Studs Terkel

Barbara Isenberg is a frequent contributor to The Times. Her oral history "State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work" will be published in October

Nobody knows Americans the way Louis “Studs” Terkel does. Since his first book of oral history, “Division Street: America,” in 1967, Terkel has traveled the country, documenting the way people feel about how they live and work. The otherwise “anonymous many” have talked to him about the Great Depression in “Hard Times” (1970), their jobs in “Working” (1974) and old age in “Coming of Age” (1996). His eight oral histories have won him both the Pulitzer Prize (in 1985, for “The Good War: An Oral History of World War II”) and a National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton in 1997.

Born in New York City in 1912 and raised in Chicago, Terkel trained as a lawyer but instead became an actor, disc jockey and, in the ‘50s, a radio and TV personality. His early talk and interview show, “Studs’ Place,” first aired on Chicago television in 1950. When the show ended three years later after he was blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Terkel began a 45-year stint of weekday radio interviews on WFMT, Chicago’s fine-arts radio station.

A few of Terkel’s interviews published in a magazine in the early 1960s came to the attention of publisher Andre Schiffrin at Random House’s Pantheon Books. The way Terkel tells it, Random House had just published Jan Myrdal’s “Report from a Chinese Village,” and Schiffrin suggested Terkel report on an American village, Chicago. The result was “Division Street,” and, says Terkel, “like the serpent in the Garden of Eden,” Schiffrin has been back again and again, tempting him with one good oral-history topic after another.


Terkel owes his success, he has said, to his ability to use interviewing skills and a tape recorder to catch and transform “the man of inchoate thought.” His method, Terkel explains, combines the crafts of gold prospector and brain surgeon. He refines his “ore” of 40 or more pages of transcript down to a handful, using a surgeon’s care and caution while editing.

“The Spectator,” a 1999 book of his radio interviews with film and theater people, is the first of a planned trilogy that will also include “The Listener,” about musicians, and “The Reader,” about authors. He has already begun a new oral history of how we think about death.

Terkel was recently in Los Angeles for a public chat with actor-director Tim Robbins as part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Institute for Art & Cultures. Short and compact, wearing his traditional red vest, Terkel looks considerably younger than his 87 years. His wife of 60 years, Ida Goldberg Terkel, died in December.

Terkel prefers free association to traditional conversation and segues back and forth between the past and present, often in a single sentence. His speech is largely anecdotal as he rummages through memory, searching for the perfect person or anecdote to answer a question or express a thought.


Question: You’ve written about poverty and racism, cities and jobs. What are the most pressing issues you see today?

Answer: One of the ironies of our day--not ironies--one of the obscenities of our day is the fact that we have something I call a “national Alzheimer’s disease”: There is no yesterday. . . . I [was] talking . . . to people waiting for the bus, and there was this couple waiting with me one day. Yuppies. He’s in Brooks Brothers clothes. Got the Wall Street Journal in his hand. She’s in Neiman Marcus or Bloomingdale’s and has Vanity Fair. I say, “Labor Day is coming up.” He looks at me the way Noel Coward would look at a flyspeck. “We used to march down State Street,” I say. “Waving flags. Solidarity forever. We shall not be moved. UAW. CIO.” He looks at me and says, “We despise unions.”


I ask him, “How many hours a day do you work?” It’s a non sequitur, but he says, “Eight.” I say, “You know why you don’t work 18 hours a day? Because four guys in Chicago [died] back in 1886. It’s called the Haymarket Affair. They were hanged for you, for the eight-hour day.”

The bus is late, and she’s tremulous, like Fay Wray in “King Kong.” I ask her how many hours a week she works, and she says, “40.” And I say, “You don’t work 80 because, back in the ‘30s, men and women got their heads busted for you.”

Now, I’m not going to blame them. How do they know about labor? Every paper’s got a feature section. Business. Sports. Entertainment. Is there a labor section? Of course not. Labor page? Of course not. So is it their fault? Of course not. There’s no knowledge.

Q: How would you describe the great changes in the nature of work?

A: When I did “Working,” I went to an auto plant where this young union guy showed me a robot they called a Unimate. Out in front of the line is this thing that looks like a praying mantis. It doesn’t eat. It doesn’t take time out to smoke a cigarette. It doesn’t organize unions. It doesn’t complain. It does steady work, and they have to keep up with it.

