Garry Wills

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Garry Wills

The Art of the Sch­mooze

Studs Terkel, who died in 2008, is best re­mem­bered, if at all, by Amer­i­cans at large for his pop­u­lar and prize-win­ning books of oral his­tory—nine of them, from Di­vi­sion Street (1967) to Hope Dies Last (2003). But we Chicagoans re­mem­ber him more vividly for his large pres­ence in our city over the last half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. He was as much iden­ti­fied with Chicago as Herb Caen was with San Fran­cisco, or Jimmy Bres­lin with New York, or H. L. Mencken with Bal­ti­more. He was born in New York in 1912, but he came to Chicago at age eight and never left. He went to univer­sity and law school here, acted in lo­cal theater, ran a pi­o­neer­ing television show, cham­pi­oned lo­cal can­di­dates and causes, and, most im­por­tantly, did a five-day ra­dio interview show on WFMT for an as­ton­ish­ing forty-five years (1952–1997). Many peo­ple in Chicago ei­ther grew up or grew old (or both) along that thread of con­ti­nu­ity in their civic lives.

That is not some­thing we are able to share with other Amer­i­cans. A thread of con­ti­nu­ity is eas­ily snapped. That is why Terkel’s books, ad­dress­ing an au­di­ence not con­stricted in time or space, seem more solid and last­ing. When he died, he left all the record­ings of his shows—over 5,600 of them—to the Chicago His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety (now the Chicago His­tory Mu­seum). But what was that in­sti­tu­tion to do with them? They were on de­te­ri­o­rat­ing tapes, not cat­a­loged for easy ac­cess, and could only be con­sulted at the place of their stor­age. If for some rea­son one wanted to lis­ten to a show that has be­come a his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment (I think of Martin Luther King’s thwarted time in the city), or a show that cap­tures the liv­ing voice of a dead celebrity—ei­ther a na­tional one like Dorothy Parker or a Chicago one like Big Bill Broonzy— one would have to go to the mu­seum, ask for the tape to be searched out, and lis­ten to it on ear­phones in that pub­lic place. No won­der the nine books seem more invit­ing than the 5,600 tapes.

But all that is chang­ing, now that books live an ever more pre­car­i­ous ex­is­tence, and the modes of elec­tronic ac­cess per­vade our lives. Thanks to the ded­i­cated work of in­di­vid­u­als, foun­da­tions, the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Hu­man­i­ties, and the Li­brary of Congress, the tapes have been dig­i­tized and cat­a­loged, and the shows now ex­ist in a form that can eas­ily be searched and down­loaded to any­one’s com­puter or phone, or in­cluded as part of doc­u­men­taries. Though the orig­i­nals still be­long to the mu­seum, they are be­ing tended by tech­ni­cians at WFMT—the col­lec­tion’s di­rec­tor, Tony Ma­caluso, and its chief ar­chiv­ist, Al­li­son Schein Holmes. The launch­ing of this am­bi­tious project will be cel­e­brated on May 16 (Terkel’s birth­day) at the Amer­i­can Writ­ers Mu­seum in Chicago, and fol­lowed by sim­i­lar events at the Li­brary of Congress (July 2) and the Bri­tish Li­brary (as part of its Septem­ber Sea­son of Sound cel­e­bra­tions). The imag­i­na­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties for this ar­chive were sig­naled last Jan­uary when the Kronos Quar­tet, a fa­vorite of Terkel’s, per­formed Glo­ri­ous Ma­halia, a new com­po­si­tion by Stacy Gar­rop ded­i­cated to Ma­halia Jack­son, an­other fa­vorite to whom he was par­tic­u­larly close, us­ing words from their ra­dio con­ver­sa­tions. The ar­chive is also be­gin­ning a pod­cast se­ries called Bug­house Square, hosted by the young African-Amer­i­can scholar and poet Eve Ewing, which ex­plores themes treated in the broad­casts.

The themes of the in­ter­views were broad, and Terkel’s en­ergy in pur­su­ing them was im­pres­sive. In his ex­plo­ration of racial prob­lems, he went to South Africa and with the help of his friend Na­dine Gordimer sur­rep­ti­tiously taped Al­bert Lu­tuli, the No­bel Peace Prize win­ner who was un­der house ar­rest. He took ad­van­tage of a trip to Italy, where he re­ceived an award, to interview Fed­erico Fellini. He also lugged his clumsy big tape recorder to Cal­i­for­nia to interview César Chávez and to Selma to cover the protests there.

