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Storytelling with Studs Terkel

At 95, the author is all smiles

Looking dapper in a red and white checked shirt, matching red socks and a sports jacket, Studs Terkel is all smiles as he enters the living room of his house in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood. It's a grand rambling brick home, dating back to the early 1900s and exuding a sense of style. It's a reflection of its owner.

Offering a hearty handshake, Terkel is the genial host ("Do you want something to eat? Drink?"). He asks, with apparent sincerity, why anyone would want to interview an old man.

Terkel leads me past piles of newspapers and magazines to a set of chairs nestled in front of windows with views of the quiet street. Green plants, some thriving, some looking a little tired, line the deep windowsills. Reminiscent of a dorm room, the space is haphazard, but very much enjoyed by someone who loves reading and the pursuit of knowledge.

Settling back into an oversize armchair, Terkel motions me to pull my chair closer (he's somewhat hard of hearing) and away we go, hopskipping through a life well led, starting back in the early 1920s, when his family first moved here from New York.

"My father had a bad ticker, and my mother ran a rooming house," says Terkel, who wanders from one subject to the next, each connected by a thread that quickly becomes apparent as he continues. "I was born within two weeks of the Titanic sinking. The Titanic went down, and I went up."

His words are succinct and his memory remarkable. He quotes writers from Flannery O'Connor to Mark Twain and meanders from medieval history into modern day politics. He voices fears that storytelling and conversations are becoming as obsolete as, well, the electric typewriter he finally learned to use.

"I see more women at work, which is good," Terkel says. "Each one is next to another, but they're miles from each other because they're staring at computer terminals--that's an interesting word, 'terminal,' isn't it? It makes you wonder if George Orwell's time has come. It makes me wonder what will happen to the human voice."

It's his ability to connect to the human voice and the stories that it tells that made Terkel what he is. While growing up, he met all sorts of people at the rooming house his mother ran at Ashland and Flournoy on the near West Side and at the Wells-Grand Hotel at Wells Street and Grand Avenue, which his parents operated from 1926 to 1936.

"There was always room at the inn, even for couples without baggage," Terkel recalls. "There was a hooker at the hotel, but she didn't work there. Her pimp lived down the block, and one night we heard noises coming from her room, pounding, and we opened the door, and he was beating her up. My mother springs in and says, 'If you hit her again, I'll kill you.'"

The hotel, which he describes as similar to the scene painted by Edward Hopper in "Nighthawks," was near Bughouse Square, a place where fiery oratory took place. Terkel credits the people he met in the rooming houses and listened to at the square as influencing his life's work. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1934 with a law degree, but says instead of practicing, he wanted to be a concierge at a hotel and also joined a theater group.

Other jobs included working with the WPA Writers Project in its radio division. It was here that he was asked to read a script. Shortly after, he began performing in radio soap operas and on a news show. After a stint in the Air Force during World War II, he returned to Chicago and soon had his own radio show, "The Wax Museum." It was a perfect fit for someone who enjoyed music and loved to talk.

"I played Mahalia Jackson's music," Terkel says. "Blacks knew her, but many whites didn't."

Terkel's radio career spanned 45 years. His signature style was in-depth conversation, and he had them with Americans from all walks of life, chronicling their thoughts and feelings in 10 books. He earned the Pulitzer Prize for The Good War: An Oral History of World War II and plaudits for works such as Hard Times, about the Great Depression, and Working: What People Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.

"I've had the same publisher for all these years," says Terkel about The New Press, which released The Studs Terkel Reader last month on his 95th birthday. And at one point during our discussion, he reaches over for the galleys of his latest book, a memoir called Touch and Go, scheduled to be published this November.

After asking again if I wanted something to drink, Terkel glances  down at my tape recorder, which has stopped.

commiserates as I try to get it going and nods sagely when I inform him that I just changed the batteries, so it should be working.

"I'm a guy who has had plenty of problems with tape recorders," says Terkel. "I've lost interviews with Michael Redgrave and Martha Graham, and I almost lost Bertram Russell."

With some pride, Terkel says he did finally master the electric typewriter, though he is not ready, he informs with somewhat of a scoff, for the intricacies of email.

"My son does emails," says Terkel. "I dictate them, and he sends them."

Technology, Terkel says, is not his thing. Even the word "web" has a different connotation for him. His references are ultimate Terkel--history interwoven in a modern context--both illuminating for its educating anecdotes and amusing.

"Do you know who Robert the Bruce is?" he asks. I nod, having seen the movie Braveheart.

"Robert the Bruce was a Scottish hero," Terkel says, barely pausing, "and a legend says that the English troops had him cornered in a cave. Bruce noticed a spider web, and he managed to get behind it without touching it, and the troops didn't see him. So when people say 'the web,' I think of Robert Bruce."

And we're not done with historical allusions.

"Do you know who Henry Mayhew is?" Terkel asks next. "He was a contemporary of Charles Dickens, and he was a historian. He interviewed all sorts of people, including scullery maids and chimney sweeps. And he didn't use a tape recorder."

With that he gestures to my tape recorder, which will only start up if I shake it. His gesture seems to say that tape recorders are for wimps.

Terkel, who has been talking for more than an hour, seems to be tiring. It's time for one last question.

I ask if he has any thoughts to share about his milestone birthday (his publisher chartered a skywriter to fly over Chicago for two hours on that day, writing, "Happy 95th B-Day Studs Terkel"). "I've gotten into a lot of trouble, but I wouldn't have lived without those troubles. I wouldn't be myself without them," he says.

Published: May 28, 2007
Issue: Summer 2007 Urban Living