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The Last Laugh Robin Quivers' book reveals an enigma and her Baltimore upbringing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The line of people waiting to see Robin Quivers on a sunny Saturday afternoon, almost 1,000 people strong, is one long visual introduction to the demographics of "The Howard Stern Show." Want to know who listens to the world's most famous shock jock? Here they are, mostly young, mostly white, men and women who love the self-appointed King of All Media and, by extension, his queen. They made his radio show No. 1, his book No. 1, and put Quivers' new book on best-seller lists the week it was released.

It is a polite crowd, a clean-cut crowd, waiting patiently with copies of "Quivers" tucked under arms, or pressed against chests. Some tattoos and denim jackets, but suspenders and button-down shirts, too. "You want to know who listens to me?" Howard Stern asked recently on his radio show, annoyed because a British newspaper had anointed Rush Limbaugh No. 1. "Every white man age 25-54."

Here's one of them. "I've been dying to meet you," Richard Care shouts in Quivers' face when his turn finally comes. The 29-year-old Philadelphia landscaper had been outside this Washington bookstore since 2 a.m., waiting for just this moment. He's the kind of fan that makes security guards huddle a little closer, but Ms. Quivers seems delighted.

"I've been dying to meet you, too," she says. And to his joy, she laughs! The Laugh, the same one that bubbles up at Howard's jokes about Selena, or sex, or men with peanut butter jars stuck to their anatomy. The Laugh, which Ms. Quivers' first radio mentor, John Jeppi of the Broadcasting Institute of Maryland, told her to lose if she wanted to make it in the business. But Ms. Quivers, whose Baltimore childhood was no laughing matter, couldn't stop her nervous giggle.

If you love Robin Quivers, you love The Laugh. If you hate her, the trademark sound is a tittering opprobrium, egging Mr. Stern on in his pursuit of racist, sexist or insensitive remarks. It is her essence, utterly distinctive and almost impossible to render in print. In "Quivers," The Laugh's owner settles for "Ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha." Which is like saying Beethoven's Fifth Symphony begins: "Da, da, da, dah."

The sidekick's success

Today, Ms. Quivers, 42, barely stops laughing. With a best-selling book and capacity crowds at every stop of her book tour, she has reason to be in a good mood. Her appearances to promote "Quivers" may not spark the near-riots generated by Howard Stern's "Private Parts" tour in 1993, but she's packing them in. Not bad for a woman sometimes dismissed as a mere sidekick.

Sidekick. She uses the word herself, in "Quivers," but is disdainful when others use it. She may have a point. Would Ed McMahon draw this kind of crowd? Paul Shaffer? Tonto? Doubtful. So why Robin Quivers? Why does Howard Stern's popularity and celebrity accrue to her as well?

"She gives that added spice that makes the whole show work," says Roslyn Esch, 21, a nursing student at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

"She's the intellectual backbone of the show," offers Melinda Care, Richard's very understanding wife, who has driven him here and now must drive the 150 miles back to Philadelphia. "She keeps Howard in line."

"She's the hardest one to get to," says Mr. Care, scanning the crowd in hopes some other member of the Stern radio family will show. Maybe Stuttering John Melendez, or writer Jackie

Martling, or producer Gary Dell'Abate. "She's an enigma."

Well, she was.

Howard Stern: "They had to anesthetize him below the waist. Did you read Robin's book? She was in worse shape after her 8th birthday."

Robin Quivers: "But I wasn't anesthetized."

Howard Stern: "You probably wished you were anesthetized."

-- From "The Howard Stern Show," May 12, in a discussion about a man who needed surgery to have a peanut butter jar removed from his body.

Howard Stern and Robin Quivers have been together for 14 years. But as Mr. Stern prattled about his wife and his parents, his bodily functions and sexual proclivities, Ms. Quivers told radio audiences relatively little about her life.

Then, after the astonishing success of "Private Parts," publishing executive Judith Regan offered Ms. Quivers the chance to bob in Stern's wake. Whip up something light and frothy, she was advised -- a few anecdotes about Mr. Stern, some funny stories about work.

Instead, Ms. Quivers chose to write a memoir in the latest twist on the "Mommie Dearest" tradition: I'm famous/My parents were rotten. It's a competitive field, peopled with practitioners such as Roseanne, but Ms. Quivers comes up with a trifecta in the abuse sweepstakes: sexual, physical and emotional.

Now her revelations are fair game for jokes on "The Howard Stern Show." Ms. Quivers doesn't care.

"Everyone is so afraid of telling. It's ridiculous for everyone to be sitting with these lumps in their chest," she says in a telephone interview from her New York office.

"For a long time, I thought it was wrong for me to tell my story because I fought myself out of it. My father didn't get to go the whole way because I decided to take a stand. But it doesn't matter whether you start it or stop it -- you lose your parents and you get a whole lot of mixed signals about your life. There is real work that is supposed to be done in childhood. When your parents are being inappropriate, you don't get it done."

