Feb 28, 2002. Oliver Burkeman interviews the interviewer. You can view the original content here.
Studs Terkel has spent his life interviewing ordinary people to chronicle his country. Now in his 90th year, he has a new subject: death. He talks to Oliver Burkeman, journalist at The Guardian.
The three enormous black-on-yellow signs in the windows of Studs Terkel’s Chicago townhouse say “Beware of the dog”. “Beware of the dog?” snorts America’s greatest oral historian, 90 years old in May, following my nervous gaze as he yanks open the front door and beetles off back to the kitchen to fix a martini.
“I don’t have a goddamn dog – I’m the dog. I took a new middle name: rottweiler!”
Friends made him put up the signs, he explains, after he found himself face to face with a burglar in his living room at night. “If you want cash,” Terkel recalls telling the intruder, “you’re gonna have to wait while I get my hearing aids.” This accomplished, he handed over $280 he happened to have withdrawn earlier that day. “And the guy can’t believe it! He’s counting it – $280! It’s his lucky day!”
Then – and Terkel describes this as if it were merely the natural thing to do next – he tried to engage the burglar in conversation. “I said, ‘Look, buddy, now I’m broke. Can’t you give me something to make do with?’ So he handed me $20 over his shoulder, without even looking at me. I said, ‘Thank you.’ He said, ‘You’re welcome.’ ”
Terkel has built a career on the hunch that pretty much everyone might be worth trying to talk to: the rich and famous, certainly, and burglars and murderers and Ku Klux Klansmen – but most of all the teeming, unexamined mass of American life in between. Armed with a tape recorder, he has interviewed hundreds of people, producing a series of books that tell the story of the American century verbatim, and from the ground up: day-labourers, poor farmers and gangsters for Hard Times, his book about the Depression; everyone from steelworkers to hookers for Working, about the realities of employment in America; and his Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicle of the second world war, The Good War. They are the sound of a nation spontaneously unburdening itself to the first person who had thought to ask.
“I’m celebrated for celebrating the uncelebrated,” Terkel says, plonking himself down on one of the 1950s-style sofas that rise up from the random piles of books, papers and magazines that cover his floors. As always, he is wearing a red vest and a red checked shirt under a red jumper, topped off with a thick red lumberjack shirt. His socks are also red. The sofa is green. He looks like a Christmas decoration.
“So. Here we are in my house, part of Chicago called Uptown, a have street in a sea of have-nots, rough and tough, I like it here, like the variety, could never live in a suburb with people like me. So, here we are. Whaddya want to know?”
A Chicago institution with all the taken-for-grantedness of the Sears Tower, Terkel is now very nearly as deaf as the Sears Tower, too, which makes interviewing one of America’s greatest interviewers a strangely disconnected experience. He doesn’t so much answer questions as use them for breathing-space between burnished anecdotes, such as the one about how he came to be called Studs instead of his birth name, Louis: “It’s not what you’re thinking. I wish it were. I started out as an actor, and I loved a novel, Studs Lonigan, by James Farrell. So everyone called me Studs. It got me into trouble. When Working came out, a librarian sent me a letter. She wrote: ‘A librarian’s job is not the most exciting in the world, but it has its piquant moments. One of my colleagues is a spy for the Reverend Jerry Falwell, and he spies on me to see that I don’t order dirty books. One day he came to me and said, Miss Cooper, I see you’ve ordered a pornographic book. A pornographic book? Yes, he said. I believe it’s called Working Studs, by Terkel.’ That’s when I knew I had a bestseller.”
Now and again, though, the anecdotes dry up and he seems to be really remembering. His voice drops to a whisper as he recalls what it meant to people to be asked about their lives for the first time. “Oh, boy… yes, for the first book, I interviewed one mother of four little kids, skinny, pretty, bad teeth – meaning no dental care – and the kids are jumping around, ’cause they want to hear their mamma’s voice played back… and so I play it back, and she listens to what she said on the tape and she says, ‘Oh my God,’ she says. ‘ I never knew I felt that way before’ … That’s pretty hot stuff, isn’t it? That’s hot stuff. That’s the stuff.”
His new book, Will the Circle be Unbroken?, is about death. It sticks to the tried-and-tested formula, but it has a special significance for Terkel: on Christmas Eve 1999, a few months after he began it, his wife of 60 years, Ida, finally succumbed to a long illness. One wall of his living room is covered in photographs of the two of them: Terkel clowning for the camera, Ida looking on in benign amusement. Friends thought her death might unmoor him, but they reckoned without the book. Just when it helped to be talking to someone about bereavement, he found he was already doing so. “It worked like a palliative,” he says. “A palliative beyond prescription.”
