Health & Wellness

Lust for Life

At 98, pioneering sex therapist Lois Feinblatt shares what she has learned about love—and life.

“Life is so interesting, isn’t it?,” says 98-year-old Lois Blum Feinblatt. She should know. In 1966, when most women her age were stay-at-home moms, she was already a trailblazer, working in Baltimore’s department of welfare, where she screened every couple in the city who was interested in adopting a child.

“I loved it,” she says, but even five decades ago, Feinblatt—twice married, twice widowed, with three kids, two step-children, and seven grandchildren—was never one to settle. One weekend, a friend showed her a headline in The Baltimore Sun. “Hopkins to Train Housewives as Psychotherapists,” it read.

Feinblatt was intrigued, as she still often is. At almost 100, sitting on a flower-patterned upholstered chair in her spacious and art-filled north Baltimore apartment, her gray hair tucked into a bun that frames a soft face and curious blue eyes, she remains sharp and quick-witted while recalling decades-old details of her life.

Before her job with the department of welfare, Feinblatt had volunteered as a Parent Teacher Association president at a city public school and was endlessly fascinated by what she saw—the complexity and desire of the human mind. “If I had my choice then, I would have been a psychiatrist,” she says.

And suddenly, right there in the newsprint before her, was an unlikely opportunity. A program like the one advertised had been organized a few years earlier at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., which sought to train therapists drawn from what was then described as an untapped resource pool of married women.

Now Johns Hopkins wanted to do the same. The ad specified that applicants should be over 35 and have “successfully” raised a family.

More than 400 women applied. And Feinblatt, then 45 years old with three kids—Patty, 17, Jeff, 19, and Larry, 23—was one of only eight hired.

“She brought an enormous amount of life experience to her job,” says Dr. Chester Schmidt, who worked with Feinblatt for four decades. For the first two years, Schmidt, now the clinic’s medical director, was among the psychiatrists who helped train the group of eight, who immediately started seeing patients.

By 1970, hospital leadership made plans to start a first-of-its-kind clinic modeled after the work of pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who had shocked the public with candid and demystifying talk about orgasms and sexual dysfunction. When they stopped in Baltimore at the hospital to present their research, Feinblatt, who was forced to sit on top of a baby grand piano because the auditorium was so crowded, was fascinated. Later, she was asked to be part of the startup Johns Hopkins Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit, which began to see heterosexual couples in a therapy setting in which they were seen together by male and female therapists.

“It was a wonderful job from the very beginning,” Feinblatt says. “People had all kinds of sexual problems. Some people were very shy about sex, or some people had their own ideas and their wife or husband didn’t think they could go along with that. Everybody’s needs and wants are so different.”

If there is anyone who might be an expert on the secrets and nuances of love—and sex—it would be Feinblatt, a pioneering therapist who has seen four decades worth of patients: women, men, straight, gay, transgender. “She often jokes, ‘A marriage license is not like a driver’s license,’” says Dr. Chris Kraft, co-director of clinical services at what’s now known as The Johns Hopkins Sex and Gender Clinic. “You need all this training to drive a car, but you don’t have to have training to be in a relationship.”

Until fairly recently, Feinblatt continued to head to the office almost every day. “One of the biggest things going on now,” she says, “is that we have a transgender person almost every week,” a drastic change from when she started.

Indeed, Feinblatt’s career and remarkable life have spanned sweeping social changes—from the pre-birth control era to internet porn addictions, from abstinence before marriage to legal gay marriage and marrying outside of one’s religion. Years ago, when she was just 7, her uncle married a Catholic girl, and her Jewish grandmother hung blankets over the mirrors in her house as if the family was sitting shiva. “It’s so amazing how much everything has changed in my lifetime,” she says.

Feinblatt has seen and heard just about everything in matters of the head and heart, but even she hesitates to articulate the meaning of it. “Love,” she muses, “Well, it’s a difficult thing to try to get your brain around, because it’s sort of not a brain thing.”

A friend showed her a headline in The Sun: “Hopkins to Train Housewives to Be Psychotherapists.”

The start of Feinblatt’s own love story reads like a script to a romantic black-and-white movie. On a spring break from Frederick’s Hood College, then Lois Hoffberger—one of three children of Gertrude and Sam, a prominent city lawyer who was active in the Democratic party and a major shareholder and director of the National Brewing Company—met Irv Blum, six years her senior, at an engagement party held for one of his friends. The night ended at the Belvedere Hotel. There, Irv asked her to dance, their images reflecting in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors of the first-floor Charles Room. “It’s amazing,” she says. “It’s 75 years ago now, and I can remember it so well, seeing myself dancing with him.”

He drove her back to Hood in his snazzy convertible, wind whipping as they headed east through the mountains. He sang a German song, “Yours Is My Heart Alone.”

“He was being so romantic,” she says. It was practically love at first sight. With the clouds of World War II brewing, they wed in 1941 and started a family. But only eight months after Lois gave birth to their first child, Irv was overseas with the Army as the white captain of an all-black transport unit, known as the 524th Quartermaster Car Company.

It was then that the handwritten letters, addressed to “Sweetheart”—he to her, her to him—were exchanged nearly every day for the two years Irv was deployed, about 1,400 correspondences in total. On June 6, 1944—D-Day—Lois wrote: “I’m sure you know how much I have thought of you today. Although 3,000 miles apart, I know we’ve spent this most important day in our history together.”

In a letter dated three days later, addressed from “Somewhere in England,” he acknowledged the anxiety his young wife must have felt, and said he was okay. “Everyone is imbued with the idea of getting the job over with,” he wrote. In other letters, Lois, then 23, mentioned the Wives Club she was a part of and how she spent time volunteering at the American Red Cross.