Books like these are often gauntlets, flung down to announce the beginning of the end of a relationship. Yet "Quivers," for all its searing passages, comes at a time when the author has ended a six-year estrangement and reconciled with her parents. Will the book damage this mended relationship? Did Ms. Quivers ask her parents' blessing to be so candid?

"It's my story," she says shortly. "I didn't think they had a blessing to give."

There wasn't much romance in my parents' coming together, and not a lot of beauty or expectations either.

-- From "Quivers"

The life of Robin Quivers, as told by Robin Quivers, has an almost Dickensian scope. The second child of Charles, a Bethlehem Steel worker, and Louise, a sometime maid, she was born in August 1952.

"I was the one who came after they married. I was the one they planned," she writes. "After spending a few years with them, I was fond of saying they brought the wrong baby home from the hospital. The only problem with that theory is that I was born at home."

A 'dirty little secret'

At first, home was an apartment in Cherry Hill. At Mrs. Quivers' insistence, the family moved to Park Heights in Northwest Baltimore, putting $200 down on a brick rowhouse in 1958.

In her book, Ms. Quivers mocks her mother's dream house -- "a cramped three-bedroom rowhouse in the middle of a block on a dead-end street" -- but it was a solidly middle-class neighborhood at the time and a significant step up from Cherry Hill. Even today, the Quivers' block has the look of a place managing to hold its own amid the rundown homes and drug-riddled streets of the Park Heights neighborhood.

To the outside world, Ms. Quivers says, her family looked perfect. So perfect that social workers placed foster children with the family. But inside the little house, according to "Quivers," a cycle of violence had begun. Father beat mother. Mother beat daughter. She says her brother coped by submitting, while she fought back.

"In this meat locker [mother] called a home . . . mother and father were at the top of the food chain -- cannibals who, with no other food source in sight, began to eat their young," Ms. Quivers writes. "And soon, in the silent confines of my mother's pretty little dream house, my father and I would be keeping our own dirty little secret."

Break the skin, break the skin, I urged myself, and it worked because he abruptly stopped laughing and with one powerful thrust pushed me off him. . . . My teeth marks were clearly visible, but I hadn't broken the skin.

"Why are you trying to hurt me?' my opponent demanded, a puzzled look on his face.

"Because you're hurting me!" I snarled at him.

"Oh, okay," he conceded. "Just don't tell her."

"Fine," I hissed as I stalked past. "Fine. I won't tell Mother, Daddy!"

-- From "Quivers"

Even if you don't listen to Howard Stern, even if you have managed to live your entire life without watching Oprah, Geraldo, Jerry, Richard, Sally, Ricki, et al., you see that line coming from a mile away. You know who the "opponent" is.

Ms. Quivers says she was 11 when she decided to resist her father, who had been kissing and caressing her for months. A lifelong boxing fan -- she once arrived at a New York book party in silk robe and gold boxing gloves -- she couches the story in the language of the ring. Even with the rhetorical flourish, the revelation is all too predictable. It's not Ms. Quivers' fault, of course, that such stories are common now. But why write about her life, when HarperCollins would have been content with a bubbly, happy book?

"I thought, it's time for people like me to make it clear that it's OK. All we ever see is people who are trying to use their abuse -- the Menedezes, the Susan Smiths," she says. "We're all out there and a lot of us don't kill our parents."

Once beyond her childhood, Ms. Quivers' story turns into a quintessential '70s tale, a search for self that takes her from Baltimore to California, from nursing to the Air Force to radio and, eventually, into therapy.

She was 28 when she enrolled in the Broadcasting Institute of Maryland in 1980. Old to be just starting out in radio, she nevertheless emerged quickly as the star student of her class.

"I think the minute she walked in, it was a love-at-first-sight thing," Mr. Jeppi recalls. "And I don't ever make any staunch solid predictions when a student comes in here."

Yet, while Mr. Jeppi counseled Ms. Quivers on her career choices, he knew little of her personal life. It is her talent, he says, to make you feel as if you've known her all her life. He ## didn't really know her until he read her book.

"I was getting to know her for the first time and that was the neat thing." he says. "I didn't know about her family. The point is, how in the world can someone know something like that?"

Robin (after reading an item on childbirth for women in their 40s): "So I could still be a mother."

Howard: "I would get a court order. . . . Trust me, you would not be a good mother."

From "The Howard Stern Show," May 16

Louise Lula Quivers sleeps in the rear bedroom of the brick rowhouse where her family has lived for almost 40 years. It is Robin's old room. When she wakes in the morning, she turns on the radio and lies in bed, listening to her daughter banter with Howard Stern.

