Behind the Bidet

Arnold Cohen wants your tushy clean. The desire took seed in the tall, polite gentleman sometime in the 1960s and has grown into a lifelong obsession. It's not weird either.

The Hollywood resident believes America should catch up with the Old World where tushies are concerned; he believes in the bidet. "It's my life's work," he says. "Changing the habits of a nation, weening us off the Charmin."

The bidet was conceived as a mere stool-mounted washtub. It was employed by Napoleon's cavaliers to cleanse their saddle-worn behinds, and then progressed to the bedrooms of fashionable French households. By the middle of the 20th Century, bidets had spread throughout Europe and parts of South America, and by the 1980s to Asia, where a new toilet-seat/bidet hybrid took hold. These days an estimated 60 percent of Japanese households contain toilet seats that squirt their users in the bum.

Whom to thank? Quite possibly Arnold Cohen. Born to a wealthy family in Brooklyn, Cohen established his own advertising firm on Fifth Avenue at age 19 — with a little help from his folks. But he was not an ungrateful child. "I invented the American bidet 45 years ago, to help my father with a literal pain in the A."

Over the course of two years, Cohen cobbled together odd parts to assemble a toilet seat that would wash and dry his father's behind. He also outfitted the apparatus with a hose that could be employed for "feminine douching and colonic irrigation."

He patented it, he says, and originally called the gizmo the American Sitzbath. He believes it can save lives. Cohen warns that Elvis's demise could be yours — citing a statistic that eight of 10 heart attacks occur on the toilet. With the help of the American bidet's soothingly invasive jet of warm water, his customers don't have to worry about straining themselves into cardiac arrest.

He began plying the device at trade shows and placing large, illustrated ads in newspapers. "Ninety-nine percent of Americans did not know what a bidet was," he says, shaking his head. It was a difficult thing to explain back then.

But in 1964 a Japanese trading company, Nichimen Jitsugyo, took notice and invited him for a visit. The firm began importing sitz baths and eventually worked up its own design catered to the country's plumbing and electrical specs as the "wash/dry seat." He was fine with that. "It's a tribute to my life's work," he says. "The more the merrier."

On a business trip a few years later, Cohen met his bride-to-be, Donna, while renting a car in Gary, Indiana. "She was a Midwest girl from St. Louis and didn't know much about the bidet. It was all exciting and new, and she loved it."

In 1971 Cohen relocated the American Bidet Company to Miami and set up an office at NE 25th Street and Biscayne Boulevard. After five years, he moved to Hollywood, where he and Mrs. Bidet raised four children. Business was never great, but they muddled along. "We lived comfortably," Cohen says. His sign in North Miami, featuring a little man riding the crest of a powerful bidet stream, became an iconic curiosity along I-95.

In Japan the device took off. In 1980 a company called Toto Ltd. spun Cohen's device off into a product called the "washlet." By 1985, according to an article in the Japan Times, there were 30 Japanese companies doing business in bidets. "They don't realize they are sitting on top of a great revelation for mankind," the newspaper quoted Cohen as saying.

These days Asian spinoffs on Cohen's doodad are among the business's top sellers. Regardless, Cohen continues to manufacture his line of bidets at his factory-store in Weston. He sells them nationwide through his Website (bidet.com) and in several major cities. But it's difficult to keep up.

Recently bidets — and sitz baths — have gone high-tech. In 2006 American manufacturer Kohler unveiled its C3 toilet seat (cleanliness, comfort, convenience). Retailing for $1300, it has front and rear nozzles plus three remote-control settings for temperature, pressure, and seat heat. Blue LEDs detect darkness and illuminate the inside of the bowl. Then there's the de-odorizer. "There's a built-in fan that draws air out of the bowl, runs it through a charcoal filter, and blows it out a rear exhaust," says Shane Allis, senior project manager for toilet seats at Kohler.

Kohler's sales have been climbing. Toto's washlet has sold in excess of 17 million. And Cohen? "My numbers are dwarfed by that," he says. "I couldn't have topped a few hundred thousand."

Mr. Bidet, as Cohen likes to call himself, is not a known entity among his competitors. Kohler's Allis recalls him from trade shows but doubts he was the first to create the first crossover toilet seat. "It was first developed, I believe, in Sweden," says Allis. "[Cohen] may have been the first American."

Angel Vega has never heard of Cohen either. The 72-year-old, who takes orders at Sofflow Bidet in Flagami, says the firm's plastic seats are manufactured in Hialeah. A guy in the warehouse connects the seats with Peruvian plumbing parts and ships them to customers who order them over the Internet. In his bathroom, Vega has a real bidet that his wife uses, but he avoids it. "In my home in Havana, my wife and mother used bidets," he says. "We had two bathrooms with bidets. Always my wife using bidet. I have never, ever used the bidet. I just don't want water going up there."

Cohen has spousal issues as well. "I'm in the process of ending a 40-year marriage," he says. "She got tired of all the attention brought on by being Mrs. Bidet." His daughter Jennifer works in the Miami Beach office. He refers to her on his Website as Ms. Bidet.

Cohen looks forward to brighter days ahead. He has begun a new advertising surge locally and in major American cities. He is perfecting a new hand-held jet stream attachment (to be used before and after romantic encounters) that he hopes will be installed in thousands of hotel rooms across the country.

"I'm also in the market for a new Mrs. Bidet," he adds, eyes twinkling.

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Calvin Godfrey