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He Interviewed the Nation

Studs Terkel has a new book out—the fourth one he produced after turning ninety.* I was writing a review of it when his son called to tell me he had died (at age ninety-six). Terkel’s astonishing late productivity came from what, for him especially, would seem a crippling development: the fact that he lost most of his hearing during his late years, despite the best efforts of doctors and hearing-aid technicians. Bad as this would be for any of us, it was a special blow to Terkel, whose specialty was hearing others tell about themselves. I have been in cabs with him and wondered at his ability to elicit the driver’s whole life story before we reached our destination.

It was a gift that came from empathy, curiosity, and a willingness to let others express their views, even when Terkel did not share them. On this gift he built a literature—some eighteen books of oral histories and radio interviews with people famous and obscure, all of them unusually willing to reveal themselves in intimate ways. He has given his vast trove of tapes to the Chicago History Museum, where they will be listened to in perpetuity. (Where else can you hear the voices of Dorothy Parker being witty or Zero Mostel being explosive?)

When he was deprived of his ability to listen to others, he dug into his own memories, his vast experience, his range of acquaintances (many now dead), and his observations of the worlds of politics, music, theater, and urban life. With the help of his longtime assistant at WFMT Radio, Sydney Lewis, and the encouragement of his publisher, André Schiffrin of the New Press, Terkel took his isolation from sound as an opportunity to write more than he had in any other part of his life.

The wonder is that he was not really isolated. I have seen him, in earlier days, walk along the street in Chicago and be mobbed by people wanting to talk with him. He welcomed them all, and made slow if any progress to wherever he was going. But even when he was mainly immobilized in his Prairie School house in the northern part of Chicago, the world beat a path to his door. People still wanted to talk with him, even if they had to shout at close range and repeat themselves.

In recent months and weeks, streams of people came to draw on his genial memories. The opera director Peter Sellars asked to see him when he brought Doctor Atomic to the Lyric Opera. Mos Def, the hip-hop artist, who wants to do radio interviews modeled on those of Terkel, brought his musician father along, who had played with some of Terkel’s friends in the folk music world. Neal Baer, the philanthropist and producer of Law and Order: SVU, who is doing a book on storytelling as a social force, wanted to consult the practiced storyteller. Old friends dropped in whenever they could—Garrison Keillor, Alex Kotlowitz, Jules Feiffer, and Roger Ebert before his own illness kept him away. Terkel was lively to the end, and offered them all, whatever the time of day, “a little touch” of Scotch or their preference.

Though Terkel was born in New York, and came to Chicago only when he was eight, he was totally identified with the city. Once, when he was in his eighties, I drove him from his home toward the Loop. As Lake Michigan and the downtown skyline came into view, he said, “I would have been dead long ago but for this city.” He was a Chicago institution, one who had outlived several Chicago institutions who once ranked with him. In the second part of the twentieth century, he was paired with the radio host Irv Kupcinet, the bristling columnist Mike Royko, and the novelist Nelson Algren.

Earlier, in mid-century, he was part of the pioneering Chicago School of Television, a relaxed and improvisational continuation of Chicago radio styles. Kukla, Fran and Ollie and Dave Garroway at Large were picked up by New York, but Terkel’s show, Studs’ Place, ran only two seasons in the early Fifties before the blacklist forced him off the air. The show was about a diner, with a stock company of waiters and customers somewhat like those at the bar in the 1980s sitcom Cheers. There was nothing political about it but the red-checked tablecloths, like the red-checked shirts and red socks and ties that Terkel always wore as a sign of his radical sympathies. (At his ninetieth birthday celebration, people wore red-checked cloth patches on their shirts and blouses, and the set of Studs’ Place was reproduced on the stage of the Chicago History Museum.)

The fact that Terkel went early into television was not surprising. He grew up in his mother’s boarding hotel, which often had second-string show-business people staying there. He was a super in operas as a boy. He acted in local theater groups and on radio soap operas, sometimes with Nancy Reagan’s mother, Edith Luckett. His new book, P.S., tells how on Ma Perkins the actors were held verbatim to the script, leaving full time for the all-important commercials. One day a snowstorm delayed arrival of the scripts, so they had to improvise, with no real experience of winging it. Taking a cue from the weather, the cast confected the story of a storm. The young actor playing Ma Perkins’s son ventured: “Ma, walk behind me, I’ll break wind for you.”

When Terkel interviewed Leonard Bernstein for his long-running radio show, Bernstein said, “You probably never heard of Marc Blitzstein.” Terkel said, “What you mean? I acted in The Cradle Will Rock.” “You did? What part?” “The newspaper editor.” “Oh, typecasting. Sing the editor’s song.” Terkel began singing it and Bernstein chimed in, before going on to sing almost every song in the opera. Bernstein did not know that Terkel had interviewed four actors from Cradle ‘s famous first performance, when on the night of the premiere Orson Welles took the locked-out cast to put on a show in a deserted theater.