Now that the books and the ra­dio pro­grams can be com­pared, they show dif­fer­ent and para­dox­i­cal ra­tio­nales. The books de­lib­er­ately avoid in­ter­views with celebri­ties. Terkel wanted to talk with “or­di­nary peo­ple”—to show that there are no or­di­nary peo­ple. They are most suc­cess­ful when they dis­cover pro­fun­di­ties un­der the su­per­fi­cial ap­pear­ance of any­one you might meet on the street. These should be mat­ters of gen­eral con­cern.

The ra­dio pro­grams, by con­trast, de­spite his oc­ca­sional trips, dealt mainly with peo­ple of ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­i­ties or achieve­ments, and es­pe­cially with show busi­ness em­i­nences, whether in mu­sic, theater, lit­er­a­ture, or other arts. Chicago has its own fa­mous act­ing, singing, and writ­ing ac­com­plish­ments, but it is also a cross­roads where fa­mous peo­ple came to per­form—and Studs dearly loved a performance. His politics made him cel­e­brate non­celebri­ties, but his heart al­ways tugged him to­ward the foot­lights.

When the eight-year-old Studs came to Chicago, the first peo­ple he met were ten­ants of the board­ing­house his mother ran. The first peo­ple who fas­ci­nated him out­side his home were the soap­box or­a­tors at nearby Wash­ing­ton Square, known dis­mis­sively as Bug­house Square (that is, Nut­house Square). He looked up to the nuts on dis­play, and he meant to join them. In the 1930s, so­cial­ists proudly wore the color red. It be­came a trade­mark for Terkel for the rest of his life. He wore red-checked shirts, of­ten with a red tie or scarf or socks. Dur­ing the two years he was on a television sit­com about a diner called Stud’s Place, the round ta­bles in the diner had red-checked table­cloths. In 1951 the show fell vic­tim to a McCarthyite black­list­ing of Studs and his lead singer, Win Stracke (they called them­selves “the Chicago Two,” af­ter con­tem­po­rary des­ig­na­tions like “the Har­ris­burg Seven”).

Though Terkel grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Chicago and its law school, and passed the Illi­nois bar exam, he got his Juris Doc­tor in 1934, the depths of the De­pres­sion, when few law firms were re­cruit­ing (even fewer for Jews, Studs would add). So he fol­lowed his wish to per­form. He was a su­per (su­per­nu­mer­ary, a non­sing­ing role like a “spear car­rier”) for the lo­cal opera house. He was in sev­eral theater troupes and played gang­ster roles in soap op­eras. He was an MC for var­i­ous jazz and folk and gospel groups, and formed last­ing friend­ships with the in­stru­men­tal­ists or singers. Traces of all these ac­tiv­i­ties col­ored Terkel’s in­ter­views with ac­tors and singers.

Agents for per­form­ers and for the the­aters they sang or acted in knew to di­rect their clients to Studs for an in­formed and sup­port­ive boost to their ap­pear­ances. Oth­ers who just knew Studs or knew about him found their way to him on their own. So he taped not only Woody Guthrie but the young Bob Dy­lan. Not only Dr. King but the young Muham­mad Ali. Even with non­mu­si­cal guests—like Jac­ques Cousteau, Carl Sa­gan, or Jane Goodall—Studs nor­mally in­ter­spersed the talk with mu­si­cal ex­cerpts to sug­gest the pe­riod or sub­ject or mood of the interview. Choos­ing those in­ter­ludes and hav­ing them ready showed how thor­oughly he pre­pared his daily show. Ken Burns, who uses mu­sic in a sim­i­lar way for his doc­u­men­taries, says that his en­tire ap­proach owes much to Studs.

Find­ing the right mu­sic was some­thing he clearly loved to do. He liked all kinds of mu­sic—well, not rock and roll or later styles. He was a prod­uct of ear­lier days. Once, when I was in the hos­pi­tal af­ter an ac­ci­dent, he brought me the com­plete record­ings of Hoagy Carmichael. It might sur­prise some peo­ple, but not those who know Terkel’s taste and back­ground, that the most fre­quent guests on his show were opera singers. The re­vived Lyric Opera be­came world fa­mous un­der its first man­ager, Carol Fox, who was only twenty-eight when she founded the company in 1954 but stayed in charge un­til her early death at fifty-five. She and her pub­li­cist, the gre­gar­i­ous Danny New­man, who was with the company from 1954 to 2002, steered fa­mous singers to the Studs show, know­ing he would al­ways give these he­roes of his a wonderful re­cep­tion.

