Studs Terkel: 'Hard Times' And Other Histories Legendary Chicago broadcaster Studs Terkel dedicated his life to capturing the stories of ordinary Americans. He died Oct. 31 at the age of 96; Fresh Air remembers him with a 1985 interview.

Studs Terkel: 'Hard Times' And Other Histories

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DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm David Bianculli of Broadcasting & Cable Magazine and tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross. For many of us in public radio, Studs Terkel was a model and inspiration and a pioneer. He died last week at the age of 96. The books of oral histories for which Terkel became famous - "Division Street America," "Hard Times," "Working" and "The Good War," his Pulitzer Prize-winning book about World War II - all of those books came about because Terkel was interested enough in the story of America to sit people down with a microphone and tape recorder and press record. Often, those people were ordinary Americans Terkel called the uncelebrated.

An energetic and colorful presence, Terkel had been a radio soap actor, sportscaster and a host of a jazz show in Chicago called The Wax Museum.' He went on to host a TV show called "Studs' Place," but it was canceled after only two years. An outspoken liberal in the McCarthy era, Terkel was blacklisted from radio and television. Eventually, he made his way back onto the air as the host of a daily radio show at Chicago station WFMT. Over a 45-year career at WFMT, Terkel interviewed authors, activist, musicians, filmmakers and comedians. We're going to remember Terkel today by listening back to our 1985 interview with him. But let's start with an excerpt of one of his WFMT interviews. Here he is talking to playwright Tennessee Williams in 1961.

(Soundbite of WFMT's The Studs Terkel Program, 1961)

Mr. LOUIS "STUDS" TERKEL (Oral Historian; Author; Radio Personality): Any discussion of Tennessee Williams must - we must keep one factor in mind that any discussion of Tennessee Williams evokes discussion even, I found out, in bars, thank God. And if ever a time when discussion involving the human spirit or the dispirited human is needed it is now - and we're delighted to be guests of Mr. Williams at this moment in his suite, at the Blackstone Hotel. And Mr. Williams, how would you describe - was it kind of, kind of, your love for what we call the incomplete people? That is, he was not denigrating them. He merely meant a society makes them incomplete, I believe.

Mr. TENNESSEE WILLIAMS (Playwright): I've always regarded myself as an incomplete person, and consequently, I've always been more interested in my own kind of people, you know, people that have problems, people that have to fight for their reason, you know, the people that - to whom, you know, the impact of life and experience from day to day and night to night. It's difficult and people have come close to cracking and all that. Those are my - that's my world. Those are my people. And I must write about the people I know.

BIANCULLI: Tennessee Williams speaking with Studs Terkel in 1961. When Terry Gross spoke with Terkel in 1985, she started by asking if he approached interviews with famous people differently than interviews he conducted with the uncelebrated.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, 1985)

Mr. TERKEL: No, it's the same. Naturally, if someone wrote a book, I've got to read the book. And that takes time. Now, interview a person - the non-celebrated persons, so-called, it's to find out what that person is thinking, but you're exploring new territory. I sound like Columbus discovering a new land, and that this person has never been asked about his higher life before and that person opens up and a marvelous thing happens sometimes. These are rare occasions, when a person - in the days when the tape recorder was not as ubiquitous as it is now, that person, hey, can I - could you play that back? I want to hear my voice. And the kids are around her and you play it back and that person says, you know, I never knew I felt that way before. Not I never knew I thought - I never knew I felt that way before. It's a tremendous moment of revelation for that person and, of course, for me, too. I'm kind of like a fellow passenger on a trip, in a way

GROSS: How far will you push, though, when you're doing a personal interview? Because some people really want to get someone to confide all their secrets and to, like, break down and cry and reveal these deep emotional things.

Mr. TERKEL: Mine's exactly the opposite. No, mine's exactly the opposite. I never trespass on what I think is private domain of a person. Not gossip, I've no time for that. I'll tell you a story, OK? I was interviewing Diana Barrymore. Diana Barrymore was the daughter of the play actor John Barrymore and she died a number of years ago. Diana Barrymore, at that time, was the subject of scandal magazines. It was a horrible magazine called Confidential. And they go into her sex life, bizarre, her drunkenness, her drinking. Then she acts in a Tennessee Williams play suddenly last summer in Chicago. And she's wonderful. She was a marvelous actress in this play, the girl who's lobotomized. Later on she did Maggie in (unintelligible).

