the scandal attached to her.

In 1956, as a result of her performance on “The $64,000 Question,” Dr. Brothers was invited to be a commentator on “Sports Showcase,” a television show on Channel 13 in New York, which had not yet become a noncommercial station. One show led to another, and before the decade was out she was a television star.

If, in later, years, Dr. Brothers’s public image had acquired the faint aura of camp, it was leavened by her obvious awareness of that fact — and her corresponding ability to laugh at herself in public. (Who without such self-knowledge would have agreed, as she did, to appear on both “The David Frost Show” and “The $1.98 Beauty Show,” a late-’70s Chuck Barris game show-cum-parody?)

But for the most part, Dr. Brothers displayed a far more serious side: More than once, she dissuaded suicidal callers to her radio show from ending their lives, keeping them on the line with encouraging talk until their phone numbers could be traced and help dispatched.

In her book “Widowed” (1990), she wrote candidly of her own suicidal despair after her husband’s death from cancer, and her eventual resolve to go on with her life.

Milton Brothers, an internist who specialized in diabetes treatment, died in 1989. Besides her daughter, an ophthalmic surgeon, Dr. Brothers is survived by a sister, Elaine Goldsmith; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Her other books include “The Brothers System for Liberated Love and Marriage” (1972) and “How to Get Whatever You Want Out of Life” (1978). Had it not been for “The $64,000 Question,” Dr. Brothers might well have remained a scholar whose publications ran toward “An Investigation of Avoidance, Anxiety, and Escape Behavior in Human Subjects as Measured by Action Potentials in Muscle,” as her doctoral dissertation was titled.

But in an era when few women managed to have high-profile public careers, Dr. Brothers was able to transform a single night — Dec. 6, 1955, the night of her $64,000 question — into more than five decades of celebrity.

The question was a multipart interrogation that caused the show to run 30 seconds long.

Her responses, given from an isolation booth, conveyed the agility of her mind, the capacity of her memory and the ferocity of her determination.

That night Dr. Brothers supplied, among other impeccable answers, the name of the glove Roman gladiators wore (cestus), Primo Carnera’s opponent in his heavyweight title defense of 1933 (Paolino Uzcudun) and the name of the essayist (William Hazlitt) who wrote about having seen Bill Neat defeat Thomas Hickman on Dec. 11, 1821.

Originally published by The New York Times