Terkel even acted in a couple of movies. In Eight Men Out (1988) he played a reporter (again, typecasting). In The Dollmaker (1984) he had a bit part as a cabdriver. On a snapshot of him in the role Jane Fonda wrote, “What a thrill to be upstaged by you, Studs.” But after Terkel had delivered his few lines from the driver’s seat of the cab, the director told him to drive off. Terkel had to admit that he did not know how to drive, and a stunt man was quickly recruited to take the shot. “I’m the only bit player who had an understudy,” Terkel liked to say in later years. He did not want to drive all by himself. He regularly took the bus to work, talking with whoever was near him. If he liked a particular article or column, he would Xerox it at work and pass it out in the bus. A boy who lived across the street from him said he would get off the bus and come down the street still talking away with his imagined audience.

Once, when a married couple waiting for the bus complained about “liberal labor unions,” Studs asked the man, “Do you work more than eight hours a day?” and when the man said no, he said, “Why do you think that is? The unions, that’s why.” He asked the woman if she voted. When she said yes, he said, “Why do you think that is? The liberals, that’s why.” He grew up admiring the soapbox orators in Bughouse Square, the open-air forum in front of the Newberry Library, and he could have out-orated any of them.

Terkel did not originally intend to be an actor or a radio interviewer or a liberal agitator. To follow the example of his hero Clarence Darrow, he graduated from the University of Chicago Law School, but few firms were hiring Jews in the Depression (Terkel’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Bialystok in Poland), so he applied for a position with the FBI. Only when he was turned down by the FBI (he thought it was for being a Jew) did he start a scrambling existence as an actor, disc jockey, sports reporter, and announcer at musical events. At the latter he became a close friend of Mahalia Jackson—in the McCarthy period, when a television station demanded that he sign a loyalty oath and Terkel refused, he was on the point of being fired when Jackson told the station, “If Studs goes, Mahalia goes.”

Terkel found his real métier when he began his long run of interview shows on WFMT, a radio station devoted mainly to classical music but also to folk music and drama. Terkel interviewed one person or group for an hour every weekday, and the show went on for forty-five years. His interviews had an extraordinary range. Actors were amazed at his encyclopedic knowledge of the theater. The Lyric Opera regularly sent him visiting singers to be interviewed, and Terkel became a friend of regulars in Chicago like Tito Gobbi. Folk singers showed up often. Authors all noted how closely he had read and marked up their books. Terkel used appropriate recorded interludes keyed to the contents of the book. For my Lincoln at Gettysburg he played Civil War songs and Orson Welles reciting the Gettysburg Address—no surprises there. But I was astonished when I went in to talk about my biography of Saint Augustine and he played Ambrosian chant—he had read in my book that Augustine was baptized by Ambrose, but somehow he knew on his own that Ambrose had introduced a new musical style in Milan.

Terkel added a second layer to his marathon of interviews in 1966, when André Shiffrin suggested that he use his technique to create a composite picture of a city made up of interviews with all types of its citizens. The result was Division Street: America (1967), the first in a series of oral histories—of the Depression ( Hard Times, 1970 ), labor ( Working, 1974), aspirations ( American Dreams, 1980), World War II ( The Good War, 1984), racial relations ( Race, 1992), youth ( Coming of Age, 1995), performing ( The Spectator, 1999), dying ( Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, 2001), and aging ( Hope Dies Last, 2003). These and others were all published by André Schiffrin, at first for Pantheon. When Schiffrin broke with Pantheon, Terkel imitated his old friend Mahalia Jackson: “If André goes, Studs goes.” He became a mainstay of Schiffrin’s New Press.

The printed interviews do not reveal the ways Terkel established a rapport with his subjects. But listening to the full tapes shows what empathy he had with them. When a woman said she was “just a housewife” who never accomplished anything, unlike her daughter, Terkel replied that her daughter’s career showed what a great mother she had been, and the woman began reflecting on the good things in her life. People left his interviews feeling good about themselves—quite to the contrary of such drivel as Edward Rothstein’s mean-spirited New York Times essay at the death of Terkel saying that he demeaned his subjects and castigated work. The maddest I ever saw Terkel was when he remembered the way a waitress was insulted in the movie Five Easy Pieces.

Some objected to interviews in his books—to his sympathy with gays, to the occasionally rough language of his interlocutors. Working was banned from certain high schools because it contains the word “fuck.” An irate letter writer got so spluttering that he misquoted the book’s title as Working Studs. Terkel went to one such school and explained that the word was used by a firefighter who had just been told that his friend and fellow fireman had been killed. He said it was the only way the man could express the depth of his anguish. He made the person’s plight so vivid that the school rescinded the ban. The Terkel way of making connections showed in the oddest ways. Once he got a wrong number on the phone and struck up a long conversation with a young boy he had never met, getting the boy’s whole school record.

