A life dedicated to telling the stories of our class

On June 19, 2004, David Barsamian ­interviewed Studs Terkel. We print below an excerpt of that discussion. A full transcript, CD, and mp3 of the dialogue can be obtained through Alternative Radio (www.alternativeradio.org/).

WELCOME TO the program, Studs.

THANK YOU. It’s good being with you, of course. I admire some of the people you’ve interviewed: Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Said, Howard Zinn, and the beautiful Arundhati Roy. I mean thoughtful and humanistic. That’s pretty fast company.

COMING FROM you, that’s a real compliment. I appreciate that. You’ve kind of set the standards in doing interviews.

STANDARDS WERE set thousands and thousands of years ago. Oral history. I’m called an oral historian. I have no idea what that means. It means I’m a nonacademic, really. When Alex Hailey wrote Roots, one of the first things he did was to visit Gambia, West Africa, the land of his ancestors, to meet a griot, storyteller. It’s a tradition long before there was paper, long before there was pencil.

But if there is one guide I had, who could be called a North Star, it was Henry Mayhew, a contemporary of Charles Dickens. Mayhew did something no other journalist did, certainly not in Britain. He wrote for respectable newspapers, one called The Morning Chronicle, and was read in London, Birmingham, and Manchester.

He interviewed people who had never been interviewed before in their lives. These were the street hawkers, the chambermaids, the downstairs maids, the chimney sweeps, the peddlers, and the servants, who were like well-behaved children, always seen but never heard. And he gets them to talk. The interviews were 15,000 words. They appeared in The Morning Chronicle in the middle of the nineteenth century. And he was read everywhere.

So they realized, Hey, there are other people in the world we don’t know, take for granted, who think, who have intelligence, and who disturb us. Henry Mayhew’s book was London Labour and the London Poor. E.P. Thompson, the British historian who wrote the great The Making of the English Working Class, did a book on Mayhew. So Mayhew in a sense was my idol, as were the WPA—Works Progress Administration—colleagues of mine during the 1930s.

See, during the WPA the Writers Project came into being. You heard of the state guides? There are no state guides today in any of the forty-eight states, as there were then, as good as the WPA guides. The best of writers would be on them: Chicago had Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, Jack Conroy, and Saul Bellow. I was on it, in the radio division. But others were covering stories people told. For example, in the Florida Writers Project, Zora Neale Hurston covered the words of ex-slaves. Her boss was a young white kid named Stetson Kennedy. Did you ever hear of Stetson Kennedy? He’s one of the heroes. But he was a white kid. He was the boss of Zora Neale Hurston, but, of course, he knew she was a genius at interviewing. And so Stetson Kennedy is the one who infiltrated the Klan, but he also spoke out continuously and was always left wing. So the Writers Project had many interviews with people otherwise not known. So they played a role in my life.

But mostly it was my work on the radio as a disk jockey. Interviewing came accidentally. I suppose if there is a beginning to whatever there is of me, it’s at the hotel my mother ran. I was born in New York City, came here as a sickly kid, the third of three brothers, the beloved child of a family that was having it rough. My father was very ill, an excellent tailor. But luckily we borrowed some dough from a rich relative, which we paid back, for a rooming house in Chicago. Later on, my father wanted to come back and manage the hotel, a men’s hotel. He died. My mother ran it. That hotel was more to me than the University of Chicago Law School ever was.

THAT WAS, as you call it, the not-so-grand Wells Grand Hotel?

THE WELLS Grand Hotel. I always loved that name. It was at the corner of Wells Street and Grand Avenue. When I finished law school, it was in the Depression, 1934. I hated the idea of practicing law. I dreamed of Clarence Darrow and woke up to Julius Hoffman.1 I wasn’t much of a law student. I flunked the first bar. And 80 percent passed. I was one of the 20 percent that flunked. I passed the second bar because there were essay questions: yes, but on the other hand, no. And I’m good at that, because that’s faking and that’s my métier.

And so anything but practice law. So having a 9-to-5 civil service job would be something sensational for someone of the Depression. The family was okay, but the hotel had more and more vacancies. It used to be a full house all the time. Working men lived there, and I’ll tell you about them in a minute.