So after seeing her in the Tennessee Williams' play, I interviewed her. We're talking about Tennessee Williams, the heroines, what they mean to her. And when we finished the interview, it was rather good, I thought. She says, haven't you to forgotten something? I said, well, I've forgotten a lot of things. What? You haven't asked me those questions. I said, what questions? Well, those questions about my life, you know, that everybody else asks. I said, none of my business. I - just not know the businesses of - I wanted to find out about you through your artistry, through your craft. If I had Frank Lloyd Wright on, the architect, would I ask about his wives - whom he left- no, left him, or I'd ask about his architecture?

And then she busts out crying. She said no one has ever said that to me before. She came to accept that as the normal way of things, to accept humiliation. It serves no purpose. I don't do - none of my business. That's like peaking through a keyhole or peaking through a transom. And of course, I resent that very much. So, the person tells me of his life with it's something involving - that makes it universal. That's it. It's when somebody reads this, that happened to me. I thought the same thing. That's what I look for, a certain universality in a specific.

GROSS: Do you think your interviewing has gone through different stages? Is the way you interview now the way you started when you began?

Mr. TERKEL: I don't know. Gee, I can't - I think it's different. I think I've gotten older. I think you learn as you go along, but you still have to go around and round and round the mulberry bush. And you still - it's a conversation and then - rather, an interview. Because I'd say something about myself maybe, too, if it helps, you know. Very often, you know, - here's a tale out of school. I'm not very good mechanically. And I use the tape recorder, right? The tape recorder's my right arm. And I don't know how it works. You know, I can't drive a car. So, I goof up a lot, unintentionally. That person helps me, the person I'm interviewing. And when that person helps me, something happens, that person feels needed by me. And to feel needed is terribly important. Many people don't feel needed. So, there's no one way, I clown around, horse around.

GROSS: So, it's important for you to not be the star when you're interviewing somebody, not to be the famous Studs Terkel interviewing someone...

Mr. TERKEL: No, well, you see, that becomes - I've got to watch that. You see, it's not funny. You said the famous Studs Terkel is the guy who is in a half-ass way sort of celebrated for interviewing non-celebrated people, which is ironic, is it not? You know, if I took it that seriously, I'd be a real oaf, wouldn't I, and a clad . Maybe I am, but I don't take it seriously.

GROSS: When you interview someone for one of your books, I'm sure you can spend hours or days talking with them as much as you need. But for the radio show, you have, say, an hour? When that hour is over, even if you feel like you've really gotten to hear a lot about that person, do you ever walk out feeling, well, how much do I really know, you know? And like, is the way they presented themselves in the hour really the essence of who they are?

Mr. TERKEL: That always comes up. The author of a book, you're try to get whatever the essence of the book is, the theme of the book, the - maybe read from it, too, he and I - or she and I - both read together. You notice I say she and I or he and I read together because I'm a hambone, too. And I used to be a Chicago gangster, you know, in radio soap operas, you know. I was a gangster in the days when radio soap opera, a lot of them came out of Chicago, Mob Perkins, you know. And then, she was a good little American fan. I was always a guy who says, get in there, you guys. That was me. And then there was Mary Marlon (ph). I gave her a very hard time. You know, she suffered more than Saint Theresa ever did, Monday through Fridays, courtesy of Axedo (ph).

BIANCULLI: Studs Terkel, speaking to Terry Gross in 1985. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: We're remembering oral historian and radio pioneer, Studs Terkel. He died last week at age 96. Let's hear another excerpt from Terkel's WFMT radio show. Here he is, talking to a young Woody Allen in 1965.

(Soundbite of WFMT's The Studs Terkel Show, 1965)

Mr. TERKEL: He has the appearance of a graduate student at Berkeley campus. He was quiet, but very sympathetic. His fantasy - his fantasy world is marvelous. Some of it might autobiographical or not. I know that many listeners have seen him on television, heard his records, and I think he's one of the most comical in the genuine sense guys I've ever seen. So, Woody, who are you? You're like a lot of college students I know, graduate students who are kind of shy and awkward and yet, terribly outgoing, who spoke his paradox.

Mr. WOODY ALLEN (American Film Director, Writer, Actor, Comedian, and Playwright): Hm, yes. I am a shy and awkward on stage and off stage, and I'm just fortunate that I can be heard when I speak on stage so that the jokes get across. But I'm uncomfortable off stage and I'm uncomfortable on stage.

Mr. TERKEL: There's always one fall guy and that's you. I mean, the patsy is you, but as the patsy, tells that story about himself.