That ability to connect with anyone was best demonstrated when his home was burglarized. As he later told the story, Terkel’s wife, Ida, was ill, so she lay on the couch downstairs rather than going up to her bedroom. Terkel had been in a chair reading to her till she went to sleep and he turned off the light. A burglar came in through the window, not realizing the room was occupied. When Terkel turned on the light, the startled man demanded money. Terkel talked in a soothing voice and pointed out his sick wife. He told the man all he had was two twenties in his wallet. The man took them and was about to leave, but Terkel said he needed money for a cab, to go in the morning to buy medicine for his wife. The man looked at her, gave back one of the twenties. Terkel said, “Thank you”; the man said, “You’re welcome,” and started to go back out the window. Terkel said, “You don’t have to do that,” and conducted him over to the front door. The man went out, turned, and said “Thank you,” and Terkel said, “You’re welcome.”

Friends from the time say that Terkel embellished the story, but admit that he did ask for some money back and the burglar gave it. The friends advised him not to tell the newspapers what had happened, since it would encourage other thieves—as it did. After two more burglaries, Terkel installed alarms and put out a sign: Beware the Dog. “I’m the dog,” he would say with a chuckle.

Terkel and such old friends as the medical reformer Quentin Young and the civil rights lawyer Leon Depres called themselves “old lefties.” They fought the regime of the first Mayor Daley with high spirits. Theirs was not the bitter or recriminating leftism of such a writer as Noam Chomsky. When they were together, I heard mainly laughter, and the mutual teasing that prevents self-importance. Their kind of lefty was the songwriter E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, an old interview with whom is in the new Terkel book. They reminisce less about politics than about Harburg’s high-spirited song lyrics—Terkel especially liked such lines as “When I’m not facing the face that I fancy, I fancy the face I face” (from Finian’s Rainbow ).

Terkel and his like were labor union liberals. At age ninety-one Terkel took the bullhorn at a strike meeting of local hotel workers. He would never cross a picket line. When I crossed a strike line of teaching assistants to give a series of lectures at Yale, I was careful not to let Terkel know. He had been active in Henry Wallace’s 1948 campaign for president. In 2000, remembering work with Ralph Nader in his earlier campaigns, Terkel spoke for Nader as president. We had knock-down-drag-out arguments over that, and Terkel told a shared friend that he feared I would never speak to him again if Nader caused Gore to lose. But Terkel did not in the end vote for Nader, and Illinois was unaffected by Nader’s disastrous interventions.

I could never stay mad at Terkel, if only because of Ida. In 1939 Terkel married Ida Goldberg, a social worker, tiny, pretty, soft-voiced, maternal, a pacifist more radical than he, and far more practical. They had a car because she knew how to drive—and how to pay the bills and organize the house. She had been to more antiwar demonstrations than Terkel—she was arrested in Washington, D.C., in 1972 for blocking the entrance to the Senate chamber and demanding that Congress stop funding the Vietnam War. In 1969, when Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers was murdered in his apartment by the Chicago police, it was feared there would be further assaults on the apartment, so she and some women friends set up a card table on the building’s porch and provided a human shield for those inside.

When Terkel and Ida got their FBI files, he was jealous that her file was thicker than his. But hers was the first approval he sought after giving a speech. “How did I do, Ida?” he would ask. She would say, “You did fine, Louis,” and he would beam. (She was the only one alive who called him by his birth name—as a young man he acquired the name Studs from his admiration of James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan.) Ida died in 1999, at eighty-seven, in the sixtieth year of her marriage to Terkel. His friends feared that Terkel would no longer be able to function, from grief and from loss of her management skills. But their son and a number of friends filled in with attempts to be surrogate Idas. He put her cremated ashes on the windowsill of the front room, saving them to be mixed with his and buried in Bughouse Square. That is against the law, but a lawyer friend has arranged with the city for an exception to be made in Terkel’s case.

He was much honored in his life—with honorary college degrees (his commencement addresses were a hit), a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award for lifetime achievement, the National Humanities Award bestowed on him by President Clinton, the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for lifetime achievement, the George Polk Career Award, and the Prix Italia (for a documentary on the Cuban missile crisis). He wore his honors lightly, as if not wanting anything to set him apart from the people he met every day on the bus, or the schoolchildren he used to visit, or his myriad friends from all walks of life. He lit up in the company of his fellow beings, and positively glowed when a friend came into view. When I reflect that I will never again enter his house and hear that whoop of welcome, it is almost more than I can bear.

  1. *

    Hope Dies Last (2003), And They All Sang (2005), Touch and Go (2007), P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening (2008). In the years just preceding, he wrote The Spectator (1999) and Will the Circle Be Unbroken (2001).

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