When he first heard Randy Newman's song Short People over his car radio, journalist-author Ralph (Is There Life after High School?) Keyes slammed on his brakes and decided on the spot that he would investigate the claims of Newman's tongue-in-cheek diatribe ("Short people got no reason to live..."). The result is The Height of Your Life (Little, Brown, $11.95), in which Keyes (pronounced "Kize") argues that physical stature affects, among other things, a person's income, health and psychological adjustment. At 5'7.62", Keyes, 35, is 1.38 inches below the national average for men, and admits he once wanted to be tall "so the thinning of my hair would be less noticeable." He discovered that he is taller than Woody Allen, Dustin Hoffman and Dick Cavett, who are in the 5'6" range. "Who says," he smiles, "that researching a book isn't rewarding?" The son of a retired 6'-tall University of Illinois professor and his magazine-writer wife (just under five feet), Keyes majored in history at Ohio's Antioch College. He was Bill Moyers' assistant at Newsday, then a fellow at the Center for the Studies of the Person in La Jolla before writing Is There Life after High School? Today Keyes and his wife, Muriel, also 35, live in Swarthmore near Philadelphia, where she works at a women's health center. Barbara Rowes (5'3½") got the long and short of the height issue from Keyes for PEOPLE.

Does it really matter how tall we are?

Unquestionably. To start, taller people are better paid; one study showed that annual salaries for men went up $500 with every two inches between 5'6" and 5'11", and $1,500 for the two inches above that. Another poll found that more males would rather be friends with short men than with tall men—probably because size arouses subconscious fears in us. In another study of college women, only two—both 5'11" tall—said they would date men shorter than they are. Basically, our culture associates size with strength. To be big is to be strong. To be small is to be weak.

What is the average height today?

After a century of growth, it seems to have leveled off in the last five years or so to 5'9" for men and 5'3.6" for women. Despite some predictions, we're probably not going to see an equalization in size between the sexes. If that happened there would probably be no need for ERA—such is the psychological advantage of size. Height has a profound effect on the relative position of women in society.

When do we start "sizing people up"?

From earliest childhood a small person is getting feedback, particularly from other kids who degrade him with nicknames. The natural response is to challenge the ridicule by proving them wrong. In the most positive sense, it can lead to a very active, effective adult. In the negative sense, it can produce touchy, sensitive people who always want to pick a fight and prove their strength.

Hence the Napoleonic complex?

For more than a century Napoleon has represented our favorite stereotype of the short man, but he really was not that short. He was about average for the time—5'6" or 5'7". My own theory is that he acted short. He was feisty. We assume feisty people are small people. They always have to fight to prove their value.

Who are some other famous people whose actual size may be surprising?

My favorite is Mae West, the all-time genius at presenting herself as being taller than she is. She turns out to be just a little over 5', but has been very clever in using heels and stairways to tower over men. More important, she comes off as very powerful, very domineering; she pushes men around. Since we assume strong people are big people, we take it for granted that Mae is big.

Who else looks tall, but isn't?

Jimmy Carter has claimed to be 5'10". He's recently shrunk officially to 5'9½". Frankly, I don't really think he's any bigger than I am—5'7" or 5'8". So I've challenged him to go back-to-back, and no fair tippy-toeing.

How has Carter fooled the public?

He always tries to debate sitting down when he comes up against a taller man like Gerald Ford [6']. When he can't manage that, he makes sure he and his opponent are far enough apart so you can't tell who is taller. Edmund Muskie [6'4"] looked like a good prospect for Carter's running mate in 1976 before they conferred in Plains. Carter selected a shorter Vice-President, 5'11" Walter Mondale, who's always willing to stand back and maintain the appearance of equality. Also, Carter doesn't carry himself like a little person. He walks slowly and talks softly. That's big-person behavior.

What other small men walk tall?

Robert Redford has been passing himself off as a six-footer for years, but refuses to come out and be measured. He is really about 5'9¾". If I have learned nothing else, it's never to trust anyone's word about his height. Richard Dreyfuss looked down on Marsha Mason in The Goodbye Girl, but I suspect he got some help underfoot. She's about 5'5", and though he won't say, I think he's probably no more than 5'6".

But haven't there been plenty of successful Hollywood shorties?

Sure. Fred Astaire is officially 5'9" and James Cagney 5'8" or 5'9", and both are probably shorter. Marlon Brando and Paul Newman are around 5'8". Alan Ladd was closer to 5'4" but made it as a romantic lead in the 1940s; he was officially listed during most of his career as 5'10". Next to early co-stars like Veronica Lake, only 5', he was tall. But the beginning of Ladd's end as a matinee idol came in 1957 when he was cast opposite 5'8" Sophia Loren in Boy on a Dolphin. Crates were placed under his feet and trenches dug beneath Loren. From where he stood, Ladd compared working with the voluptuous Loren to "being bombarded with watermelons."

Is height still a consideration in Hollywood?

A custom shoemaker in Los Angeles once reported that among his lift customers were Kirk Douglas, Rod Steiger, Andy Williams and Burt Reynolds. As Reynolds himself once facetiously commented: "There's not an actor in the world who isn't over six feet." The fact is that nobody on the screen seems very short because you're looking up at them in the theater. Seriously, small actors like Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino still get the girl—although sometimes they need a lift.

Is there a positive side to being short?

There is evidence that a smaller body is more efficient. It has a lower center of gravity so there is less internal pressure on the organs, less likelihood of slipping on ice. I'm told a few tall women prefer short men as lovers because they're more energetic, active and imaginative. There is an even more important quality: A small person isn't as threatening. Still, most people choose partners within their own height range.

How does our height affect success?

In the upper echelons of business there is a definite preference for taller men and women as executives. They generally are thought to look more like leaders. Employees have to look up to them—literally. Marketing professor David Kurtz of Eastern Michigan University once asked 140 sales managers whom they would choose between two equally qualified candidates. Most said they would take the taller candidate. John Kenneth Galbraith confirmed this finding. At 6'8", he explained: "People always remember the guy whose head stands above the others when they try to think of somebody for a job."

Are there occupations in which short people seem to excel?

Entrepreneurs tend to be shorter—from Andrew Carnegie to McDonald's Ray Kroc. Men of small stature excel among the self-employed. Peter Frampton, Mick Jagger and Billy Joel [in the 5'7"-5'8" range], Paul Simon [5'5"], Linda Ronstadt [5'2"], Bette Midler [5'1"] and Elton John [5'3½"] are the short people who seem to indicate that rock is a field for the small. The visual arts are represented by photographers like Alfred Eisenstaedt [barely 5'4"] and Richard Avedon [5'7½"] and painters Picasso [5'3"] and Miró [5'].

Aside from being a jockey, are there any sports for small athletes?

Gymnastics is one of the few sports with a clear advantage for smallness. Professional bowlers will tell you, "The smaller the bowler, the better the bowler." The ideal rower has a long torso, long arms and short legs.

Will society place less of a premium on height in the future?

When a Minnesota woman was asked why she didn't want Vietnamese refugees settling in her town, she replied, "I don't want short grandchildren." That says a lot about how far we have to go before we stop equating size with human value.

Are you comfortable with your height?

At this point, even if they developed a tall pill, I wouldn't take it. I'm finally satisfied being 5'7.62". Being taller would mean being more intimidating, and my wish to intimidate others has declined. I enjoy looking the world straight in the eye.