A Century of Sex Talk on the East Side

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:14

Shirley Zussman, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday, worked with Masters and Johnson, and still sees patients as a sex therapist

Upper East Side Some people's life stories write themselves, and Shirley Zussman, the 100-year-old sex therapist of the Upper East Side, is one of those people.

She was born in 1914 at the start of World War I (less than a month after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand), lived in Berlin at the height of the Cabaret era, became a protege of the original Masters and Johnson, and, now into her second century, continues to see patients in an office in the ground floor of her apartment building on E. 79th Street.

Last month, more than 50 people crowded Yefsi restaurant, a Greek place around the corner on York Avenue, to toast her birthday and, inevitably, to ask her how she's done it.

"People are struck by the fact that you've lasted," said Zussman, whose 102-year-old sister lives nearby. "I guess it's the idea that it's possible. They want to know how you do it."

Zussman will get to that in a bit. (Good genes don't hurt; her brother died recently at the age of 95.) But first, she settles into a chair in her office to look back. "I've had an easy life, really, a good life, as lives go," she says, her memory as sharp as her black-and-white striped blazer.

With the exception of Berlin, and her college years at Smith, she's a lifelong Manhattanite. Her father was a doctor, her mother a surgical assistant.

She became a therapist, and married Leon Zussman, a gynecologist. (He performed the first legal abortion in New York.) A friend told her about a lecture that William Masters and Virginia Johnson were having in New Jersey, and thought the Zussmans might be interested in their approach to sex therapy. "They were completely unknown at that point," she remembers. "We thought, yes, this is something we could do."

When Masters and Johnson decided to expand their practice into New York, the Zussmans were asked to join on, opening the Human Sexuality Clinic of the Long Island Jewish-Hillside Medical Center, where they would see hundreds of patients throughout the 1970s.

The Masters and Johnson approach was, and is, radical. Rather than spending weeks probing the psychological roots of people's relationship problems, the program was intensely practical. Couples -- and you were nearly always seen as a couple -- were given explicit, detailed homework assignments aimed at addressing their sexual problems, and asked to report back every two weeks. Patients saw a male-female therapy team, usually comprised of a therapist and a medical doctor.

The Zussmans thrived in this work, getting to know Masters and Johnson well, until Leon died, in a fluke accident during a routine CT scan, in 1981.

Since then, Shirley has maintained her therapy practice, and continues to see patients, some as young as their 20s.

At this point in the conversation, Shirley Zussman, the lovely 100-year birthday celebrant, becomes Dr. Zussman, the sex expert, and she dives right in.

"Non-orgasm was a big problem for women for years, but not now," she said, explaining that explicit sex talk in women's magazines and elsewhere has largely solved that problem. (Zussman herself was a sex columnist for Glamour for years.) Similarly, performance issues for men have been largely eradicated by Viagra.

Now, she says, the sex problem most frequently cited by couples is simply a lack of energy. "Recently, a woman said to me, I love my husband, but we're exhausted. Lack of interest is probably more prevalent than anything else right now."

Zussman, like many people who meet her, is somewhat amazed that her practice continues, and that she still sees patients at the age of 100. "I question it myself," she said. "Most of my referrals have died. Yet I still get people." Thanks to the Showtime series "Masters of Sex," interest in Masters and Johnson has been revived. Zussman was invited to the premiere of the series, and met its star, Michael Sheen. "I told him he was much more handsome than the real Masters," she said. "It was true."

Now, back to the longevity question. One key, obviously, is to stay vibrant and engaged, which Zussman does through a close following of politics (she's particularly vexed by the conflict in Gaza) and a writing group that meets once a month.

The other key to long life, says the daughter of a physician, is to avoid doctors, if at all possible. "My father used to say, 'Keep breathing and stay away from pills.'"

Shirley Zussman then grabs her iPhone and makes plans for the day ahead, one week into her second hundred years.