The book is full of moving interviews with doctors, priests and undertakers, bereaved children, bereaved parents, returnees from near-death experiences, combatants in the war against Aids. Ida makes only a brief appearance, in the introduction: “Yeah, she did live to the ripe old age of 87,” he writes, “but it doesn’t cut the mustard… I still see that girl in the maroon smock who liked yellow daisies.”
But that’s all. He doesn’t write, or talk, about his private life. “Not interesting. Not interesting.” He has a son, Dan, with whom he is close, but according to newspaper reports they were estranged for years. Were they? “Not really.” A pause. “But I think I’ve been a bad father for a kid. It was always me in the spotlight.”
His interviewees get to keep their privacy, too. “I don’t want anybody to be hurt by what I write,” he says. “If I talk to somebody and she calls me afterwards and says, ‘Please take out that bit about my husband drinking too much’ – of course I take it out. It’s none of my business.”
Terkel never planned to become an interviewer. He was born in the Bronx, the son of eastern European immigrants who moved to Chicago and opened a rooming house for immigrant workers – “that atmosphere of transience and intelligence and oafishness and everything” that gave him his political education. (He calls himself “a man of the left”.) He studied law, but hated it, and was working as a radio DJ when Chicago started to gain a reputation as a hotbed for the new medium, TV. “So I played gangsters in soap operas,” he says. “They all had three gangsters in them, the bright gangster, the middle gangster and the dumb gangster. I was always the dumb gangster.” He got his own series, Studs’ Place – an improvised sitcom in which Terkel played himself as a restaurant owner. He started to get involved in politics. “I signed a lot of petitions,” he says.
He might still be an actor today if it hadn’t been for McCarthy. “A man comes from New York. He says, ‘These petitions, your name is on all of them: anti-poll tax, anti-lynching, friendship with the Soviet Union…. don’t you know the communists were behind them?’ And he said, ‘Look, you can get out of this pretty easy. All you got to do is say the communists duped you. You were dumb. You didn’t mean it.’ I said, ‘But I did mean it!’ To this day people say, ‘Oh, Studs, you were so heroic.’ Heroic? I was scared shitless! But my ego was at stake. My vanity. ‘Whaddya mean, I’m dumb?!’ ”
He was blacklisted, which meant the end of a career with employers based in New York or Hollywood. But things were different in Chicago, where a local classical radio station eventually took him on. They gave him an hour to do what he wanted. He chose interviewing. “So I wouldn’t have done any of this if it hadn’t been for the blacklisting. Not that I recommend blacklisting as a career move.”
Why do people open up to him so freely? “I’m inept. I’m known as the man with the tape recorder, but I’m inept. Often I press the wrong buttons. So people aren’t in awe – they see a guy who’s having trouble with a tape recorder. Mike Royko, Chicago’s leading columnist, he accused me of doing that deliberately. I proved to him I really am inept. He said, ‘It’s true, Studs, you’re inept.’ They realise my vulnerability. And they realise: ‘You’re interested? In what I’ve got to say?’ Well, yeah!” He takes a swig of martini. “Oh, boy, I’m drunk. But anyway. Let’s go have supper.”
He balances an absurd fisherman’s hat on his head and charges out to a nearby Vietnamese, where the waiters know to bring him scallops. The clink of cutlery and wine-glasses makes it even harder for him to hear, but he wants to talk about the new book – and that is how I come to yell, “ARE YOU AFRAID OF DEATH?” in the middle of a swanky Chicago restaurant during the Friday-evening rush. (His merry response, almost as loud, is: “No, absolutely not. This subject is the exact opposite of depressing. They say nobody wants to talk about death. Let me tell ya: everybody wants to talk about it!”)
Redemption, he says: that’s what this book and all the others are really about. His favourite interview was with CP Ellis, a former Ku Klux Klan leader who ended up fighting for the union rights of black janitors alongside his partner, an African-American woman. “Anybody can be redeemed. I’ve seen it.”
The wall-to-wall displays of patriotism in America today leave him cold. The war against terrorism needs a new approach, he says. “You know, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’? It’s the same with powerlessness. Absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely. Einstein said everything had changed since the atom was split, except the way we think. We have to think anew.” He looks up and grins. “I like quoting Einstein. Know why? Because nobody dares contradict you.”
Shortly after he was burgled, Terkel says, a friend reminded him of the old saying that a conservative is just a liberal who’s been robbed. Where did that leave Terkel, the man of the left? “I told him it had made me even more leftwing! Because if he’d been a corporation, they’d have called that a hostile takeover, and they’d have praised it on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.”
And the $20 the burglar gave back? “That was his charitable foundation.”