Fame was never her intent, Dr. Joyce Brothers often said.
She was not yet 30, new to stay-at-home motherhood and struggling to help her husband stretch his pay as a medical resident when she came up with an ambitious plan: Transform herself into a boxing expert and try out for "The $64,000 Question," a popular 1950s television quiz show. "Gee, a loser on those shows gets a Cadillac," she once recalled, "and I could be a loser."
Instead, she won big and used her instant celebrity to establish a new media specialty — pop psychology.
Brothers went on to become a household name, ministering to America's collective psyche via TV, radio, magazines and newspapers. Part of her popularity stemmed from her engaging on-screen presence and willingness to publicly address what were then borderline taboo subjects, such as sexual fulfillment and infidelity.
It was a jarring and significant achievement in mid-20th century America, when television's fictional couples were still portrayed as sleeping in separate beds. By showcasing her psychological expertise on NBC as early as 1958, she paved the way for others in her field to carve out careers on television and ultimately helped demystify and popularize psychology.
Brothers, who held a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University, died Monday of respiratory failure after a long illness. She was 85 and lived in Fort Lee, N.J.
"She was the first to open up the public airwaves to private feelings. There was no one like that," Ron Simon, curator of the Paley Center for Media in New York, said in 2006 in the Bergen County, N.J, Record. "Now, so many programs deal with these intimate matters."
Before she could jump from the halls of academe to pioneer what became known as "media psychology," Brothers had to pitch herself to "The $64,000 Question."
The game show liked to feature contestants who seemed at odds with their area of expertise, so the exceedingly feminine psychologist claimed to be an authority on boxing.
When producers bought it, she spent a few weeks turning herself into an expert, watching the "Greatest Fights of the Century" series and tracking down issues of the boxing magazine the Ring.
"I just read everything," she later said.
Although she quickly established herself as a formidable contestant in the fall of 1955, show sponsor Charles Revson — head of cosmetics company Revlon — didn't like what he saw. She wouldn't wear makeup, and he wanted her off the air.
Producers instructed her to lose at the $16,000 level, but she refused to buckle, she told The Times in 1981.
"They were going to knock me out with impossible questions, but they didn't," Brothers later recalled. "I'd memorized everything it is possible to know on the subject."
For instance, she was asked to give the full name of the Marquess of Queensberry (John Sholto Douglas), known for the rules of boxing; and the length of the 1923 Jack Dempsey-Luis Firpo bout (3 minutes, 57 seconds).
By December, she had won the top prize. Two years later, Brothers returned to win another $70,000 when she took on a group of former prizefighters on "The $64,000 Challenge," a spinoff of the original show.
Her winnings equaled about $1 million in today's dollars, "enough to promise myself I'd never do anything I didn't want to again," she later said.
When the scandal over quiz-show rigging erupted in 1959, Brothers' honesty was documented. Summoned to testify, she "survived unscathed," The Times reported in 1981. They "asked me boxing questions all day long and I got every one right," Brothers said.