It’s 1984, and somewhere along the Garden State Parkway, a Chevy Impala full of teenagers is headed south to Bradley Beach, high-volume perms brushing the ceiling, bags full of diet soda and baby oil rocking between their feet. This would be a day of baking in the summer sun, to be followed by an evening of beer-soaked Shore parties. A tape player is blasting “Born in the U.S.A.,” which can be heard out the car’s open windows along with the sound of girls screaming, “Brooooce!”
Jump to 1989. One of the car’s occupants, Jancee Dunn, is 23 and still living at home in Chatham—but she has landed a job at Rolling Stone, where she’ll go on to write about some of the world’s best-known celebrities, including Madonna, Brad Pitt, Loretta Lynn, Jon Bon Jovi, Barry White, and Stevie Nicks. She’ll eventually become an MTV veejay and a correspondent for Good Morning America.
Dunn chronicled her glitz years in the 2006 memoir But Enough About Me, which comes out in paperback in July. (Actress Lisa Kudrow’s production company has optioned the book and is planning to turn it into a television series.)
As Dunn explained earlier this spring over breakfast at one of her favorite Chatham places, Café Beethoven, the book started as one thing and morphed into something else. “When I made the proposal, it was all celebrity stories, because that was my leverage—that’s what people want to know about,” Dunn says. She started off writing about Dolly Parton’s kitchen, with its Velveeta and cans of bacon grease, and about riding in Ben Affleck’s car, with the paparazzi in hot pursuit.
Dunn at first assumed people wouldn’t want to know about her family, “because to me, it was a very sort of conventional upbringing. Then I threw in a little something, just because it seemed so funny that you could see that I’m not a rock chick. Then when HarperCollins bought the book, they kept saying, ‘Please throw in more of your family—more, more, more.’ I couldn’t figure out why. A lot of editors were products of divorce, so we were this weird anomaly, these Bradys from Chatham. Plus, there is wacky behavior in every family.”
Dunn is the oldest of three daughters of Jay Dunn, a retired JCPenney manager born in Michigan, and his wife, Judy, a former beauty queen and stewardess originally from Citronelle, Alabama. Growing up, Jancee and her sisters, Dinah and Heather, considered themselves pretty typical suburban New Jersey girls. But there were quirks, like the fact that Dunn was named after the founder of JCPenney, James Cash Penney.
Then there’s the matter of the family burial plot. When Dunn was a kid, her parents bought the last available plot at a Chatham cemetery, up on a ridge with a splendid view of Manhattan. The plot became a favorite place for Dunn’s family to visit. When Dunn recently turned 40, her family threw her a surprise birthday party there, dubbed “the party on the plot,” catered by two of Dunn’s local favorites: the Chatham Sub Shop and the Woodland Bakery.
So, although she says she felt sheepish about writing a flat-out memoir, eventually Dunn decided, “It’s much more fun to write about your family and these celebrities. And when my mother would leave me the most priceless voice mail messages, I would then transcribe them right into my computer.”
Here’s the start of one: “Hi, honey. Pick up! Pick up the phone. I know you’re there. Pick up. Wait, your father is saying something. What? Jay, I can’t hear you, you’re mumbling. Your father says that maybe you’re out getting that caulking that he talked to you about. Well, we’re on our way to the spring flower show in Morristown and I thought I’d give you a call. Jay, you turn left here. I’m telling you. Look at the sign.…”
A few years ago, Dunn began bringing her mom along on interviews whenever possible, and our meeting at Café Beethoven was no exception. “She’s my best accessory,” Dunn jokes as the pair share a piece of poppy-seed cake to go with their coffee.
Dunn brought her mother to some Rock and Roll Hall of Fame interviews, with Ray Charles and Chuck Berry, and she brought her on the cruise for gay families to meet Rosie O’Donnell. “She sat in on every interview—we interviewed Rosie’s girlfriend, we interviewed passengers on the ship. And you see how personable she is, so she could talk to anyone.”
While Dunn obsesses about what to ask celebrities and when to ask it, her mother has no problem coming right out with the tough questions. She asked Martha Stewart how she lost all that weight in prison, and she asked O’Donnell what her kids call her and her partner, Kelli—whether they call them both “Mom.”
Dunn here slips into an imitation of her mother’s Southern accent: “ ‘I could talk to a tree stump!’ That’s how I imitate her. ‘I’m wearing a pink sweater. I don’t know what you’re gonna wear. Maybe we should coordinate our outfits.’ ”
“She wants me to look like an Easter egg so we can do the bad cop, good cop,” cracks her mother.
In her book, Dunn reveals that before conducting celebrity interviews, her anxiety level would skyrocket; she would break out in hives and her palms would sweat profusely, symptoms that plague her to this day. “I’ve heard that you can put deodorant on your hands. And you can Botox your palms. I’m a little scared of that, but your hands—a handshake—it’s the first impression you make.” (“What if your hands are paralyzed?” her mother interjects. Dunn protests: “It’s disgusting, Ma!”)
Dunn has scaled back on celebrity interviews while she works on an upcoming novel for Random House based on her youngest sister, Heather. Dunn says her sister, now married with two children, at one point had to move her whole family back in with her parents temporarily after a restaurant venture failed. Dunn got the idea for the novel after noticing that while at her parents’ house, Heather began to regress. “She started digging out her ’80s mix tapes, and she would listen in on the extension when I would call home to talk to my folks. And I could hear her breathing—I know her trademark brand of breathing—and I would say, ‘What are you doing? Get off the phone!’ ”
What does Dunn’s sister think about all this? “At this point,” says Heather, “I’m used to Jancee using me for comedic material—in a book, in magazine articles, at family holidays.” Heather kept a daily diary that would include passages like “Whole family to Fortunoff’s for post-Christmas sale, then to Costco for Ziploc bags.”
Over the course of her career, Dunn has conducted about 700 interviews, including plenty with New Jersey celebrities. One of her all-time favorites is Patti Scialfa, Bruce Springsteen’s wife. “I remember at one point she was mentioning that she and Bruce would make out in the kitchen of their home in Rumson, and that the kids are grossed out by it.”
And Bruce Springsteen, the Boss, the hero of Dunn’s youth—surely by now she has interviewed him as well? “He’s one of those that I would be too terrified to interview, as personable as he is. I’ve had the chance over the years, and I’ve said no. Because he’s so much a part of the fabric of my past, and I’ve seen him in concert I don’t even know how many times. I’d have a breakdown.”Click here to leave a comment