During the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s, questions arose as never before about formerly forbidden topics such as sex. And when millions of teenagers and parents could not find answers elsewhere, there was one thing to do: Ask Beth.
With “Ask Beth,’’ Elizabeth Winship took the venue of an advice column, often a haven for the lovelorn, and over the course of 35 years transformed it into a place readers turned for frank, detailed discussions of the day’s most delicate topics.
Syndicated at one point to 70 newspapers, the Boston Globe column made her one of the nation’s most sought-after advisers on matters such as teen sexuality.
“ ‘Ask Beth’ was the very first teenage advice column,’’ her daughter, Peg, who took over the column in 1998, wrote in January 2007, a few weeks before the last ‘Ask Beth’ was published. It was, she wrote, “the first column to treat young people with complete respect and honesty.’’
Mrs. Winship, who was married to, but never overshadowed by, longtime Globe editor Thomas Winship, died in her sleep Sunday in Rosewood Estates, an assisted-living facility in Roseville, Minn. She was 90 and had lived in Lincoln for decades before moving a few years ago to be closer to two of her children.
Contrary to the column’s title, Mrs. Winship was known to all as Liebe.
“When she became ‘Ask Beth,’ she brought to that role of giving advice years and decades of human understanding about how relationships work and what people are like,’’ said Globe columnist Ellen Goodman. “Liebe was willing to say it as it was, to be absolutely open and frank about, literally, the facts of life in an era when people were very coy and very reluctant to be honest.’’
Mrs. Winship discussed every important issue concerning sexuality, often earlier than other more tentative columnists and reporters. She wrote about sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, and birth control pills in the late 1960s, and had taken on abortion and homosexuality by 1975.
Although the question “am I normal?’’ was a frequent refrain in letters to “Ask Beth,’’ Mrs. Winship soon found herself answering specific questions about topics such as sexual intercourse among teens.
The language she used was as important as her choice of subjects. Years before words such as penis and vagina showed up on television sitcoms, she insisted on using them properly in print.
When Mrs. Winship turned the column over to Peg, who had been assisting her for several years, Globe reporter Joseph P. Kahn noted in a 1998 profile that “ ‘Ask Beth’ may single-handedly be responsible for a newsroom double standard on vulgarity. What’s proper for Beth is not necessarily proper for the news pages.’’
“Long ago I got a letter from a young man concerned about penis size,’’ Mrs. Winship said for the 1998 profile. “An editor at the Globe told me they couldn’t print that. When I asked Tom about it, he suggested I stick it in a drawer for a few months and try again. It sailed right through without a problem.’’
Mrs. Winship may have turned to her powerful husband for advice, but more often it was the other way around.
“I don’t think Tom could have been the great editor he was without Liebe at his side,’’ Timothy Leland, a former Globe managing editor, wrote in an e-mail. “That’s the simple truth. Tom depended on a lot of people for advice and counsel, but none more than Liebe. She was his compass.’’
Mr. Winship, who died in 2002, liked to call his wife “a hell of a newspaperman,’’ and once said she was “probably the greatest influence on my professional life. . . . Every personnel problem I had, I’d always take home to her.’’
Goodman said, “She also was a full partner to Tom in terms of how they saw the world and their interest in young people and their willingness to be open to social change, which is a huge part of what made the Globe such a successful and modern newspaper when Tom took over the reins.’’
“Mom and Dad,’’ their daughter added, “were known to their peers as having the most amazing marriage.’’
Born in Pittsfield, Elizabeth Coolidge was the third of four children. Her father was a chemistry professor at Harvard, and her paternal grandmother was one of the nation’s most significant patrons of classical music in the early 1900s.
Attending the Putney School in rural Vermont, “she was in the first class, which meant she had to build her dormitory,’’ said her son, Lawrence of Minneapolis.
She attended Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for two years and transferred to Radcliffe College, from which she graduated in 1943 with a bachelor’s in psychology.
While she was at Radcliffe, one of her older, twin brothers suggested that Tom Winship, his friend and Harvard classmate, should ask her out.
“I invited her to the movies,’’ he told the Globe in 1995. “She said yes, but then I got quite disappointed because she insisted on bringing her brother along with us. But I was just terribly taken with her, and we got engaged about six months later.’’
They married in 1942 and had four children.
By the early 1950s, while raising their children in Lincoln, Mrs. Winship began reviewing books for the Globe and became its children’s book editor.
Asked by editors in 1963 to try an advice column that would connect with younger readers, she found the experience changed her as much as she reinvigorated the column.
“She’d say, ‘I used to hate making phone calls, but when I’m “Ask Beth,’’ I can call anybody,’ ’’ her son said. “So it was like another persona for her.’’
In addition to her daughter and son, Mrs. Winship leaves another daughter, Joanna of Minneapolis; another son, Benjamin of Victor, Idaho; her sister, Margaret Seeger of Arlington; eight grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. tomorrow in Rosewood Estates in Roseville, Minn. Burial will be private.
Mrs. Winship also wrote travel pieces for the Globe, and her columns were collected into books such as: “Ask Beth: You Can’t Ask Your Mother.’’ She contributed to other books and frequently was asked to speak to students and organizations about teenage sexuality.
For her work, Mrs. Winship was honored by the Massachusetts Psychological Association, the Massachusetts School Psychologists Association, and the Boston Chapter of the Association for Women in Communications.
Peers in and out of the newspaper business were just as enthusiastic.
Reviewing one of her books, child psychiatrist Robert Coles pointed out in 1972 that Mrs. Winship was eager “to acknowledge the help she has received from pediatricians and psychiatrists, but not all of them have her gifts: warmth, tact, compassion, an open mind, a sense of humor, the ability to write clearly and directly.’’
In The New Yorker magazine, Roger Angell wrote in 1985: “If they awarded Pulitzers for good sense and stable judgment, she would win one every year.’’Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.