PARKLAND, Fla. – A half-century after dropping 70 pounds and keeping them off, Weight Watchers founder Jean Nidetch made some allowances: Cokes in her fridge, Klondikes in her freezer, the occasional potato or extra piece of bread on her plate. But she never again touched the chocolate marshmallow cookies she called her ultimate weakness, the treat she’d stash in the hamper and eat by the boxful in the middle of the night, all the while praying she’d choke on her next bite.
“Why would I want to see that movie again?” she asked.
Weight-loss royalty to the end, Nidetch died Wednesday at 91, her son David said. Her brainchild made her a multimillionaire, a late-night fixture, the inspiring face that could stir droves of Weight Watchers adherents to a frenzy. But she kept her vow to never be overweight again, and beamed with pride she had helped so many others do the same.
Jean Evelyn Slutsky was 7 pounds, 3 ounces, when she was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 12, 1923, to a manicurist mother and cab driver father. As a child, she remembered struggling to squeeze out from behind her desk in a fire drill, and never riding a horse on a merry-go-round, afraid of what she’d look like climbing atop it. The pounds piled on, with food her antidote for any hurt or sorrow.
Before she even reached high school, she was attempting diets of every kind. She tried fasting, eating nothing but eggs and grapefruit, mixing oil and evaporated milk and drinking it three times a day. She’d drop some pounds, then gain it back, often more. When she married Marty Nidetch on April 20, 1947, she wore a long navy dress, size 18, with the bustle and sides let out.
She was carrying 214 pounds on her 5-foot-7 frame when she went to an obesity clinic sponsored by the New York City Board of Health in 1961 and began picking up tips that slowly seemed to work.
No skipping meals. Fish five times a week. Two pieces of bread and two glasses of skim milk a day. More fruits and vegetables.
Or, as she put it more bluntly decades later: “Drop the damn fork!”
She took off two pounds the first week but disliked the way the clinic’s leader imparted information and how little the group’s members shared. So she gathered six overweight friends in her Queens living room to relay what she’d learned and talk about their own food compulsions. She found it a relief to share her struggle with others, and they did too. Nidetch reached her goal weight of 142 pounds on Oct. 30, 1962.
As the weekly meetings at her home grew to include dozens of people, two of them — Felice and Al Lippert — convinced Nidetch she had the makings of a business. Weight Watchers International was founded in 1963.
By the following year, classes were being held across New York. Franchises were opened, a cookbook sold millions and by 1968, the company went public with adherents across the globe. By the time the company celebrated its 10th birthday, 16,000 people attended a massive gathering at Madison Square Garden, Bob Hope was on stage and a snaking line of people waited for Nidetch’s autograph.
The fat housewife, as she once thought of herself, was now sitting beside Johnny Carson on television, her face staring out from boxes in the frozen food aisle. She would never be overweight again.
She felt like she’d found the Fountain of Youth. For years after, when she’d wake up, she’d reach down and feel her hipbone to make sure she was still thin. She dyed her hair blonde and styled herself as a weight-loss champion.
Nidetch travelled the world preaching Weight Watchers’ simple gospel. Along with the Lipperts, she sold the company to H.J. Heinz Co. for about $71 million in 1978. What became of her millions isn’t entirely clear. She retired to a one-bedroom apartment at an unpretentious retirement community in Parkland, Florida, northwest of Fort Lauderdale.
In a 2009 autobiography, “The Jean Nidetch Story,” she said, simply, “I’m not a millionaire anymore.” Asked in July 2011 by a reporter, she said “Maybe I am, I don’t know.”
Nidetch’s first marriage ended in divorce in 1971; Marty Nidetch died in 2003. A second marriage, to Frank Schifano in 1976, lasted just a few months before ending in divorce. A son, Richard, died in 2006.
She still earned rock-star treatment at Weight Watchers functions and said she never again topped 150 pounds. Among her few indulgences in her final years was forgoing her own advice to eat breakfast, instead sleeping in and waiting for lunch.
At her age, she said, she had earned the right.
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