So I applied for jobs. Since I worked at the hotel, too, as a clerk, I wrote to the Mark Hopkins Hotel, the Plaza Hotel, the Claridge Hotel, the Drake Hotel in Chicago, saying, “I’ve been working as a clerk at the Wells Grand Hotel, and I’d love to be a clerk at your hotel, perhaps someday become a concierge.” I’d go to Berlitz School, learn a couple of languages. That was my dream, to be a concierge. It didn’t work out. They all replied, every one replied: “that’s interesting, we’ll let you know.”

And I had a civil service job in Chicago. But I had to do something aside from practicing law, which I had no intention of doing. I know less about law today, it’s a Freudian bloc, of course.

And so I became an actor by accident. It wasn’t WPA at the time. It was called FERA, Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Harry Hopkins was the director. Harry Hopkins was the head of the WPA, but also this project preceding it. I got a job doing some statistical work there. And while there, I met a guy who was director of a theater group. I always loved theater and art movies. And, of course, the men’s hotel was near the loop of Chicago, the theater area. And in those days press agents were easy-going. They’d come into the lobby of our hotel—the lobby was some guys sitting around—and they put up a poster saying They Knew What They Wanted, by Sidney Howard, with Richard Bennett and Pauline Lord. And I would get two tickets to see it. I could walk there. So I saw plays when I was thirteen, went to the Chicago Symphony, because of my brother’s interest in music, when I was fourteen, fifteen.

And I became an actor. Chicago had more radio soap operas than New York and Hollywood put together. I was always a Chicago gangster, because the scripts were all the same. Guiding Light was about a young minister in trouble, Woman in White about a young nurse in trouble, Midstream about a doctor. And they always had the same kind of villains in them, either Middle Eastern villains or Italian gangsters, but mostly gangsters. There were always three of us: the bright one, the middle one, and the dumb one. I was always the dumb one. That’s how I became an actor.

One thing led to another. I was in this theater group. It turns out to be a labor theater group, a left-wing theater group. And I’m in a play called Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets. And that’s how it all began.

YOU’VE ALWAYS taken a keen interest not only in politics but in the arts, music and film, as you said. I remember your writing about visiting Italy and Vittorio De Sica, the great filmmaker who did The Bicycle Thief. You wrote that “The Bicycle Thief affected my life in ways that I cannot explain.”

OF COURSE. Think about it now. De Sica’s own story is a magnificent one. His Bicycle Thief was post-Mussolini. The Italian dictator and his mistress, Carla Petacci, were hanged by their heels in Milan by the socialists. They had a song called “Bella Ciao, Bella Ciao, Bella Ciao.” And this is post-fascist time. It was a very moving experience interviewing him. He would subsidize his own movies, because even though Mussolini was overthrown, the fascists were still there and giving him a rough time. He would pick up a lot of money as an actor because he was a matinée idol, but he spent all his dough on films.

What affected me in the film was the father and son relationship. And I thought of the guys at the hotel talking about their kids. The humiliation. When he gets a job, the father, who is a non-actor—De Sica would hire non-actors—his bicycle is stolen. He needs the bike because he finally got a job as a paperhanger, of signs. And it’s stolen. And in desperation—he needs it because the kid’s family needs it—he tries to steal a bike. And he gets caught and humiliated. And he’s left with the kid at the end, and the kid’s hand in his.

I said to De Sica, we had an interpreter, but we didn’t really need one, “Mr. De Sica, Bruno Ricci, the little boy, was so fantastic.” He said, “You, an American, remember the name of the little boy, Bruno Ricci?” I said, “Mr. De Sica, I saw the movie twelve times.” He described Italy today. He said, “You know what? We still have them around, the fascists. We have to work like hell. The battle goes on.” And by the way, his office, where I did the interview, was only a block away from the balcony from which Mussolini used to speak. That was a moving interview.

The one with Fellini was a good one too. I interviewed Fellini about La Dolce Vita. I said, “You have chosen as the central figure a gossip columnist.” Marcello Mastroianni plays Marcello. I asked him, “Why a gossip columnist?” Fellini responded, “He is the Herodotus of our day. He’s the Thucydides of our day. Who influences more than a gossip columnist?” And that was about thirty years ago. Now it’s more than ever. He was right on the button. Today trivia is covered as something of overwhelming importance. Celebrities in the press. You have Britney Spears. She gets far more space than Einstein ever did. They’re both celebrated, but for different reasons. And so it’s value-free, of course.

