NEW YORK CITY — She broke ground for Dr. Phil and Dr. Laura as the first psychologist with a TV advice show. But Dr. Joyce Brothers, who died Monday at 85, was as well known for her ability to laugh at herself, her keen mind and her many media appearances, often playing herself, as she was for her common sense and good advice.
Brothers died of respiratory failure in Fort Lee, N.J., on May 13. "She passed away peacefully and in her home ... with her family all around," her daughter, Lisa Brothers Arbisser, told CNN.
In explaining her popularity, New York Times' Margalit Fox noted that "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."
"Decades before I came along, Dr. Joyce was able to get people talking about their emotional issues and problems. In her own gentle and caring way she let people know it was OK to discuss their feelings and emotions," "Dr. Phil" McGraw said in a statement Monday quoted by the Associated Press. "She had a great sense of humor and gave very sound advice in her column and whenever she appeared on TV. I owe her a great deal for what she did for the mental health profession and society owes her a big thank you."
Brothers first gained public attention in December of 1955 by answering question after question about boxing on the popular TV quiz show "The $64,000 Question." She embarked on that adventure to make extra money because her doctor husband, Milton Brothers, was just starting out and finances were tight. She didn't know anything about boxing, but the show liked unusual combinations like a young blonde wife who knew pugilism. She studied the subject so diligently that when she was later questioned by investigators after the cheating scandal that enveloped many game shows including that one broke, she could answer all their boxing questions. She had become an expert on the topic. She emerged untainted.
Her real mark, though, was helping shape how Americans lived, from their relationships to their sense of self.
Radio therapist "Dr. Laura" Schlessinger told USA Today that Brothers "made psychology accessible. She explained things, she gave insight. It wasn't psychological mumbo jumbo. She gave, in frank terms, information people would find useful, which is the forerunner of what I do.
"She was cute as a button and would show up every now and then on a sitcom," Schlessinger added. "She just seemed nice."
Brothers parlayed her success on the game show into a gig as color commentator for CBS during a boxing match. As her popularity continued to climb, she was given an advice show by a New York TV station in 1958. It was the start of four decades of syndicated advice shows, on both TV and radio, where she answered questions from callers or the studio audience.
She also managed to write several popular books and a syndicated newspaper column, as well as a column for Good Housekeeping. She appeared on scores of TV shows, from "Saturday Night Live" to "Night Court," "CHiPs," "Mr. Belvedere," "The Simpsons," "The Love Boat" and late-night TV talk shows. Many of her appearances were cameos where she appeared as Dr. Joyce Brothers. Everyone knew who she was. Brothers was a familiar face, too, on "The Tonight Show" when Johnny Carson hosted it. She sometimes surfaced as a celebrity on game shows or made appearances in movies.
Wrote Fox, "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," the article said.
It was not always a smooth ride. Wrote CNN's Steve Almasy, "Dispensing advice on public airwaves didn't please all of her colleagues. Some members of the American Psychological Association asked early in her media career that her membership be revoked because they didn't think dispensing advice outside a one-on-one setting was appropriate." In 1986, media psychology became part of the APA's structure, he noted.
Brothers was born Joyce Diane Bauer on Oct. 27, 1927, in New York City. According to biographical data, she earned twin degrees in home economics and psychology from Cornell University, then earned a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University. Five years later, she started practicing psychology.
She was married to Milton Brothers, a physician, in 1949; he died in 1989. Lisa Arbisser was their only child. Brothers is also survived by a sister, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
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