Mr. ALLEN: That happens to be my - an expression of my personality. You don't find that in - in every comedian, you find - I find there two general types, broadly speaking. One type is my type, wherein I'm acted upon consistently. That is, Robert Benchley was like that. Chaplain, to a degree, was like that. And then the other kind of comedian was the aggressive comedian like Jonathan Winters or W.C. Fields or (unintelligible) who come in and aggress on a situation. And you know, of the two, I would rather - my personality, naturally, was their type. I would rather go around insulting everybody and just decimating people with wit all the time. But you know, that's not my kind of thing. What generally happens is I come in and try one of those. Nobody laughs, someone socks me and, you know, that's my thing. You know, I can't help it. It just - I can't seem to maintain a certain level of cool.

BIANCULLI: Woody Allen, speaking to Studs Terkel on WFMT in 1965. Terkel hosted his show on the Chicago station for 45 years. Here he is, speaking with Terry Gross on our show in 1985.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, 1985)

GROSS: You've been in Chicago all your life except for the times when you've been traveling. Why are you that committed to that city? What makes that city real special for you?

Mr. TERKEL: Chicago is my home, and I've been there, and it's got a kind of - even though a romanticized, a kind of muscularity to it and its reputation, thanks to Jimmy Cagney and Warner Brothers and Bojangles Robinson. Still boom-boom, you know, Chicago was always a corrupt city, but no more corrupt than other cities. But I called it the big daddy of corrupt cities and this is the respectable, secretly proud. Once you're in Chicago, boom-boom, they're secretly proud of it in a way.

GROSS: Did you ever want to move to, like, the West Coast or the East Coast and go to New York or Los Angeles to work on one of the networks?

Mr. TERKEL: Never. Never in a billion years. There was a time in the - early 1950, '51, I was a part of a program called "Studs' Place." It was early TV. At that time, I got a call to come to New York, and I got so scared to direct Billy Rose - of all things, a Billy Rose program. And I said no, I couldn't. I don't want to go there, you know, the old cliche, good to visit, but that's it. I'd have died. It's like being without water, you know. My roots are Chicago. And there, it's freewheeling as far as I'm concerned. If I could do it in another city, I don't know.

GROSS: If you ever lost any radio sponsors because of your politics?

Mr. TERKEL: Oh, way in the back. Oh, there was a one in the '50s, before I came to the station, FMT, before there was an FMT, I was blacklisted. Oh, sure. "Studs' Place" was knocked off for that reason. I was considered - forgive the phrase - a valuable property. Property is interesting, because the show was quite popular. It was a kind of program that an audience cut through. It had an audience of main-line-type ladies who ride in the bus station or a (unintelligible) woman like a scrub lady signing with the next. Her daughter writes the letter, truck driver, college professor. It was one of those programs - but anyway, the show was - finally, it was the McCarthy time and I signed petitions. Anything, you know, anti - Jim Crow was considered as aversive back then. I'm talking about the '50s, before the '60s.

And so I get - I'm called to this office in Chicago. And they told me, gee, I'm a valuable guy. Why am I doing this? You know, I said, well, all I've got to say is I've been duped. Say you've been a fool, fool. Even a - but I wasn't, I said. It's my own ego. It's not my heroism. It's my ego. How dare you say I was - it was one of the few good things I did. I, of course, I signed it. We know some reds signed it, too. I don't give a damn if they did. I'm reading what it says and I like that and I signed it. You weren't duped. (unintelligible). No, I don't want be looking like a fool. It's my ego, you see. So - and they said, you know, you've got to - in America, you've got to stand up and be counted. So, I'm sitting in a chair. So, I stood up at attention and they said, we don't think that's very funny. I said, well, I think it's kind of funny. Anyway, you're out, you know. I said, yeah, I guess so.

So, I was out, you know, for quite awhile off and on. But I'd have to pick up half a bill here and there, lecturing on jazz or something or get in and finally got back on. And one day, I was listening to this small station called WFMT and they're playing a Woody Guthrie record when no one ever played Woody Guthrie on the radio except me on a disc jockey show I did in years of 1945 called the Wax Museum. And they played Woody ,and I called up and said you're playing Woody Guthrie. And I told my name, which is - they knew me. I said listened. I want to work for you. She said, we have no money. I said, I don't have any either (unintelligible). So, I started working at that station.

GROSS: Did you grow up in a liberal family? Was your mother (unintelligible)?

