A Stern Upbringing
11/01/1993 at 01:00 AM EST
RAY STERN, THE 65-YEAR-OLD MOTHER of radio talk show host Howard Stern, sits in her spotless kitchen in Rockville Centre, N.Y., answering some of the more outrageous charges in Sonny's best-seller, Private Parts. Howard claims in the book, for example, that Ray once offered her then young son her panties after he ran out of clean underwear. "I never gave him my underwear," says Ray with a straight face. "That is an untruth."
At this point, Ben, Howard's 70-year-old father, weighs in with an explanation. "If he said he had enough underwear as a kid, then you wouldn't be howling," says Ben, a retired engineer. "Everybody has enough underwear. But it is true that Howard developed a lot of gas as a child. Did he write about how we were in the theater once and I told him to go into the corner and relieve himself of his gas?"
Welcome to the House of Stern, where intimate family secrets, no matter how embarrassing, are eagerly revealed, even to strangers. It is just that blend of raw honesty and chutzpah that has made Private Parts, already in its seventh printing, one of Simon & Schuster's fastest-selling books in recent memory, with more than a million copies printed in less than two weeks. Consequently, Stern—whose raunchy, in-your-face syndicated radio show reaches 3 million listeners daily in 14 markets, including New York City, Philadelphia and Los Angeles—has become something of a media superstar as he pushes his 446-page autobiography-cum-manifesto wherever he can. Two weeks ago, 15,000 fans, many of whom had camped overnight in the cold, greeted their foul-mouthed idol at a book signing in midtown Manhattan and had to be contained by mounted police. Four days later, Stern attracted another 10,000-plus throng near Wall Street that had some people happily waiting up to six hours for his autograph. "I was really thrilled, because the book is getting a life of its own," says Stern. "I think what's happening now is that I'm gaining new fans. My audience is genuinely happy that I have a best-seller because for so many years people put them down for listening. It's like we've all been vindicated."
In Private Parts, Stern, 39, delves into his childhood, which was marked, he says, by a verbally abusive father with a predilection for calling him moron. Ben says his son is exaggerating, but Howard, seated next to his father in the family den, defends himself: "One day I made the mistake of saying to my father, 'Gee, I want to be on the radio. I'd like to be a millionaire.' He yelled, 'You idiot! You don't know-any thing about money! You never worked a day in your life!' But that's just his way of relating. I never fell unloved. I just fell like an idiot."
Now that Howard has become a success, Ben has changed his tune. "Everything I do is wonderful," says Howard. "He came to the signing, and I'm sitting there autographing books, and he says, 'Boy, you sign fast! I could never sign that fast. You have a fantastic signature!' I'm going, 'I'm not a moron anymore.' It was very gratifying."
Just as gratifying, says Howard, is raising a family. He and his wife of 15 years, Alison, a part-time clinical social worker, have three daughters, Emily, 10, Debra, 7, and Ashley, 8 months. Though he doesn't resort to name-calling, Howard considers himself a, well, stern daddy. "I see a lot of parents go completely overboard with their kids," he says. "Every bowel movement is bronzed. I think those kids grow up really screwed up—like Cody Gifford." He is referring, of course, to Kathie Lee and Frank's 3-year-old son, who has been lionized on his mother's syndicated TV talk show. "Cody will turn on his mother," says Stern. "I pray for that day. I predict when he's 15 or 16, he'll bail out, reject Kathie Lee and be the ultimate rebel."
But Howard, whom Alison, 39, describes as a "very caring father," has his own child-rearing worries. "Can you imagine the jerks I'm going to have to deal with when they start dating?" he asks. "Thai's one thing that's really going to bug me. No. 2: I know what scuzzballs guys are, because I'm a guy, and all I ever tried to do was get girls in bed, and then I'd dump them. So I can imagine the emotional pain my daughters are going to go through with men. Hopefully they'll meet Prince Charming, but God knows where he is."