“They developed an intimacy through these letters,” says Feinblatt’s daughter Patty Blum, a human-rights lawyer who is working with her mother on a book about her parents’ correspondence. “Until I started reading them, I had no concept of everything their relationship had gone through, the experiences and challenges they had as this young couple separated for close to two years, and how they maintained their intimacy despite this distance.”

Lois Feinblatt’s own love story reads like a script to a romantic black-and-white movie.

By 1945, Irv had returned from the war and gone to work at his father’s department store. When their youngest child was in second grade, Lois and Irv agreed that it might be a good idea for her to take a job to help foster their children’s independence. After nine years at the department of welfare, Feinblatt landed her dream job at Hopkins.

Although she can’t divulge any specific details about her patients, Feinblatt says some cases were as simple as correcting bad habits that had formed, while other patients struggled with more complicated issues. “Homosexuality was on the list of abhorrent behaviors in 1966, and that went on for a long time,” she says. Patients came in hoping to be cured. She saw one lesbian couple, from a conservative Pennsylvania town, for two years.

Mostly, though, she treated women having sexual intimacy issues with their husbands, including extramarital affairs. “I know we can cause ourselves a lot of unnecessary problems,” she says. It was so important, Feinblatt says, to provide a safe space where couples could actually address those problems. “You can have meals with other people, have fun with other people, or go on vacations with other people,” she says. “But marital fidelity is something that you and your partner have just with each other.” Which, of course, is where a licensed therapist comes in.

Feinblatt continued her work against the backdrop of tumultuous times, which was fitting given the liberal bent sewn into the fabric of her upbringing. She marched to help desegregate Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in 1963, was the first woman on the board at Sheppard Pratt Hospital, has since founded scholarships to the Maryland Institute College of Art, and helped to start Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Baltimore, which seeks to protect foster kids.

In 1965, Johns Hopkins Hospital drew national attention for being the first academic institution in the U.S. to perform sex reassignment surgeries. These were done in conjunction with the sex clinic, which required—and provided—two years of pre-surgery therapy. There were some staffers at the hospital who were ambivalent, at best, about the surgeries, but Feinblatt wasn’t one of them. She supported a person’s right to define their own gender, even when that was a controversial opinion.

Then again, Feinblatt was always putting her patients first. Schmidt, the clinic’s budget administrator for three decades, said Feinblatt, who was financially comfortable, donated fees she earned from patient work back to the department. “I thought it was terrific,” he says, “but I wasn’t surprised. That’s just the kind of thing she’d do.”

And the clinic gave her a lot, too, providing a much-needed professional focus when her dear husband Irv, who had been a president of the Associated Jewish Charities, died at age 58, in 1973, after becoming sick from glomerulonephritis, a kidney disease. To help her work through her grief, the clinic gave Lois more patients to help occupy her time, and she co-founded an organization dedicated to supporting adoptive families.

Three years later, she married Eugene Feinblatt, who had been Irv’s lawyer and the college roommate of her older brother Jerold (a former president of the National Brewing Company and one-time owner of the Baltimore Orioles). “I was lucky,” Feinblatt says. “I had two fabulous husbands, and such really wonderful men and interesting men. Both were important in the community, and ethical, and brilliant minds.”

Lois and Eugene were married for 15 years, until he died in 1998 from heart failure at age 78. Once again, she moved through her grief by continuing to work. A year after Eugene’s death, she started a teacher-mentoring program in the city. “Life is a challenge, and bad things happen to good people,” she says. “The best thing that can happen to you is your partner, so you at least can deal with things together. If you really think that you’re in love, you’re lucky.”

She treated women having intimacy issues with their husbands, including extramarital affairs.

Just five years ago, at age 92, Feinblatt stood on stage at Morgan State University to give a 13-minute TED Talk entitled “Choices We Make.” Making “sometimes hard or unusual choices,” she said, “is what we all must do in order to live an interesting, fulfilling, and worthwhile life. As times change, so must we.”

Today, with the aid of a walker, Feinblatt still regularly attends art exhibits, dines at the newest restaurants, welcomes company, and hosts dinner parties, as is evident by the liquor tray in her apartment. “You see her everywhere,” says Kate Thomas, another co-director of clinical services at the Johns Hopkins clinic. “She’s a Renaissance woman, and we all adore her.”

In October, Feinblatt was honored at the Open Society Institute’s 20th anniversary celebration at The Baltimore Museum of Art for her philanthropy and service to the city. Alicia Wilson, a senior vice president and legal counsel to Kevin Plank’s Sagamore Development Company, introduced Feinblatt, whom Wilson met when she was 18. “She taught me that being authentically me is the best gift I can give to this world,” Wilson said.

Sitting beside Wilson on the auditorium stage, Feinblatt took her turn at the mic. “They gave me the choice to speak or not,” she said. “I thought a few minutes, and I decided, I’m 97-and-a-half years old. . .” Applause interrupted. “I can’t depend on being asked to speak again.” The crowd broke out laughing.

As for her longevity and sharpness, Feinblatt attributes it to luck and diet. “When Birds Eye [frozen] food came out, that was a big thing that changed our family’s eating habits,” she points out. Feinblatt is often quick with a quip about her advanced age. “You don’t have many people almost 100 years old to ask [that question to],” she cracks at one point during an interview at her home. But she is also reflective.

“The two things that have made my life as good as it’s been are love and luck,” Feinblatt says. “You have to have luck, too. But I really believe that love is like a cushion. If I’d been sitting here all this time on a hard, little iron chair, I would be miserable. But love is like the cushion that’s around you, that makes you be able to think about things in a sweeter way.”