Dr. Joyce Brothers, 1927–2013

The psychologist who became a media star

Dr. Joyce Brothers’s career as America’s first television psychologist began, she liked to say, “because we were hungry.” In 1955 she had given up teaching to raise her newborn daughter, and money was tight. So she decided to compete on the game show The $64,000 Question, choosing a compellingly contrarian topic for a petit psychologist: boxing. Having memorized everything she could find on the subject, she sailed through a barrage of arcane questions—such as the length of Jack Dempsey’s 1923 bout with Luis Firpo (3 minutes, 57 seconds)—to become the second person, and the only woman, to win the top prize. Her natural charm convinced TV producers that they had a star on their hands.

Born in New York City, the daughter of two lawyers, Joyce Bauer went to Cornell University to study home economics, and there developed an interest in psychology, said the Los Angeles Times. After marrying Milton Brothers in 1949, she earned a master’s and a doctorate in psychology at Columbia University, and taught at Hunter College. But after her unlikely television triumph, Brothers never returned to academia. In 1958, The Dr. Joyce Brothers Show—where she “dispensed advice on child-rearing, love, marriage, and sex”—debuted in the afternoon on New York’s NBC affiliate. “An instant hit, it was soon airing nationally.”

Before long, “one could scarcely turn on the television or open a newspaper without encountering her,” said The New York Times. Brothers emerged just as Cold War anxiety, talk therapy, and the boom in television converged. “Looking crisply capable yet eminently approachable in her pastel suits and pale blond pageboy,” she became the “mother of mass-media psychology.” She wrote a regular column in Good Housekeeping, another for newspapers, and 15 books, including Widowed in 1990, in which she wrote “candidly of her own suicidal despair after her husband’s death from cancer.” Brothers was a talk-show regular, and played herself in cameos on TV shows from The Jack Benny Program to The Simpsons.

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Brothers’s lasting appeal stemmed from “the sympathy, sincerity, and psychological knowledge that she provided,” said The Washington Post. Without resorting to cant or jargon, she opened the airwaves “to serious discussion of the most intimate matters of heart and mind.”

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