I got into interviewing accidentally, by the way. I was a disc jockey. After I became a gangster in radio soap operas, I became a disc jockey, before the word was used. It was an eclectic program. It had a following of its own. I called it a “select following.” I would play, say, “Umbra Mai Fu,” a Caruso aria from Handel’s Xerxes, and go into Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues,” and after that a Woody Guthrie Dust Bowl ballad. And I would play the record of a certain woman I heard sing in the Greater Salem Baptist Church in Chicago. Her name was Mahalia Jackson. And I loved this record, “Move On Up a Little Higher.” All the Black people in the country knew it. None of the whites knew it. So I played it, and so whites got to know it. Mahalia always said, “Studs, you’re the one who led me to the white world,” which, of course, is untrue. She would have been known anyway. But that I did for a while.

In the meantime, because of the hotel experience and hearing all these arguments and talks, I became naturally a Roosevelt man, but more than that, more to the left. So I signed all kinds of petitions. I signed petitions such as anti-poll tax, anti-lynching, anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, which came out as a result of the Spanish Civil War and the refugees who went to other countries. I signed all those. I signed one, Friendship with the Soviet Union, because they were allies. Four out of five German soldiers were killed on the Eastern front. So that’s there.

Now TV comes into being. You’ve got to hear the full story. Now TV is the new medium. TV was not the powerhouse it is today commercially and politically. It’s a new medium. It was autonomous in different cities. So Chicago had three programs. And at the time, John Crosby, a very eminent TV critic of the New York Herald Tribune, said, “These three programs can be called the TV Chicago style,” and it could be something that this new medium can be about.

And the three programs were Garroway at Large. Did you ever hear of Dave Garroway? He was a fellow disc jockey of mine. He was a jazz jockey with a tremendous following. And he was easy for TV. He made it to TV. And he was courted by New York. TV was on six to ten at night. There was no daytime. And in New York his was the first face ever seen on daytime TV in a new program called Today that opened up the avenues. The second program of Chicago was Kukla, Fran & Ollie, with a marvelous genius, Burt Tillstrom, with rags on his hands, little puppets that he would make come to life. And it was wonderful.

The third was my program, called Studs’ Place. It was some place in Chicago. I don’t know what it was. It may have been a hamburger stand, it may have been a diner. And I had three gifted colleagues with me, one of whom was Win Stracke, who himself in real life was a lieder singer, a church singer, but was a handyman in this thing. He was an autodidact. Another was a marvelous actress named Beverly Younger. She played Gracie, the waitress. And the third was a jazzman named Chet Roble, whom John Hammond, the critic, loved. This program was improvisational, as I am improvising at this moment. And that’s what John Crosby meant by Chicago style. We had a plot, but the dialogue was by the cast. It was always announced at the end, “Dialogue by the cast.”

So I became hot property, because at this time New York wooed announcers here named Mike Wallace and John Chancellor and Hugh Downs. And a good number are courting me, too. Dave is in New York. And that’s when a guy appears. The Cold War had begun, and Joe McCarthy now is in flower, as well as the pooh-bah, the big panjandrum of the FBI, John Edgar Hoover, who is not only feared but sainted. So a guy comes from New York, and here they are in Chicago. And the show was in pretty good shape.

He says, “We’re in big trouble,” he says. That’s when I said, “Where do you get that we stuff?” You know, Tonto and the Lone Ranger story. And he says, “You signed all these petitions.” I say, “Yes, I did.” He says, “Do you know who is behind these petitions?” And I said, “No, I don’t.” “The Communist Party.”

And that’s when, I have a tendency now and then to say something out of turn, I said, “Suppose communists come out against cancer. Do I have to come out for cancer?” (Archibald MacLeish once wrote a piece about that—I think I read it somewhere—about we’re in thrall to them, the Soviet Union, and they are in thrall to us.)

And he says, “That’s not very funny.” He said, “You’ve got to stand up and be counted in these times.” Suddenly he’s a drill sergeant.

So I stand up like Charlie Chaplin would.

He said, “Sit down. That’s not very funny either.” Finally, he said, “We’ve got a way out. And that way out is you didn’t mean it. You were stupid, you were duped by the commies, and you take it back.”

I said, “I can’t do that. Oh, no I don’t do that. I don’t believe in that.”

He says, “What do you mean, you can’t do it?”

I say, “No, I can’t.” And to this day—and I’m talking to you now—people say, “Why do you interview me?” for one thing. “Studs,” they say, “you were heroic,” like Dalton Trumbo. I said, “Are you out of your mind? The truth is, I was scared shitless. But my ego was at stake, my vanity was at stake. What do you mean? I’m dumb?” So that’s how it came to be.

