Author-radio host-actor-activist Louis “Studs” Terkel died Friday at his Chicago home at age 96.
At his bedside was a copy of his latest book, “P.S. Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening,” scheduled for a November release.
Beset in recent years by a variety of ailments and the woes of age, which included being virtually deaf, Terkel’s health took a turn for the worse when he suffered a fall in his home two weeks ago.
It is hard to imagine a fuller life.
A television institution for years, a radio staple for decades, a literary lion since 1967, when he wrote his first best-selling book at the age of 55, Louis Terkel was born in New York City on May 16, 1912. “I came up the year the Titanic went down,” he would often say.
He moved with his family to Chicago when they purchased the Wells-Grand Hotel, a rooming house catering to a wide and colorful variety of people. He supplemented the life experiences there by visits to Bughouse Square, the park across the street from the Newberry Library that was at the time home to all manner of soap box orators.
“I doubt whether I learned very much (at the park),” Terkel wrote. “One thing I know: I delighted in it. Perhaps none of it made any sense, save one kind: sense of life.”
He attended the University of Chicago, where he obtained a law degree and borrowed his nickname from the character in the “Studs Lonigan” trilogy by Chicago writer James T. Farrell. He never practiced law. Instead, he took a job in a federally sponsored statistical project with the Federal Emergency Rehabilitation Administration, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal’’ agencies. Then he found a spot in a writers project with the Works Progress Administration, writing plays and developing his acting skills.
Terkel worked on radio soap operas, in stage plays, as a sportscaster and a disk jockey. His first radio program was called “The Wax Museum,” an eclectic gather of whatever sort of music struck his fancy, including the first recordings of Mahalia Jackson, who would become a friend.
When television became a force in the American home in the early 1950s, Terkel created and hosted “Studs’ Place,” one of the major jewels in the legendary “Chicago school” of television that also spawned Dave Garroway and Kukla, Fran and Ollie.
It was on “Studs’ Place,” which was set in a tavern, that large numbers of people discovered what Terkel did best - talk and listen. Terkel, arms waving, words exploding in bursts, leaning close to his talking companions, didn’t merely conduct interviews. He engaged in conversations. He was interested in what he was talking about and who he was talking to.
But his TV career did not last. Terkel later complained that the commercialization of television forced his show, and the others in the “Chicago school,” from the air. Also, at that time, McCarthyism was a potent force and Terkel was outspoken politically, with a highly liberal tone. “I was blacklisted because I took certain positions on things and never retracted,” Terkel once said in an interview about those times. “I signed many petitions that were for unfashionable causes and never retracted.”
He had a hard time finding work, subsisting on small speaking fees and even smaller sums for writing book reviews. His wife, Ida, made enough to keep the family afloat.
“The first time I saw her she was wearing a maroon dress,” Terkel once recalled. “She made a lot more money than I did. It was like dating a CEO. I borrowed 20 bucks from her for our first date. I never paid her back.”
They were married July 2, 1939. Their only child, Dan, was born in 1949.
“It was her self-assurance and strength that helped Studs accomplish as much as he has,” said Sydney Lewis, a writer who has been a friend and colleague of Terkel’s for 30 years. “She was, on every level, his most important audience.”
He found a larger audience when he was hired at a new fine arts station, WFMT, where Terkel’s brand of chatter, jazz, folk music, and good conversation was a perfect fit. His political views were more tolerated on the station, and Terkel began his morning radio show in 1952.
In the mid-1960s, Terkel was in his mid-50s, a time when most people are beginning to plan the end of their careers. Terkel was about to start a new one.
A British actress he had interviewed was so impressed with his technique that she told a friend, Andre Schiffrin, a book publisher, about Terkel. Schiffrin remembered reading transcripts of some of Terkel’s radio interviews in a WFMT publication and had been impressed.
He contacted Terkel - who had written a little known book, “Giants of Jazz,” in 1957 - and, after much convincing argument, coaxed the radio personality into writing a book compiled from interviews with Chicagoans from all walks of life. “I told him he must be out of his mind,” Terkel recalled about his first confrontations with Schiffrin, but he relented.
The result was “Division Street: America,” published in 1967 to rave reviews and best-selling success. It told the stories, in their own words, of businessmen, prostitutes, Hispanics, blacks, ordinary working people who formed the unit of America and also the divisions in society, using Chicago’s Division Street as a prototype of America.
It was a theme that Terkel would explore again and again, in “Hard Times,” his Depression era memoir in 1970; in “Working,” his saga of the lives of ordinary working people in 1974; in “American Dreams; Lost and Found” in 1980; and “The Good War,” remembrances of World War II, published in 1985 and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
Most of his books were written radio. Terkel asked questions and then listened. He drew out of people things they didn’t know they had in them.
“I think of myself as an old-time craftsman,” Terkel said. “I’ve been doing this five days a week, for more than 30 years. When I realize the work is slipping, I’ll quit. But I don’t think I’ve reached that point yet. I still have my enthusiasm. I still love what I do.”
And he was far from finished doing it.