Mr. TERKEL: She was hardworking. My mother - my father was a liberal. My mother was out for the brass ring, you know, and she missed. She ran the hotel. My father did, too, but was ill. And she was pretty shrewd, pretty bright, in money matters, but she - nobody could take her except the guy named Samuel Ensolo (ph), who was a big utilities tycoon, who took a lot of people in Chicago then. But she would miss the brass ring. But in the hotel where I was raised - I was raised in this hotel. It was a men's hotel. But in those days, when you say men's hotel, you don't mean flap house. Although a flap this was not. This was skilled craftsmen living there - talking about the '20s now - transient guys, boomer firemen, carpenters, guys skilled, and lot of more self-educated autodidacts, you know, and self-taught and they would argue in the lobby and that was a big factor in my life, I'd say.

GROSS: Would you talk to people, when you're a kid, who are rooming there?

Mr. TERKEL: When I was there, I was kind of the pet. I was a happy child. I was kind of the pet, you know, of the guys and of the people, of my family, too. And I'd go to see plays when I was 13 years old because we lived right near downtown, the Loop, the hotel. So, one thing that I do another, really.

GROSS: You went to law school and then left that in favor of acting.

Mr. TERKEL: Oh, boy.

GROSS: And then radio performance...

Mr. TERKEL: Law school.

GROSS: Yeah. Why did you go to law school?

Mr. TERKEL: I went to law school - the dream of Clarence Darrell, you know, attorney of the damned. That was the dream. But then I had torts, and then I had contracts, then I had real property and then I - this is incredible. I can't have these legalisms. It was three unhappy years for me, and people say you'll never lose - you'll never forget law school, which is good, but lonely. It was three wasted years. I might as well say it.

GROSS: In your memoir, "Talking to Myself," you talk about a scene in the movie, "Five Easy Pieces."

Mr. TERKEL: Oh, boy.

GROSS: Why don't you share your impressions on that? Because that's just a classic scene.

Mr. TERKEL: Yeah. Let me - it was...

GROSS: I really love what you're (unintelligible)...

Mr. TERKEL: "Five Easy Pieces," I know young listeners love this movie and it was a good, slick movie. It just happened before seeing (unintelligible) waitress for the book, "Working." I remember her name. She's now dead. She's a wonderful woman. Yolanda Leaf (ph). I called her Dolores Dante in the book. Now and then I change a name. But in almost every case, they say we should use my real name. I do it maybe because they might be embarrassed, but they weren't. Anyway, so, she's describing her daily work, a waitress, her work. And then I see the movie. And the key scene in that movie, the one they use all the time in the Academy Awards, is it this virago. He's Jack Nicholson. I'm not playing on him. I'm done with the character. This guy is going to go to Alaska. He's a great piano (unintelligible).

And my feeling is, go ahead, I'm not stopping you. You want to go to Alaska, go ahead. You're a pretty dull guy, you know. I mean, this is the self-indulgence. I'm talking about the character. And he is there with these companions in this restaurant, and here comes the villain, a waitress, the virago. And she - and as soon as she comes on, you know, she's a rango (ph). She just throws the menu down. He's going to have a change. I forgot the exact scene, but they want a substitute. There's no substation, and she's behaving so bad that he throws out the stuff on the floor, and the kids in the audience seeing them stood up and they cheered. I'm saying, you little so and so, you don't even know this waitress is. This is set up. Is she tired? How are her varicose veins? Waitresses get a lot of varicose veins, so do stewardesses on planes.

And so how many bufferins did she take? Why is she a waitress? The husband left her. He's dead. He's sick. Kids in trouble. How tired is she? Did she have a fight with the chef just then behind the doors? They know nothing about her. They cheered when he was showing her up. I was so furious about that because it tells those kids these people who work aren't much. These are the same yuppies today on the campuses. They know nothing, nothing about history and the nature of life, you know. And so, I was so furious. What "Working" taught me - yeah, it taught me. I'm impatient a lot when the telephone operator - now, I know what a telephone operator's life is like through it.

But the great reward comes when I get a letter now and then from somebody. This was a young priest, walking along the Michigan Avenue Bridge, teaching at a school, the seminary. And he says, you know, my kids said to me, in reading "Working" - he had "Working" assigned - they'll never again talk to a waitress the way they did before or not again talk to a truck driver the way they did. That's good stuff. That's rewarding, yeah. If it can alter a person's attitude - a book - oh, you got some.

BIANCULLI: Studs Terkel, speaking with Terry Gross in 1985. He died last week at the age of 96. Later, a salute to another literary talent we lost this week, critic and novelist John Leonard. This is Fresh Air.

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