It may not be what you think.
Louis Terkel, universally known as Studs, was born in the Bronx in 1912. He got his moniker after the title character in James Farrell’s popular Studs Lonigan trilogy of the early 1930s. His father was a tailor and his mother a seamstress and factory worker. The family moved to Chicago around 1920. He is the keeper of the city’s lore and a raconteur extraordinaire. After his father died, his mother ran a boarding house in the Loop. It was, as Studs recalls, “the not-so-grand Grand Hotel.
I was an innkeeper’s boy.” He worked the front desk, and he hung out with the guests. He fell in love with jazz and the theater at an early age. He acted in Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty and Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock. He still hits the stage. Just a few weeks before I saw him, he did a reading from Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted Hollywood writer. Studs is the author of more than ten books of oral history, including Working, Hard Times, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good War. His latest is Hope Dies Last. Last year, he was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle.
As well as an author, Studs is also a radio personality. On the air in Chicago for more than forty-five years on WFMT, he probably holds the record for the number of interviews.
One day in June, there’s the legend himself bounding out of his house near the lake in Chicago to meet my taxi. “Everything OK?” he asks. Right away, I notice two things: his trademark red socks and two big “Beware of Dog” signs in the windows. I walk gingerly into his house but nary a bark is to be heard. Turns out the signs are there to ward off would-be robbers. There’s no dog. “I hate dogs,” he tells me.
He hits me with a fusillade of anecdotes and stories. He tells me of a school librarian who was being hassled by a follower of Jerry Falwell. The guy accused her of carrying pornographic material. She expressed amazement and asked him what book he was talking about. “Working Studs, by Terkel,” he said. After the punch line, Studs guffaws and tells me, “That’s when I knew I had a bestseller.”
He’s got the Cubs game on. He’s not happy. He dislikes the Cubs. He’s rooting for Oakland and cursing the manager for changing pitchers. He’s a big White Sox fan. One of his memorable film roles was in Eight Men Out, the John Sayles classic about the 1919 Black Sox scandal.
At ninety-two, Studs is still a gregarious man, full of life. But he badly misses his late wife, Ida, who died in 1999. And he misses such great Chicago writers as Nelson Algren and Mike Royko, friends both. Now almost everyone is younger than he is. He refers to Haskell Wexler, Academy Award-winning cinematographer and Chicago native, as a kid. Wexler is eighty-two.
“There’s someone older than me,” he says.
“Who’s that?” I ask.
“John Ashcroft. He’s 300-plus years old. He was depicted in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible. He was part of the Salem witch hunt.” It annoys him that Ashcroft, like Studs himself, graduated from the University of Chicago Law School.
We reach the end of the two-hour tape. He tells me during the interview that he could go on for as long as I want. “You know I like to talk,” he says. Throughout the interview he keeps an unlit cigar in his right hand. As soon as we finish, he lights it up and then makes himself a martini.
Q: What’s your best advice for this November’s election?
Studs Terkel: Of course, you’ve got to beat Bush. Vote for Kerry. Vote against Bush. If Bush is not ousted, then we’re in for a huge something or other. It’s going to be a rollercoaster.
Q: You’re not too thrilled with Kerry.
Terkel: I don’t know what Kerry’s doing. It should be so easy for him to say what is so obvious: When I was a young man, I believed my President, and I went to war in Vietnam. I realized it was a lie, and I came back against it. When I was a Senator, I believed my President about the weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein, and I voted for it. It was a lie, and I defy it now. It’s time we call it quits, time we find a way out.
Q: What do you think about the Ralph Nader candidacy?
Terkel: I wrote a letter to The Nation urging Ralph not to run. I said to him, your job, your destiny, is to be public citizen number one. And when President Kerry is there, as I hope he will be, you will be after him. I want to remember you as a guy who saved more lives than probably any other American in the last hundred years.
I don’t think he will be that much of a factor in this campaign, quite frankly. But would I condemn Ralph Nader? Never. For the work he’s done? No, of course not.
Q: You’ve talked about this country having a national Alzheimer’s disease.
Terkel: Gore Vidal calls this country the United States of Amnesia. Take Reagan. He’s perhaps the worst President until now we’ve had, a man who knocked the hell out of the very thing, the New Deal, that saved his ass and that of his father in Dixon, Illinois. His father got a job on the WPA during the Depression. Ronald Reagan was the first President I know who was an acknowledged fink. He was president of the Screen Actors Guild at the same time he was informing regularly to the FBI on his own members he considered un-American or subversive. He even had a code name. That’s a fink.
Then Ronald Reagan broke the air controllers’ strike of 1981. That was his first major act in office. And four out of five Americans applauded Ronnie.
And then there was Grenada. We never heard of Grenada until Ronnie said Grenada was our enemy. I thought Grenada was the name of a Spanish song that you heard played at folk festivals by Pete Seeger.
Reagan warned us that the Sandinistas were a threat to the U.S. That is, they may go through Mexico into our country. And nobody laughed. That reminds me of Adolph Menjou, the mustachioed actor who was the leading friendly witness for the HUAC. He said, “I read Das Kapital in the original Russian.” And nobody laughed.
Q: What about the media?
Terkel: Liberal media. It’s the joke of jokes, isn’t it? You would think that Noam Chomsky is on every night, the way they speak of it. There is an insult going on, an assault on our intelligence that is unprecedented. The media are covering trivia. You have Britney Spears. She gets far more space than Einstein ever did.
Q: What sources of information do you depend on for your news?
Terkel: I watch TV. I watch baseball games a lot, of course. PBS is a joke. PBS is as much of a joke as Fox. Moyers is the one exception, and that’s it.
