Thursday, November 1, 2018

Studs Terkel: Luminary for the little man

Studs Terkel, by Steve Musgrave (used with permission)

     Facebook is much and rightly maligned. But it does bring the past to your doorstep every morning. Wednesday it shared this status from Oct. 31, 2008—"Neil Steinberg salutes Studs Terkel, who died this afternoon"—necessarily terse, no doubt, because I was busy writing the below (or, more accurately, giving it a final once-over, since I had written it years before).
     Of course I knew Terkel, ever since he had me as as guest on his radio show in 1995, been to his jumbo bungalow on Castlewood a few times. I welcomed catching sight of him, sheaf of papers under his arm, cutting across Daley Plaza with his red socks. He was an oddly comforting presence. Though attempts to turn him into a warm, avuncular figure were always in vain: he was at heart a hard ass, a union man, a fighter, and a vastly important Chicago writer.

     Studs Terkel turned the voice of average Americans into a font of history.
     The Pulitzer-Prize winning author, television pioneer, theatrical actor, longtime radio host, unrepentant leftie and friend of the little man, died peacefully at his home on the North Side of Chicago on Friday afternoon.
     He was 96.
     "He had a very full, eventful and sometimes tempestuous life," said his son Dan. "It was very satisfactory"
     Studs—calling him "Mr. Terkel" always seemed overly formal—was a character. He liked to wear a red-checked shirt, a rumpled suit and had a stogie jammed in the side of his thick-lipped mouth. He enjoyed a martini well into his 90s.
     Though his dozen books were national best-sellers—Division Street America, and Working and The Good War—Studs was best known to many Chicagoans as an interviewer who hosted a talk show on radio station WFMT from 1952 to 1997.
     He was born in New York City, ironically enough, on May 16, 1912, and christened Louis Terkel. When he was 8, the family moved to Chicago, where his parents, Sam and Anna, ran the Wells-Grand Hotel.
     He later said that while he was "legally born" in New York, he came alive when he moved to Chicago.
     Studs spent his youth among the odd collection of hotel guests, some seeking work, others avoiding it. He credited his unusual residence with sparking within him an interest in the personal stories of regular people.
     He graduated from the University of Chicago School of Law, though he never practiced.
     Studs instead turned his energies toward the theater, appearing in 1934 in the groundbreaking Clifford Odets play "Waiting For Lefty."
     During the Depression, he worked on the Federal Writers' Project and performed in radio soap operas, usually portraying a gangster.
     It was around this time that he adopted the nickname "Studs" after James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy.
     While still a struggling actor in Chicago in 1939, Studs met and married a social worker and activist named Ida Goldberg. The couple had one son, Dan Terkell, who later added an extra "l'' to his last name. Ida Terkel died in 1999.
     After he served in the Army Air Forces in World War II, entertaining troops, Studs began a pioneering broadcasting career in television and a 45-year association with WFMT.
     "Studs' Place," an NBC program airing from 1950 to 1953, helped establish Studs as a nationally known personality. "Studs' Place" was a loosely plotted comedy set in a fictional Chicago barbecue joint. But Studs' past came back to cut short his future in television -- his socialist activities of the 1930s were seized upon by witch-hunting anti-communists who pressured NBC to drop his TV show, despite solid ratings, and Studs was blacklisted and unable to find steady work for the next several years.
     "To give you an idea of the fear," Studs told the Sun-Times in 1976, "an important soap opera producer once asked me to do some test scripts. I did them, but the sponsor said, 'No, we can't use him.' The producer berated me, as if it were my fault, 'How come you didn't tell me?' That's how deep the fear was."
     Unable to find work in television, Studs eked out a living making speeches.
     But even there, Studs was often hounded by Edward Clamage of the Illinois American Legion, who would tell sponsors of Studs' talks that they were hiring a "dangerous subversive."
     "Sometimes I would get canceled and other times they would let me speak," Studs recalled. "Then I'd write a letter to Clamage: 'Clamage, it comes to my attention that you are at it once again. Thanks to you, my fee was raised from $100 to $200. I owe you an agent's fee. Signed Terkel.' It wasn't true of course, but it made him furious. It was a way of getting back."
     Studs credited his blacklisting experience for his future prominence as a writer.
     "In a strange way, it helped me," Studs recalled. "I probably would never have gotten into writing books otherwise, or into WFMT. I was never publically pilloried; I was able to continue to make a living."
     He developed an interviewing style often referred to as "oral history," becoming a virtuoso of the tape recorder.
     Studs' first major work was Division Street America, in 1966. Later books included Hard Times (1970), Working (1974), Talking to Myself (1977), American Dreams: Lost and Found (1980) and The Good War: An Oral History of World War II, which won him his Pulitzer in 1985.
     His last book, P.S.—Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening, is being published Monday.
     Studs also was a recipient of the Peabody Award, the Prix Italia, the UNESCO Award for best program on East-West values and the University of Chicago Communicator of the Year Award.
     Studs once said of his writing technique:
     "A tape recorder is a revolutionary instrument. It's no good for a talk with a movie actress or a politician, because they're so plastic. But a tape recorder on the steps of a housing project is something else again. There a person who a moment ago was just a statistic starts talking to you and becomes human, becomes a person. Then it gets exciting."
     Studs said in 1980: "If there's something I want to do, it's create a sense of continuity—that there is a past and a present and that there may be a future. And that there isn't any present unless you know the past."
     As far as social justice goes, "I'm on a quest," he said. "I'm Don Quixote. Of course I want to tilt at windmills. I want to tilt at other things. It's the Don Quixotes of the world–call them the seekers of the ideal—who keep the juices going, give them pepper, the salt, change it for the good."
     His son said a celebration of his life will be scheduled in a few months.
                                                      - - -


