Jane and Michael Stern are professional purveyors of American kitsch. In Road Food (1978), Good Food (1983), and A Taste of America (1988), they mix regional recipes with restaurant reviews, studding both with a fanatic amount of detail. Sizing up a Cleveland, Ohio, eatery, for example, they note ”the motherly lady in a crisp uniform who is wearing the special open-toe and open-heel shoes that are the true sign of a genuine Hungarian waitress.” Then they hand over the crepe recipe. The only thing missing is a scratch-and-sniff card. Square Meals (1984), published when mung sprouts and free-range chickens were de rigueur, is a rhapsody of cooking with colloquial chemicals — Fresca cake with Maraschino icing, ham baked in Coca-Cola. Even when the Sterns are off foodstuffs, quirky and exacting tidbits are their bread and butter. Elvis World (1987), a best-seller, is a coffee-table compendium of the Smirkster so thorough that even the hardware store where he bought his first guitar gets a photo.
The Sterns’ latest offering, Sixties People, continues this tradition. It has recipes, but for people and styles this time, and the book is, as Stern readers have come to expect, overflowing with the observations of obsessive researchers. Sixties People chronicles what Michael, 43, calls ”a wondrous decade” and tells its tale in terms of its most representative characters: perky girls, playboys, surfers, the Flying Nun, the Singing Nun, American Bandstand, Elvis, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the bouffant. The Sterns resurrect these neo-nostalgic icons (even Mr. and Mrs. Average, who ordered their American Solid Maple Living Room from the S&H Green Stamps catalog, get a chapter) and define them with enough background trivia for a fleet of yuppie board games.
Much of Sixties People simply came from memory. ”We really were ’60s people,” Michael says with the ingenuous enthusiasm of a happy-face button. But to supplement their own recollections of attending demonstrations (”Mostly to pick up boys and show off my really cool fringe jacket,” Jane, also 43, says) or getting arrested at them (”It was the cool thing to do,” Michael says), the couple spent nearly a year and a half searching for firsthand accounts of the era. They sifted through tag sales, used-book stores, and flea markets for textbooks, instruction manuals, pamphlets, catalogs, and vintage magazines. They scoured the Library of Popular Culture in Bowling Green, Ohio, perused picture archives, and hired freelance researchers. ”We’re very hard on our researchers,” Jane says. ”They really have to dig.”
Sara Palmer, who once checked facts for GQ, was up to the challenge. ”People think research is so boring,” she says. ”But it’s a riot with Jane and Michael. They give me their wild questions and I apply the Dewey decimal system.” Palmer was especially successful with topless research. Ditto bomb-shelter etiquette. (If an uninvited neighbor tries to crash your shelter during bombing, advised a magazine called America, shoot him as you would any other trespasser.) Palmer’s most frustrating snag was her inability to identify the inventor of pantyhose.
The Sterns’ research tools are neatly arranged in bookcases throughout the tasteful four-bedroom home in West Redding, Conn., that Mr. and Mrs. Average would be proud to call their own. While their pet parrot, Lewis (”e-w-i-s,” Jane points out), natters on about Polly wanting crack in the adjacent den, and Gus, their brindled bullmastiff, sulks about being barred from the proceedings by a child-proof gate, the couple gives a guided tour of the booty in their living room. Everything from Ingerid’s Combing Techniques (”It shows exactly how to create a hideous hairdo!” Michael says) to Who’s Who in Baton Twirling, 1969, to an autobiography of Mr. T is organized by category: Poultry and Squab, Transvestites, Etiquette, Corporate Histories (like Come In Gas Man). The collection continues in an upstairs study with surfer albums and their liner notes, high school yearbooks, a newsletter on how to start a commune, books on Barbie (the ultimate perky girl), and a copy of The SCUM Manifesto, written by Valerie Solanas. Solanas, you may remember, was the founder of SCUM — the Society for Cutting Up Men. She got her 15 minutes — and an enforced sojourn at a state hospital for the criminally insane — for shooting Andy Warhol in 1968. ”We found 10 copies,” Michael gushes. ”We gave nine away because they make such a fabulous gift.” Back issues of Playboy and ‘Teen magazines and catalogs from Sears, Montgomery Ward, and S&H Green Stamps are veritable bibles to the Sterns because, Jane says, ”it’s the low-level magazines that really show how people lived.”
