Monday, May 13, 2013

Obituary: Dr. Joyce Brothers

A media icon of sorts, psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers, died today at the age of 85, according to her daughter. Brothers was an important figure in the history of the media because she helped bridge the two areas of advice columnist and psychologist (without the diagnosing, of course).

A very smart individual, Brothers owed her career to mastering the media. She enjoyed the life of relative obscurity as a former college instructor-turned-full-time wife and mother when she decided to try her hand at the popular big-money game shows that were all the rage in the late 1950s. The most famous of these game shows was The $64,000 Question. However, she couldn't just get on the show and show off her expertise in something like psychology. That would have been too dull and wouldn't have been impressive. She was told by producers she needed to find some interesting juxtaposition of what she did for a living and what topic she was an expert. There were numerous examples of this contrast such as jockey Billy Pearson being an expert in art, or a cobbler named Gino Prato who was an expert in opera, or very young contestants who mastered college-level subjects, and so forth. Brothers decided on boxing because it was a fairly narrow topic, and, reportedly obtaining a boxing encyclopedia, spent weeks boning up on it. Born with a photographic memory, Brothers memorized what must have been every single obscure amount of information about boxing.

Brothers appeared on the show, and she did very well. Unlike many contestants of these shows, she was honest and was never coached. Unfortunately for the producers, she wasn't seen as popular by the sponsors or good for ratings, so they decided she had to be bounced off. They tried to stump her, but they failed. Brothers eventually won the grand prize of $64,000, the first woman to have won it. She went on to rake in another $64,000 on Question's spinoff series The $64,000 Challenge. From there she became a major media figure dispensing advice in newspapers and books, and on radio and television.

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 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.

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