Remembering Howard Sterns Dad, Ben, Who Died Last Month at 99

Howard Stern’s return to his SiriusXM morning show after a summer off the air arrived with news that his father, Ben Stern, died recently at the age of 99, shortly after his July birthday.

“My father, as it turned out, had prostate cancer and it has metastasized to his bones,” revealed Howard, who waxed nostalgic about his father’s love for “fountain pens” and “his desk.” For Ben’s final birthday on earth, he ate his favorite meal — Nathan’s hot dogs. Howard also spoke of his father’s “secret” glass eye, a “handicap” about which Ben refused to discuss.

“You didn’t ask my father anything,” said Howard. “He could blow up.”

“I’m sad about it, I am,” said Howard of his father’s death. “My family is very strange. I’ve given you glimpses and I’ve always made jokes about it. But I remember I went to my mother and I said to her, ‘Mom, I think you should go visit dad at the hospice — he’s dying.’ She’s like, ‘No, no, I’m not going.’ She didn’t want to go. I said, ‘You’re going to regret this. You should go. Do it for me.’ That still didn’t move her.”

Eventually, Stern’s daughter, Ashley, a nurse practitioner, convinced Howard’s mother, her grandmother, to go.

“My mother got dressed, she went over to see my dad, spent an hour over at the hospice. A couple of hours later, my father was dead.”

I don’t remember the first time I heard the voice of Ben Stern, who was a looming figure on the radio show as well as its host’s life, but I must have been around 12. My peers at the time were preoccupied by Tiger Beat and Matt Dillon (though I appreciated those, too), but as a kid of the ’70s, an era of liberalism when it came to the movies, TV series and radio shows, my pruning adolescent brain was exposed to things far beyond my years, thanks in large part to Howard.

My father was a Boston-area public school teacher. There was no money for a nanny or steady babysitter and it didn’t really matter. Back then, parents took their kids places. I was four when I went to see “Annie Hall” and “Saturday Night Fever” in the movie theater, my sneakers sticking to caked Coca-Cola on the Loews’ red cement floor. Tavares and the Bees Gees echoed throughout our split-level home, the crackle and hiss of Motown records was the soundtrack of second grade. By the time Howard Stern’s radio show launched its 20-year run on terrestrial radio in 1985 — after a 3-year stint at New York’s WNBC (from which Stern was infamously canned, chronicled hilariously in the movie “Private Parts”), I was not yet wearing a bra, but I was a seasoned expert in adult fare. 

It was my dad who introduced me to the Howard Stern Show. We listened during the car ride to Hebrew school, the windows rolled down on his Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. When Stern landed a TV show during the heyday of E! Entertainment, we watched him there, too. And when he moved to satellite in 2006, my dad followed, ponying up for a subscription to SiriusXM.

We loved the Wack Pack, we loved Robin Quivers, but it was that undercurrent of familiarity in Howard’s stories about his dad, and Ben’s stories about Howard, that enthralled us to the point of intractable fandom. 

My dad and I have always been close. We were born a day and 31 years apart, Piscean twins to the core. Perhaps my dad and I saw a reflection — a familial recognition — of our relationship in that of Howard and his father. Ben was a New York Jew with Polish roots who worked as a sound engineer. My father was also the progeny of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. “Papa,” my paternal grandfather, owned a five-and-dime store in Somerville, Mass. and moonlit as a wedding and b’nei mitzvah photographer. Howard’s mother is named Ray; my grandmother’s name was Reina (coincidence, but a parallel nonetheless). While Howard was in constant search of his father’s approval, openly chronicling the complicated emotional dance in which he and Ben were engaged, my father did not share the same experience. “My father never missed a single one of my softball games,” says my dad. 

But like most post-Holocaust American Jews, there was collective generational trauma — as well as personal tragedies, from death to drug addiction — that acted as a connective tissue between Howard and Ben Stern and the families tuning in to listen. Recordings of Ben yelling at Howard, “Sit down, shut up, you moron!” will forever go down as one of the most memorable soundbites in the history of American radio, its culminating effect on Howard’s self-esteem nothing short of Kafkaesque.

In a 1994 segment, Stern played tapes of his father asking him — at age nine — whether the United States should remain a member of the United Nations. “Yes, I really do,” Howard answered. “There should be peace in all the countries and then we wouldn’t have any war. ‘Cuz we don’t want the Japs anymore.” Stern, again nine years-old, cackles hard. In turns, Ben admonishes young Howard: “I told you not to be stupid, you moron!” 

Various iterations of that same refrain, a Grecian chorus of disfavor, reverberated throughout my grandparents’ house and in my own childhood home as well. My grandfather said it; my father said it–though he insists it was forever meant as a joke. I’m more partial to the word “jerk,” which I’ve occasionally called my own teenage kids during spells of parental frustration. It’s not behavior of which I’m proud, but I understand it for what it is: affection expressed through neurosis and angst.

On the air, Howard Stern has noted countless times that he never once felt his father didn’t love him. In adulthood, they were best friends. But where raising children was concerned, Ben Stern, said Howard, “never had a sense of fun.” Foolishness, joking around — neither were abided. This is a sweeping legacy of baby boomers and, to an extent, their Generation X offspring. And it’s that longing ache for paternal acceptance that no doubt shaped Stern’s infinite capacity to plumb the soulful depths of the subjects he’s interviewed in a way no other talk show host ever could. 

Stern’s impersonations of his parents, especially as they grew elderly and infirmed, are not only comic genius, but Shakespearean in their psychological excavation of parent-child dynamics. The brutality of watching one’s parents age — decay of body and mind — has been a recurring theme in Stern’s on-air commentary these past several decades. As my own father inches deeper into his eighties, these stories become ever more poignant — the memory loss, the poor hearing. 

Years ago, Ben and Ray Stern could not figure out how to “work the machine,” the computer that Howard bought for them. It remains one of my favorite all-time bits, namely because my father is at constant war with the ancient Dell desktop in his home office. For reasons that remain unclear, the computer is connected to the room’s light switch. More than once, I have made the mistake of clicking off that switch, an explosion of static and fuzz flickering across the monitor. Every single time, my father becomes apoplectic. Every single time, my father has called me a “moron.” And as he rants and raves, frantic phone calls to physicist cousins and relatives with advanced degrees in computer science are made, followed by the inevitable realization that all one must do is click on the light switch and press the computer’s start button. 

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