Years ago, when Mr. Stern and Ms. Quivers started working together in Washington, he used to call Mrs. Quivers. Ask her what she was wearing, or what she was doing. She played along. Even her daughter admits her mother was good on the radio, but she asked Mr. Stern to stop calling her. That was the beginning of their estrangement, the years without any contact at all.

Now "Quivers" has brought Mrs. Quivers back to the show, somewhat indirectly. She is not altogether pleased.

"I gave that girl a whipping and she calls it abuse," Mrs. Quivers says, sitting in the living room of her Northwest Baltimore home. "And you see what happens today to the ones who don't get a whipping, who don't get chastised. They're outside on the street corners, getting killed."

The sexual abuse may have happened, she concedes. But her husband has Alzheimer's disease now, and can barely remember that his daughter has written a book. Her son, Charles Jr., might be able to shed some light on what happened, but he won't talk at all. "Let it go," he has advised his mother. "Let it go."

She says she doesn't want to talk about the book, then leans forward in her chair and talks about it some more. There are clearly grievances here, but the origins are murky. Is it money, a frequent topic in Mrs. Quivers' conversation? Did she simply want her say in her daughter's book? Or is she aggrieved at the use of family photographs in a book she dislikes?

Her gaze is direct and formidable. One can imagine her calling Quivers a no-good imp'kin devil, as she does in the book.

Another question: Did her husband beat her?

"I don't take no beatings," Mrs. Quivers says.

This is a loser's game, trying to get to the truth of what happened here. One witness won't talk, another can't. Neighbors never knew, Ms. Quivers writes, because the family was successful at keeping up appearances. "All lies," her mother says.

Her two families

Ms. Quivers, whose statements about her family recently passed muster in an on-air lie detector test, says: "I have two families. My original family, which looks OK, but is dysfunctional. My radio family looks dysfunctional, but functions very well. We can talk to one another."

And when the examiner in the lie-detector test asked if she hated her mother, Ms. Quivers' "No" was deemed truthful.

Ms. Quivers gave a draft of her book to Howard Stern and worried over whether he would approve. Her mother did not see it until after it was published. Again, she complains about the family photographs in the book, snapshots of the family in seemingly happy moments.

But is she proud of her daughter?

"Oh, yes," she says. "She wouldn't be where she is today if it weren't for the way I raised her."

Robin: "Apparently, six white people go into a room and decide what I can say."

-- "The Howard Stern Show," May 15, scoffing at a critic.

A program director with a hunch introduced Howard Stern to Robin Quivers. Just as Ginger Rogers did whatever Fred Astaire did, but backward and in heels, Ms. Quivers followed Mr. Stern's lead, anticipating his changes, his quirks, his moods. Within weeks, they had made a pact to stick together, and they have more or less kept it all these years.

"Most people don't have marriages like this," Ms. Quivers says of her instant and ongoing rapport with Mr. Stern.

From the beginning, their pairing has been integral to the show. Fans say she is his ultimate audience, the civilizing factor, the only woman in a room in which female listeners make pilgrimages, eager to strip for the King of All Media. Ms. Quivers ++ likens herself to Wendy and the Lost Boys, although her Peter Pan needs a lot more than just his buttons sewn on.

Detractors have their theories, too. Ms. Quivers is a token. She is filled with self-loathing -- for her race and her gender. She does it for the money. Adherents of the last theory seem surprised, even horrified, when told she genuinely seems to love and respect Howard Stern.

For one who is neither fan nor foe, Ms. Quivers has another explanation.

"It's just a little radio show," she says. "Howard is not the president of the United States. We're like Archie and Edith Bunker." Later, she changes the analogy slightly. Howard is Archie; she is the black next-door neighbor.

Well, to continue Quivers' own analogy, Mrs. Jefferson moved on up to the East Side and Edith was killed off when "All in the Family" became "Archie Bunker's Place." What's her future with Howard Stern? Is she going to play herself if there's a "Private Parts" movie? Is Robin Quivers ever going to go solo?

She is coy about such questions. However, her one-time mentor, John Jeppi, believes her horizons are unlimited.

"I could see her on '60 Minutes,' " he says. Sure, with Stuttering John filling in for Mike Wallace. "She could do anything."

Recently, on "The Howard Stern Show," Mr. Stern consulted his own version of a Magic Eight Ball to determine his career prospects. Would he go to late-night television? Would he make a movie?

The real answers to these questions matter as much to Ms. Quivers as they do to Mr. Stern, of course. If he leaves radio, does the pact still hold? Would they still be together? Neither Mr. Stern, nor the Eight Ball, seemed to know.

Then Mr. Stern asked the Magic Eight Ball: "Will I get together with that Russian playmate who was on the show today? Did Robin show you the places where her father fondled her?"

And the Eight Ball's answer was drowned out by Robin Quivers' laugh: "Ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha."

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