So now comes the blacklist period. My wife, fortunately, was a social worker. They were the aristocrats of the Depression, $125 a month. That’s why I married her, for the dough. She made $125 a month. But I was lecturing to women’s clubs. By this time I was known in Chicago. I should point out that Chicagoans didn’t know much about this. The trade did, but Chicagoans didn’t care about that too much. If I were in New York or Hollywood, I would have been dead meat.

For example, I never made Red Channels. You know what Red Channels was? Red Channels was the bible, the scripture, put out by a couple of political thugs, listing people that were considered un-American. And all sorts of people are on it, people I admire: Arthur Miller, Zero Mostel, Lillian Hellman. Where is me? I don’t find my name on it. And I felt like a blue-haired dowager who didn’t make the Social Register. You know what I attribute that to? New York parochialism. I didn’t make that list. However, I was on the blacklist in the trade.

So women’s clubs would hire me to talk about folk music. At that time I became interested in folk music and jazz, which I played on my radio program. By that time they paid me a hundred bucks. But there was a guy in town, a legionnaire, who was a one-man Americanism committee. He set himself up, and I was his favorite pigeon. So he would write these warning letters to the local women’s clubs not to have me. And to their everlasting glory, not one canceled.

But this one woman, I’ll never forget. She was elegant, aristocratic, old, old money, and very Brahminesque. She was so infuriated by the letters, she said, “Mr. Terkel, we are doubling your fee from $100 to $200.” So what do you think I did? I wrote the legionnaire a letter, and I sent him a $10 check with a note saying, “Here’s your agent’s fee for the extra hundred bucks.” He never acknowledged my check.

So that’s how it came about. I got along. By this time, this marvelous station, WFMT, came into being, and I became a fixture on that station for forty-five years. That’s when I started interviewing people. But in the meantime, Mahalia Jackson figures in this. I told you I used to play her records. She’s now internationally known. And Mahalia Jackson is offered a radio network program by CBS. Once a week. And she said, “I’ll do it on one condition, that Studs is the host of the program.” And they tremulously agree. It’s a thirteen-week program. It’s in Chicago in the Wrigley Building, which was the home of CBS. And there is a little theater there that seats 400 people. And we would do it there. The audience would come in about 6:30, the program would go on at 7:00 Central Standard Time, all over the country.

During the third week or so of the rehearsal, a dress rehearsal, about a half hour before the audience is let in, a guy comes on the stage, another guy from New York—this time it’s CBS—with a little piece of paper for me to sign. He was very friendly. “Oh, Studs, this is just a pro forma.” And it’s a loyalty oath. It’s one of those things: “I have not been, or you are not, and you swear.”

I said, “Throw it away. I don’t believe in that.”

He said, “You gotta.”

“No, I don’t. I’m with the brethren. You know the brethren? I’m with the brethren. My yea is my yea and my nay is my nay. And that’s it. I’m sorry.”

Our voices are raised, and Mahalia is on her way to the piano to rehearse. Her pianist’s name was Mildred Falls. And we had a new theme song, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” She hears this argument. She knows all about me. She used to say, “Studs, you’ve got such a big mouth, you should have been a preacher.”

She said, “Is that what I think it is, baby?”

I say “Yes.”

“Are you going to sign it?”

I said, “Of course not.”

She says, “Okay, let’s rehearse.”

He said, “Oh, but Miss Jackson,” and he’s very diffident, “Mr. Terkel has to sign it. Headquarters, New York, the official word.”

Mahalia says, “Look, I’ve got no time for this. You tell Mr. So-and-So that if they fire Studs Terkel, to find another Mahalia Jackson.”

And you know what happened? Nothing. Nothing happened. The guy vanished. The emperor had no clothes. The show went through the whole thirteen weeks.

What’s the moral of that, the moral for 2004 as well as then, whatever that year was? The moral is: Mahalia Jackson, in saying no to the official word, had more guts in her, more real Americanism in her, than General Sarnoff, Colonel Paley, and all the networks and sponsors rolled into one. And that’s what it’s about.


  1. Clarence Darrow was a radical attorney in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and a leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Julius Hoffman was a conservative Chicago judge whose most famous case was the trial of the 1968 Democratic Party convention protesters known as the “Chicago Eight.”

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