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date: 23 October 2019

Brothers, Joycefree

(20 October 1927–13 May 2013)
  • Bruce J. Evensen

Joyce Brothers.

Dr. Joyce Brothers, half-length portrait, facing slightly left, holding a book she wrote, 1957. Photographic print by Phyllis Twacht.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-117953).

Brothers, Joyce (20 October 1927–13 May 2013), psychologist, television and radio personality, and columnist, was born Joyce Diane Bauer in Brooklyn, New York, to Morris K. Bauer and Estelle Rappaport Bauer, a Jewish couple who shared a law practice. She and sister, Elaine, were raised in Queens, where Joyce was an honors student at Far Rockaway High School.

Joyce double majored in psychology and home economics at Cornell University, graduating with honors in 1947. She married the medical student Milton J. Brothers on 4 July 1949 and later that month received her master’s degree in psychology from Columbia University, where she fought male chauvinism. The psychology department chair thought she’d never use the degree professionally. Undeterred, Joyce Brothers became the program’s star, receiving her doctoral degree in 1953 from Columbia University with a dissertation focused on anxiety avoidance and escape. That year the couple’s daughter, Lisa, was born, and Joyce soon gave up her teaching career at Hunter College and Columbia to raise her.

The family was reduced to living on the fifty dollars a month Milton earned in his medical residency, so Joyce turned to television’s number one quiz show, The $64,000 Question, to make some money. It unexpectedly led to a career as television’s most recognized psychologist. Producers liked the incongruity of a petite blond psychologist who answered questions on her chosen subject of boxing, so for weeks she studied the boxing journalist Nat Fleischer’s book Ring Facts and boxing encyclopedias from six in the morning until midnight, preparing for the program. Then, in the fall of 1955, audiences were spellbound as week after week she coolly answered every question from an isolation booth. On 6 December she became the second person and first woman to successfully answer the $64,000 question, making her a media celebrity.

In 1956 Brothers was a commentator on Sports Showcase on WATV Channel 13 in New York. It was followed in 1957 by the successful release of her first book, Ten Days to a Successful Memory. In the fall of that year Brothers bested the boxing knowledge of seven former fighters in winning The $64,000 Challenge. Producers could not find a question difficult enough to defeat her. Congressional hearings in 1959 on quiz show rigging (in which she was never implicated) made Brothers an even greater heroine. The family could soon afford two homes—one in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the other in Upstate New York.

As a publicity stunt, NBC launched The Dr. Joyce Brothers Show for four weeks in 1958, where Brothers answered questions phoned in on childrearing and marital relations. Brothers’s genuine sympathy and gentle sensitivity made the television show a huge hit. Brothers received more than one thousand fan letters a week, and the show went national. Within a year she added a late night show, variously named Ask Dr. Brothers, Consult Dr. Brothers, and Living Easy with Dr. Joyce Brothers, that broke taboos in talking about sexual subjects.

Critics carped that Brothers was dispensing wisdom to people she didn’t know. Some within the American Psychological Association wanted her membership revoked. Brothers answered that she didn’t give advice. Instead, her job was to help listeners apply what experts were saying. Brothers’s short talks on the ABC and NBC radio networks in the 1960s offered a soothing voice and calming influence on Americans in their anxious encounters with the Cold War and the sexual revolution. In the 1970s Brothers advocated removing sexist language from textbooks, citing research that showed cultures that were less sexist tended to be less warlike. Twice she talked callers out of suicide on her radio show. Brothers wrote a daily newspaper column that reached readers in more than three hundred American cities. Her monthly column in Good Housekeeping became mandatory reading for millions across four decades.

Brothers appeared as a frequent panelist on What’s My Line?, I’ve Got a Secret, The Hollywood Squares, and The Match Game. She made more than one hundred appearances during Johnny Carson’s three decades as host of The Tonight Show. Brothers also appeared on sitcoms and variety shows, generally in the role of a life coach overseeing conflict resolution. In Taxi she cures Andy Kaufman’s eccentric character, Latka Gravas, of multiple personality disorder. The Jack Benny Program, The Sonny and Cher Show, Happy Days, Police Squad!, Suddenly Susan, Moonlighting, Frasier, Alf, Ally McBeal, and The Nanny were shows where Brothers’s therapeutic assistance was on display. Her character roles in Love, American Style; Ellery Queen; Police Woman; The Love Boat; WKRP in Cincinnati; Charlie’s Angels; and Married with Children followed the same pattern. Brothers’s many movie roles—The War between Men and Women (1972), Embryo (1976), Hero at Large (1980), Oh, God! Book II (1980), The King of Comedy (1983), The Lonely Guy (1984), The Naked Gun (1988), Lover’s Knot (1996), Beethoven’s 4th (2001), and Analyze That (2002)—often involved self-parody.

Brothers’s books sold well. Her highly popular What Every Woman Should Know about Men (1981) aimed at creating equal partnerships and producing a son who becomes “even more of a man than his father, a man who will want as much for the women in his life as he wants for himself” (p. 268). The loss of her husband of thirty-nine years in 1989 led to Brothers’s bestselling Widowed (1990), where she described her own grief and encouraged readers who’d suffered loss “to join [life’s] parade again” (p. 216). Her final book, Positive Plus: The Practical Plan for Liking Yourself Better (1994), offered readers psychological tool kits intended to free readers to become “the person you really are” without the fear and anxiety that hold so many people back (p. 271).

Before her death from respiratory failure at the age of eighty-five in Fort Lee, New Jersey, Joyce Brothers had become “the face of American psychology” for generations of television viewers (Washington Post, 13 May 2013). She opened the public square to private feelings. In doing so, she offered reassurance and encouragement to those anxious and uncertain about life, marriage, family, loss, and the value of the individual human being.

Bibliography

Brothers left her personal papers to Cornell University, including 463 films, 796 videotapes, and 184 audio recordings. Books written by Brothers include Woman (1961); The Brothers System for Liberated Love and Marriage (1972); Better Than Ever (1975); How to Get Whatever You Want Out of Life (1978); What Every Woman Ought to Know about Love and Marriage (1984); and The Successful Woman: How You Can Have a Career, a Husband and a Family—and Not Feel Guilty about It (1988). See also Tori DeAngelis, “Ahead of Her Time,” American Psychological Association 42, no. 1 (Jan. 2011): 30. Major obituaries appear in the New York Times and USA Today, 13 May 2013.