For now, though, his three girls arc living in suburban bliss, courtesy of a loving dad who earns a reported $2 million a year. (In addition to his radio show, Howard also does a weekly cable show, The Howard Stern Interview, on E! Entertainment Television.) Stern and his family live in a contemporary house only 15 minutes from Ben and Ray. His only flaw as a parent, says Alison, is the little time his schedule allows for the children. "He says to me all the time, just want to retire. Let's take the kids and go live in Vermont or Arizona. I can't take it,' " says Alison, who usually lucks her husband into bed around 8 every night so he can wake up at 4 a.m. to do his morning drive-time radio show. "And I'm like, 'Yeah, right.' I see him becoming more of a workaholic, more famous."
Howard's twisted quest for fame began with puppets. In the '60s, when the Sterns were living in Roosevelt, N.Y., Ray had an idea that she hoped would mold her son into the ideal man. "I wanted him playing with dolls," she says. "If he played with [girl's] dolls, that certainly would not have been good. But if he played with marionettes, that was a form of playing with dolls, and I thought it was important for a boy to
have that aspect in his life. I like a sensitive type of man."
Her plan almost worked, except that Howard turned into a sensitive pornographic type of man. "The marionettes became The Perverted Marionette Show," Howard says. "I took something so innocent and beautiful and really just ruined it. My parents weren't privy to the dirty performances. My friends would beg me for puppet shows." Howard's Raunch and Judy marionettes engaged in pretend group sex and other unprintable acts. "I would have taken the whole stage and wrapped it around your head if I had known," says Ben. "Imagine putting on a perverted puppet show in my basement."
Howard's older sister, Ellen, now 43, didn't join his underground movement; she was far less mischievous and, therefore, the apple of her father's eye. "Listen to me," says Ben. "Say you have two kids. One doesn't bother you and the other one docs. Who are you going to favor?"
In 1972 Howard graduated from South Side High School in Rockville Centre and enrolled at Boston University, where he met Alison and also got his first radio job, at the college station. He was fired the first day for airing a racially charged ski I titled Godzilla Goes to Harlem. After graduating magna cum laude in 1976 with a degree in communications, he landed jobs at stations in Detroit, Hartford and Washington, where his lewd material (cracking jokes about Alison's real miscarriage and doing his Lesbian Dial-a-Date skit) helped boost the ratings there. Despite his success in D.C., the station canned him in 1982 after a contract dispute. He moved next to New York City's WNBC-AM but was sacked in 1985 because, Stern suspects, he shocked a top station executive with his Bestiality Dial-a-Dale segment. That same year he was hired by another New York City station, WXRK-FM, which has been broadcasting his show ever since. In 1990 Stern made a brief foray into over-the-air television with the syndicated Howard Stern Show, an hour joy-ride that sometimes featured the host bongo-drumming on the nearnaked rear ends of women. It was canceled in 1992.
Not surprisingly, Stern's radio show—on which he flirts graphically with naked strippers, has R-rated phone sex with callers and mercilessly insults whatever celeb is peeving him that day—has in recent years generated fines of more than $1 million for indecency infractions by the Federal Communications Commission. (The fines are being appealed.)
But the FCC isn't alone in censuring him; Howard also hears it from his wife. "Recently he was gelling a massage on the air from this exotic dancer, and I phoned in and said, 'Ugh, enough, already,' " says Alison,
whose calls are usually broadcast by her husband. "Sometimes it bothers me, and I don't hesitate to call."
Meanwhile, Howard doesn't hesitate to push the envelope of taste to—and often beyond—the breaking point. "I can't allow myself to worry about anyone else's feelings when I do that radio show," he says. "Not even Alison's. She and I have a very healthy relationship. She understands what I do." But isn't flirting with strippers a form of cheating? "Yes," he says. "It's my imaginary sex life. It's this incredible life on the radio created where I can do everything but cheat. Because what the hell else is all this fame good for if you can't see naked women?"