Jean Nidetch had a secret.
It was 1961, and the overweight New York housewife seemed to be following the diet recommended by a city obesity clinic. But at night, her family none the wiser, she would slip into the bathroom, lock the door and gorge on cookies stashed in the clothes hamper.
She had to tell someone. So she gathered six friends, all overweight women, in her Queens living room, where they confessed their food sins, talked through the hunger — and shed pounds. Friends brought friends and, within two months, 40 women were crowding into her home weekly to hold one another accountable.
It was the informal beginning of Weight Watchers — the global organization that enrolled millions of disciples and begat cookbooks, mobile apps and food products. To this day, Weight Watchers holds more than 36,000 weekly weight-loss meetings modeled on those in Nidetch’s living room.
Nidetch, the co-founder and vivacious public face of the organization, was 91 when she died of natural causes Wednesday at her home in Parkland, Fla., said her son, David Nidetch.
In a statement Wednesday, Jim Chambers, president and chief executive of Weight Watchers International Inc. called Jean Nidetch “an inspiration and an innovator who leaves behind a legacy and program that has positively impacted the health and well-being of millions of people around the world.”
Nidetch, a blunt-speaking bottle blonde who described herself to The Times in 1977 as “just another former fat housewife,” struggled with her weight from a young age.
She was born Jean Evelyn Slutsky on Oct. 12, 1923, in New York City, the daughter of a cabdriver and a manicurist. Nidetch weighed 7 pounds 3 ounces at birth, but grew into a chubby child.
“I’m sure that my compulsive eating habits began when I was a baby,” she wrote in “The Story of Weight Watchers,” her 1970 memoir. “I don’t really remember, but I’m positive that whenever I cried, my mother gave me something to eat. I’m sure that whenever I had a fight with the little girl next door, or it was raining and I couldn’t go out, or I wasn’t invited to a birthday party, my mother gave me a piece of candy to make me feel better.”
She struggled to squeeze out from underneath a school desk during a fire drill. She tried fad diets and pills, to no avail.
Nidetch graduated from Girls’ High School in Brooklyn and briefly attended City College of New York before dropping out after her father died.
In 1947, after a two-year courtship that revolved around dining out together, she married Marty Nidetch, wearing a size 18 dress with the sides let out.
By 1961, Nidetch, a mother of two boys, was 5 feet 7 and weighed 214 pounds. While Nidetch was shopping at the supermarket one day, a woman asked when her baby was due. She wasn’t pregnant.
The embarrassing encounter was a wake-up call. Nidetch started going to an obesity clinic sponsored by the New York City Board of Health and followed simple nutritional tips: More fruit and vegetables. Skim milk. Fish and lean meat. And don’t skip meals.
And, although secretly she ate her beloved chocolate-covered marshmallow cookies in the bathroom, she began losing weight.
But she found she also needed emotional support and an outlet for confessing her food weaknesses. Thus began the living room meetings.
She dropped 72 pounds. The meetings grew and grew. In 1963, she and her husband — along with Felice and Albert Lippert, an overweight couple who had attended her gatherings — founded Weight Watchers and began sharing the guidelines that helped her trim down.
By 1968, Weight Watchers had gone public and made its founders millionaires. The gregarious Nidetch traveled the world preaching the group’s tenets and receiving a rock-star welcome from her slimmed-down disciples.
She appeared on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson,” and when the company celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1973, 16,000 people attended a party at Madison Square Garden with Bob Hope on stage.
In 1978, along with the Lipperts, she sold the company to H.J. Heinz Co. for about $71 million, according to the Associated Press. The company kept her as a spokeswoman, and she remained Weight Watchers’ most recognizable public face for years.
Weight Watchers dedicated its flagship center in New York City as the Weight Watchers Jean Nidetch Center in 2013, the company’s 50th anniversary. Then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared March 25, 2013, Weight Watchers Founder Celebration Day, according to the company.
Nidetch also established scholarship programs at UCLA and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
She spent her last years in a Florida senior citizens home. In 2011, when she was 87, she told a reporter that she still weighed 142 pounds — her goal weight from decades before.
She told the reporter that her advice to dieters remained simple: “Drop the damn fork!”
Her marriage to Marty Nidetch ended in divorce in 1971; he died in 2003. A second marriage lasted only a few months.
Besides her son, David, Nidetch is survived by three grandchildren. Her son, Richard, died in 2006.