     "He was somebody who made you go away a better person. . . . Even people who were ideologically opposed to him loved him once they met him. Right-wing people, once they met him, treated him as their favorite lefty. . . . If you got in a cab with him, he'd have the cabbie's whole life story by the time you got out." 
    —author and historian Gary Wills, to whom Studs dedicated several books

     "Michelle and I were deeply saddened to learn about the loss of Studs Terkel, and our thoughts and prayers go out to his family. Studs was not just a Chicago institution, he was a national treasure. His writings, broadcasts, and interviews shed light on what it meant to be an American in the 20th century. He will be deeply missed by all who knew him, all who loved him, and all whose lives were enriched by the American stories he told."
     —Barack Obama

     "He was larger than life, yet he spent his life giving voice to ordinary people. Even at his 90th birthday, he could (and did!) regale the crowd with a 20-minute monologue covering everything from McCarthyism to show biz.'' 
     —Playboy Enterprises Inc. CEO Christie Hefner, who hosted a 90th birthday party for Studs

     "Studs Terkel was part of a great Chicago literary tradition that stretched from Theodore Dreiser to Richard Wright to Nelson Algren to Mike Royko. In his many books, Studs captured the eloquence of the common men and women whose hard work and strong values built the America we enjoy today."    
       —Mayor Daley

     "He had so many magnificent qualities—literary, personal, creative, political—it's almost too impossible to say how he will be best remembered. He was a total human being and a total Chicagoan." 
     —political consultant Don Rose, a frequent co-worker of Studs

     "He could touch places in people that they didn't even know were there. . . . I think that the thing [about Studs] that will last the longest is that he helped people learn how to listen to themselves and each other with respect and see value in their lives and in their work and in their thoughts and in working together.'' 
     —author Sydney Lewis, a WMFT Radio colleague and transcriber of several of Studs' books

     "The memorable Louis 'Studs' Terkel spoke to Chicago and stood for Chicago. And today we mourn his passing. . . . He will be greatly missed.'' 
     —Gov. Blagojevich

     "He had an ability to make ordinary people famous and make famous people ordinary. . . . He also was able to step back and let the person he was talking to take center stage.'' 
     —Thom Clark, president of Community Media Workshop, which founded the Studs Terkel Community Media Awards

                                   —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 1, 2008


  1. Tired old cliche, i know, but Studs Truly was an original. I revisit his books often.
    Hard Times and the Good War are works that i love.

  2. Neil - It must bring you some joy to know that many enjoy your books and writings as they did his.

    1. There is a certain satisfaction, though I would never compare the two. Books like "Working" and "The Good War" are important works of history. My books are fun curiosities.

    2. @Neil - Yes, though your two latest books — “You Were Never in Chicago” and “Out of the Wreck I Rise” — are far more than fun curiosities. One has a great deal of Chicago’s history, and the other is an inspirational selection of quotes to help those on their journey to addiction recovery.

  3. I actually met him once. In the old Comiskey Park, of all places. After buying a hot dog and a beer, I spotted Studs at a pay phone. There was no mistaking him. He was talking to a man about a horse--in other words, placing a bet. When he hung up, I told him how much I admired his work, and for how long, and that I always listened to his radio show whenever I could.

    He'd probably heard it all a thousand times. Seemed a bit preoccupied and distracted. Might have been buzzed, even. Hell, why not? It was right around the time he won the Pulitzer for "The Good War"--my favorite. "I'd shake your hand, sir," I concluded. "But, as you can see, they're pretty full."

    He took the stogie out of his mouth, looked at the hot dog and the beer, and said "Two good excuses...the best in the world!" And then he said what he always said when signing off: "Take it easy, kid...but take it!" and ambled away. Nobody else in that White Sox crowd seemed aware of him. He was just a rumpled white-haired seventysomething in a checkered shirt and red socks.
    Thirty-plus years have raced by, and now I'm almost as old as he was that night.

    I was banging the phones for Obama when I heard about his death. Oh, to have been able to see his grin on Victory Night. Missed it by THAT much. One can't help but wonder what he'd be saying right now about His Orangeness, and about how history repeats itself, and especially about how we can never, ever give up.


This blog posts comments at the discretion of the proprietor.