Since their first published collaboration, Trucker: A Portrait of the Last American Cowboy, in 1976, the Sterns, married in 1968, have virtually always written under a joint byline. ”Unless,” Jane allows, ”someone asks me to write something about big breasts or Michael to do something about cars. Basically, if it doesn’t have to do with an X or a Y chromosome, we write it together.” Just how does this work? ”People think we sit down to a four-handed typewriter and Michael does the nouns and I do the verbs,” she says. ”It’s not that mysterious.” Jane has her office — with a treadmill and TV. Michael has his — with tidy bookshelves and an aerial gym for Lewis. ”Jane might take the ‘Perky Girls’ chapter and I might take ‘Hippies,’ ” Michael says. ”But by the time we write a first draft, we’ve talked about it until we can’t stand to talk about it anymore, and we even have some good lines.” Once the initial copy is written, the couple hands it back and forth, ”until,” Michael says, ”we really don’t know who wrote it except that I did all the good stuff.” Jane nods, explaining, ”We each take credit for the good stuff.”
Editors have long since given up trying to differentiate one Stern style from the other. ”I can’t tell whose work is whose,” says Martha Kaplan, an editor at Knopf who has worked with Jane and Michael for several years. ”They’ve evolved a tone and style that is a perfect collaboration.”
But their paths to the printed word are as different as Patty Duke and her alter ego, Cathy. Michael works every day, usually beginning at 5 a.m. By 8:00 he’s at the gym and by 10:30 he’s home to make phone calls, lunch, and popcorn — in that order. The only variable is the popcorn. Some days it’s Orville Redenbacher; others it’s a local grocery’s Iowa import. ”I alternately use Orville Redenbacher Buttery Flavored Oil instead of corn oil,” Michael offers, unprompted. ”But if I eat the buttery oil too often I get really sick of it and can’t eat it for a month. It’s really awful stuff — but I like it. Then I put on that artificial buttery flavored salt; I don’t put real butter on it for the simple reason that my fingers get too greasy to work. I take it upstairs with a can of A&W Diet Root Beer and I’m all set for the afternoon.” He laughs at his litany. Detail, clearly, is not just a work-related phenomenon.
Jane is less methodical. ”I go for days when I don’t do anything,” she says, sipping raspberry-flavored decaf. ”Sometimes I just want to drive around in the car and think about things. Then I go through an intense writing binge.” TV, which she often watches while on her running machine, is a constant: Bewitched, Mr. Ed, I Love Lucy. She’s partial to talk shows: Oprah, Sally Jessy Raphael. ”But I only love them when it’s men who used to be women who used to be men,” she says. Like Michael, she’s also enraptured by Cops, the TV verite show that brings live-action drug busts to your home. ”I love to see what felons have on their walls,” Jane says drily, her chuckle gurgling, per usual, just below the surface. ”It’s total voyeurism, which is, I guess, what we’re into.”
It’s a pastime that pays. Trucker brought an advance of $2,500. Now, 13 collaborations later, the Sterns command advances of $300,000 per book. And they stay busy. They’re finishing up a New Yorker piece on endangered wildlife; writing The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste, a dictionary detailing the history of such curiosities as whoopee cushions and rubber dog-doo, due in October; and researching American Gourmet, a history of foodies scheduled to be published next year. They also write a weekly syndicated newspaper column, ”A Taste of America.” All of which leave Michael very little time for his pet project — to update Lewis’ popular culture vocabulary. As it stands, he’s limited to ”yabba-dabba-doo” and a mean whistling of the Andy of Mayberry theme song.