Now, I know we need machinery. Since I drink a bit, I’m for a refrigerator because where else can I freeze my martini glass? Or sometimes I say, “I’m for a washing machine. I don’t want to see a woman slapping wet clothes against a rock all day.” Feminists will say “or a guy doing it,” so I should say “or a guy doing it.”

Q: What are some of the other problems you see in today’s workplace?

A: Never has it been so healthy, our economy. It’s booming. It’s great. It’s fantastic. But no one mentions the word “temp.” In the old days, a “temporary worker” was George and Lennie in [John Steinbeck’s] “Of Mice and Men.” They’d go down to Skid Row--Howard Street, San Francisco, or Madison Street, Chicago--or work the ranch or be day laborers. Temps today are in banks, insurance companies and law firms. Temps are everywhere. How many of these people are employed without any benefits whatsoever?


Q: Besides temps?

A: One of my neighbors is a consultant for one of those big accounting firms. He tells me that, one day, he was called in and retired early. They told him they had a younger man who could do the job and cost half what he was getting. Ageism is the most pervasive of all, more than racism, genderism, homophobia. The exquisite irony, and stupidity, is our span of life is increasing, thanks to the developments in medicine and science, and the technology, ironically enough, that saved me. I had a quintuple bypass, saved by the skilled hands of a surgeon, plus the machinery I’m condemning. . . . Here we have this crazy phenomenon of more octogenarians, nonagenarians and centenarians than ever. At the same time, at the age of 50, you’ve had it. So what happens to all those 40 years?

Q: What do you think should happen those next 40 years?

A: Well, it depends upon the person’s health, mental and physical. Would I have mandatory retirement? Of course not. If I were a spot welder in a Ford auto plant, shooting a spot in that revolving snake of the assembly line and not seeing the end result all day long, I would want to retire, get a pension, go fishing. But what about a teacher or someone else who loves his work? Should he have to retire after 70, or whatever? Of course not.

Q: You’ve called yourself “a guerrilla journalist,” always ready to fight for what you believed in. Do you find people coming along today who are as willing to take a stand?

A: Now we come to Mahalia Jackson. One Friday night [in the ‘50s], I’m going over the script [I’d written] for her CBS radio program, and a guy walks in from New York with a loyalty oath. I say, “Are you out of your mind? I’m very loyal, but I’m damned if I’m going to sign an oath to the effect.” He says, “You have to,” and I say, “No, I don’t,” just as Mahalia is passing by. She asks, “You want to sign?” I say, “No, of course not,” and she says, “OK, let’s rehearse.”

He then says, “Pardon me, Miss Jackson, but Mr. Terkel has to sign it.” “Listen,” she says, “he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to do. Now if you’re going to fire him, you’ll have to find another Mahalia Jackson.”

What do you think happened? Nothing. He vanished. We went out the whole 26 weeks. Nothing happened. And that’s the moral of the whole story of everything. Lillian Hellman called it “scoundrel time.” It was craven time. It was coward time. It wasn’t scoundrel time. No one said “no.” Mahalia said “no.” That’s all there was to it.


The key question for all young people anywhere in the world, no matter what the society, how enlightened or brutish it may be, is to question authority always. Question the official word. The one key word is “why.” “Why?” you ask. “Why do you think that?”

Q: Is it a matter of public apathy?

A: [Sighs] See, I sighed just then, and that sigh says it all. You can’t fight city hall. The cards are stacked. In a way, they were slightly unstacked in Seattle [with protests late last year at the World Trade Organization meeting]. They were a sign of something, a sign of coalitions unexpected. It was almost a throwback to the street demonstrations of the ‘30s or the ‘60s. You don’t bank on it, but sometimes these spontaneous outbursts happen. You’ve got to have hope, you know.

There was a marvelous woman named Jessie de la Cruz who is in a number of my books. Jessie de la Cruz is a farm worker, one of the first women who worked for Cesar Chavez. She said, “We have a saying in Spanish: La esperanza muere al ultimo [Hope dies last].” To me, that’s it. No matter how slender the reed is, you hang on to hope. Without it, you might as well put your head in the oven. *