By Jordan Hillier
Ralph Schoenstein (1933-2006), a longtime Princeton resident, is remembered as a Renaissance man who brought excitement and passion to all that he pursued. An author, humorist, and beloved NPR commentator, Schoenstein grew up in Manhattan, the son of the Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper editor Paul Schoenstein. His first book, The Block (1960), written after he graduated from Columbia University, is a memoir of his childhood, including daily interactions with seven friends, all of whom lived around West 78th Street before World War II.
A wordsmith with a knack for observing the sociological, psychological, and geographical nature of his family and neighborhood life, Schoenstein became a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York Daily News and Playboy. He also wrote over 18 novels and non-fiction works and ghost wrote a number of books for celebrities like Joan Rivers (Bouncing Back: I’ve Survived Everything…and I Mean Everything…and You Can Too! in 1997), Ed McMahon (Here’s Johnny! in 2005), and Bill Cosby. Ironically, one of Schoenstein’s most widely read books is one on which his name does not appear. He is the uncredited co-author of Cosby’s popular 1987 book Fatherhood. He also co-authored the 1988 follow-up, Time Flies as well as two more Cosby titles.
Schoenstein’s first article, which appeared in 1968, took the form of an undercover piece with a comedic twist. He had found his forté and it led the once quiet observer into trouble when he was arrested for impersonating a police officer at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in the summer of that same year. He also found himself out of favor with the White House because of a 1969 book about President, Lyndon B. Johnson’s dogs. My Year in the White House Dog House provoked a substantial backlash from the presidential party.
He wrote for the first issue of National Lampoon and is said to have inspired the character of Donald “Boon” Schoenstein in the film Animal House.
In addition to The Block and a biography of his father, Citizen Paul: The Story of Father and Son (1978), republished as Superman and Son (1995), Schoenstein’s most popular books include Yes, My Darling Daughters: Adventures in Fathering (1976); The I-Hate-Preppies Handbook, a best seller in 1981; and Toilet Trained for Yale: Adventures in 21st-Century Parenting (2002).
Schoenstein also served as a commentator on the Today program, which aired on NBC in the mid-1960s. In the 1990s, he became a part of the NPR Program, All Things Considered, for which he was a commentator for almost a decade, cheering the journeys of countless daily commuters. His last such commentary took place just a year before he died.