Q: Do you listen to National Public Radio?
Terkel: I do and I don’t, both. I don’t hear too well, anyway. National Public Radio has gone more and more bland.
Q: What do you read?
Terkel: I read all kinds of stuff. I find the Chicago Tribune has changed considerably since the Colonel’s day [referring to Robert R. McCormick, the newspaper’s longtime rightwing owner.] It’s still a conservative paper, but I think it’s a more honest paper than The New York Times. I get more out of the Chicago Tribune than I do The New York Times. I believe it more, though I do admit I love Frank Rich of the Times.
Q: What other journalists do you admire?
Terkel: A kid named Tom Frank, who just did What’s the Matter with Kansas? Sy Hersh certainly has done an excellent job. I like Bill Greider. Young journalists on alternative papers.
Q: How did you start doing interviews and oral histories?
Terkel: I got into interviewing accidentally. I became a disk jockey before the word was used. It was an eclectic program with a select following. I would play, say, “Umbra mai fu,” a Caruso aria from Handel’s Xerxes and then go into Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues,” and, after that, a Woody Guthrie Dust Bowl ballad.
And I would play the record of a certain woman I heard sing in the Greater Salem Baptist Church in Chicago. Her name was Mahalia Jackson. I loved this record, “Move On up a Little Higher.” All the black people in the country knew it. None of the whites knew it. So I played it, and so whites got to know it. Mahalia always said, “Studs, you’re the one who led me to the white world,” which, of course, is untrue. She would have been known anyway.
Q: Were you ever blacklisted?
Terkel: When Mahalia Jackson became internationally known, CBS offered her a network radio program. Once a week. And she said, “I’ll do it on one condition, that Studs is the host of the program.” And they tremulously agreed.
During the third week or so of the dress rehearsal, about a half hour before the audience is let in, a guy from CBS in New York comes on the stage with a little piece of paper for me to sign. “Oh, Studs, this is just a pro forma.” And it’s a loyalty oath. “Throw it away. I don’t believe in that.” He says, “You gotta.” “No, I don’t. You know the brethren? I’m with the brethren. My yea is my yea and my nay is my nay. And that’s it. I’m sorry.”
Voices are raised, and Mahalia is on her way to the piano to rehearse. She hears this argument. She knows all about me. She used to say, “Studs, you’ve got such a big mouth, you should have been a preacher.” She said, “Is that what I think it is, baby?” I say, “Yes.” “Are you going to sign it?” I say, “Of course not.” She says, “OK, let’s rehearse.” He says, “Oh, but Miss Jackson,” and he’s very diffident, “Mr. Terkel has to sign it. Headquarters, New York, the official word.” Mahalia says, “Look, I’ve got no time for this. You tell Mr. So-and-So that if they fire Studs Terkel, to find another Mahalia Jackson.” And you know what happened? Nothing. Nothing happened. The guy vanished. The emperor had no clothes.
If I were in New York or Hollywood, I would have been dead meat. For example, I never made Red Channels. You know what Red Channels was? Red Channels was the bible, the scripture, put out by a couple of political thugs, listing people that were considered un-American. And all sorts of people were on it: Arthur Miller, Zero Mostel, Lillian Hellman. Where is me? I don’t find my name on it. And I felt like a blue-haired dowager who didn’t make the Social Register. You know what I attribute that to? New York parochialism.
Women’s clubs would hire me to talk about folk music. At that time, they paid me 100 bucks. But there was a guy in town, a legionnaire, who was a one-man Americanism committee. And I was his favorite pigeon. He would write these warning letters to the local women’s clubs not to have me. And to their everlasting glory, not one canceled.
But this one woman I’ll never forget. She was elegant, aristocratic, old, old money, Brahminesque. And she was so infuriated by the letters, she said, “Mr. Terkel, we are doubling your fee from $100 to $200.” What do you think I did? I wrote the legionnaire a letter, and I sent him a $10 check with a note saying, “Here’s your agent’s fee for the extra 100 bucks.” He never acknowledged my check.
Q: You’ve kind of set the standards in doing interviews.
Terkel: Standards were set thousands and thousands of years ago. I’m called an oral historian. I have no idea what that means. It means I’m a nonacademic, really. In my books, you can find the astonishing wisdom and eloquence of people who have never spoken of their lives before.
Q: When you approach an interview, do you have questions written out?
Terkel: I improvise.
Q: Tell me about your interview with Martin Luther King Jr.
Terkel: Mahalia Jackson became his favorite singer. One day Mahalia called and says, “Studs, come on over. Martin wants to talk to you.” He never even heard of me. So I go over. I said, “I know your time is limited, Doctor.” He says, “No, no, you go ahead.” I asked him about the role of laughter. He says, “Without laughter we’re lost, the laughter of adversity.”
Q: If you were able to go back into time, who would you like to interview?
Terkel: George Bernard Shaw, of course. Think of what he did. He helped form the Labour Party, which was not the same as the Labour Party of Tony Blair. Can you imagine? And Shaw wrote some of the best, most witty, most thoughtful plays. He also was an orator, and just for conversation alone and letter writing, no one came close to him.
After Shaw, I think, Mark Twain and Tom Paine. That’s not a bad trinity.
Q: What are you working on now?
Terkel: I’m working on a book on music. I’ve interviewed all sorts of artists: opera singers and composers, jazz musicians, and, of course, folk singers. It’s called They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disk Jockey. I hope I get to finish it.
David Barsamian is the director of Alternative Radio, based in Boulder, Colorado. His latest book is a collection of interviews from The Progressive, “Louder Than Bombs.”