Studs gave his lis­ten­ers an ap­peal­ing op­er­atic ed­u­ca­tion elicited from dozens and dozens of the great­est singers of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury—from Lotte Lehmann, who made her Amer­i­can de­but in 1930 in Chicago in Wag­ner’s Die Walküre (Studs in­ter­viewed her in 1960) and Jen­nie Tourel, who also made her Amer­i­can de­but in Chicago in 1930 (Studs in­ter­viewed her in 1970), down through the stars of the last half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury (Lu­ciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni, Mar­i­lyn Horne, Elis­a­beth Sch­warzkopf, and many more). When my son did some col­lege-age service as a su­per at the Lyric Opera, he com­pared notes on the ex­pe­ri­ence with Studs.

Run­ning through the list of these thou­sands of recorded in­ter­views, I no­ticed one sur­pris­ing ab­sence. Ev­ery­one knew Studs’s record as an un­abashed lib­eral (he con­sid­ered the peo­ple who gave up that re­viled term to call them­selves “pro­gres­sives” tim­o­rous at best). Given that record, one would have ex­pected him to have wel­comed left­ists (or at least Democrats) on his show. But he did not in­vite ei­ther na­tional or lo­cal peo­ple run­ning for or hold­ing of­fice. Chicago in his time had epic po­lit­i­cal fights, such as the 1968 Demo­cratic

con­ven­tion and the “coun­cil wars” around the first black mayor, Harold Wash­ing­ton. Was he afraid to be black­listed again? I can’t sup­pose so. He made his views ex­plicit when not on the show—on picket lines and at fundrais­ers and can­di­date events. But he seems al­most to have ex­pected what is in fact be­ing done with his show now— that it would be lis­tened to af­ter the im­me­di­ate elec­toral con­flicts had faded. Good mu­sic and nov­els and po­etry last. Studs, a self-con­fessed “ham,” liked to read po­etry on air, and when he did not have a per­son sched­uled for that day he would read a short story or two from his fa­vorite au­thors—Chekhov, per­haps, or Flan­nery O’Con­nor.

These pro­grams could not pose a more thor­ough con­trast with the TV shows to­day that fea­ture par­ti­sans scream­ing at one an­other in a stu­dio. Not that Studs evaded po­lit­i­cal is­sues— he had on au­thors who wrote about lib­eral or con­ser­va­tive mat­ters, just not can­di­dates. He had Paul Robe­son and Gwen­dolyn Brooks on, peo­ple who were not run­ning for of­fice. He did not want anger di­vid­ing his au­di­ence. He was al­ways an am­i­ca­ble, non­ran­corous rad­i­cal. He would lis­ten to any­one, qui­etly. He wanted company, not com­bat. Though Studs called him­self an ag­nos­tic, and de­fined that as “a cow­ardly athe­ist,” he was not cov­er­ing up his own views. I think he found athe­ists too force­ful in re­ject­ing oth­ers. He was more ac­cept­ing than re­ject­ing. It was in­ter­est­ing that when he dined with friends and knew that one was a be­liev­ing Jew or Chris­tian, he would ask him or her to say a bless­ing over the meal. For one thing, he liked rit­ual. (What else were his red socks?) But also he felt that un­der all else there were trea­sur­able things, per­sons, or views. I con­sid­ered him a saint, by the only def­i­ni­tion that makes sense to me: a man or wo­man whose company you leave feel­ing that you should be­come a bet­ter per­son.

Af­ter his wife of sixty years died in 1999, Studs kept her ashes on his front win­dowsill, to be min­gled with his when he died. Af­ter his own death, some of his friends gath­ered se­cretly to bury Ida’s and Studs’s ashes in his beloved Bug­house Square. Af­ter the earth was tamped down over them, a dog trot­ted up and pissed on the spot. An­other rit­ual. En­thu­si­as­ti­cally ap­plauded.

It is where I want my ashes buried.

Studs Terkel, 2004; pho­to­graphs by Nancy Cramp­ton

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