In 1986 he published “Chicago,” a big title for a 144-page book. He described it as a “rambling essay” but it was more like a meditation, a distillation of much of what Terkel had come to feel for a city that he was as closely identified with as those other uniquely compelling Chicago voices and among his dearest friends, Nelson Algren and Mike Royko.
He captured the voices of the city: quoting the recollections of Jessie Binford, an associate of Jane Addams, or Tom Kearney, a police sergeant, to give a human scale to history. His own voice was there too in “Chicago,” in anecdotes and reminiscences about his family and growing up on Ashland Avenue and Flournoy Street; a lovely little scene of Studs as a boy, in the company of his sick father, passing the time together listening to a crystal radio set.
His radio show remained vibrant, an 11 a.m. fixture for decades before moving to 5:30 p.m. in the late 1980s. The human drama was his great theme. Conversation was his vocation and avocation. His brimming curiosity and “feeling tone,” as he called it, carried him into the hearts of the world. He bent a listening ear in Europe, South Africa, as well as all over the United States and, of course, Chicago. Thousands of celebrated names spilled from his interview tapes.
But just as important, Studs sought the daydreams and 3 a.m. truths of many a person who never made a headline. They were all somebodies to him. Terkel looked down on none of them.
“I become one of them, in a way,” he said.
By being himself, Terkel put others at ease. A young Marlon Brando was so intrigued during an hour long radio session that he asked for a second hour and took over, trying to find out what made Terkel tick.
As his celebrity grew, many gave Terkel the sort of larger-than-life status that is one step away from caricature.
“Studs is a character,” said Scott Craig, the producer of a 1989 WTTW-TV documentary titled, simply, “Studs.” “But that doesn’t make him a caricature. He’s been famous around here for so long that people take him for granted, like he’s some sort of landmark. One of the things I discovered in making this documentary is that Studs is now a lot more famous, and well known, outside of Chicago than he is here.”
He was well known for his wardrobe, almost a costume that he chose many years ago: a red checked shirt, a loosened red knit tie, gray trousers and a blue blazer.
His wife said Terkel once spotted a man at a party wearing a red-checked shirt and said he had to have one just like it. He did own a blue-checked shirt, but rarely wore it. He always had a frazzled and rumpled look, as if he might have been a boxing promoter. But he might have looked even worse. As his wife said, “I have to take him out to the store to buy clothes. Otherwise, he would be dressed in rags.”
He was indefatigable, juggling his daily radio shows and his frequent public appearances with a steady stream of books. (He also played newspaper reporter Hugh Fullerton in the 1988 John Sayles Film “Eight Men Out,” about the Black Sox scandal of 1919).
In 1992 came “Race: What Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession,” followed by 1995’s “Coming of Age, The Story of Our Century by Those Who’ve Lived It,” and 1997’s “My American Century.”
Along with them came dozens of awards, which Terkel took with typical lack of ego.
In honor of his 80th birthday the city named the Division Street Bridge for him. Noting that at the time only two other Chicagoans, columnist Irv Kupcinet and broadcaster Paul Harvey, had been so honored, he said, “Kup, Harvey and Studs ... sounds like a law.”
In 1997 he went to the White House to receive the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts with a group including Jason Robards, Angela Lansbury, conductor James Levine, religion scholar Martin Marty and arts patron Richard Franke. He was stopped at the White House gate and asked for identification. Studs, who had never driven a car, did not have a driver’s license. The only thing he could come up with to appease the White House guards was his Chicago Transit Authority seniors pass. They let him in.
“I’ve got it here at home, somewhere,” he said years later. “It’s in a box, somewhere. I’ve got some cigars and the medal in the box.”
His radio career ended in 1998 with its traditional sign-off (“Take it easy, but take it”), and he spent much of his time at the Chicago Historical Society (now Chicago History Museum), which had become the repository for his 45 years of radio tapes and interviews from his books. These 9,000-some hours were called “Vox Humana: The Human Voice” and constituted what then CHS president Douglas Greenberg called, “The collected memory of our time.”
But his life was shattered late the next year when his wife died from complications after heart valve replacement surgery. She and Studs had been married for more than 60 years, and many felt that, given how much Studs relied on Ida for, well, almost everything, Studs was a goner.
“It’s hard. It’s very hard,” he said the day she died. “She was seven days older than me, and I would always joke that I married an older woman. That’s the thing: Who’s gonna laugh at my jokes? At those jokes I’ve told a million times? That’s the thing ... Who’s gonna be there to laugh?”
Without the laughter, there was work.
He did promotional events for his recently published “The Spectator: Talk About Movies and Plays With Those Who Made Them,” a gathering of some of his best radio interviews. He set to work on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections of Death, Rebirth and Hunger for Faith,” which was published in 2001, “Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times” (2003) and another collection titled “And They All Sang: Reflections of an Eclectic Disk Jockey” (2005). He appeared and spoke at dozens of rallies for various causes and literary events; sat for interviews with hundreds of reporters and TV types.
In July 2004, he suffered a fall at his home. He required neck surgery and an extended hospital stay afterward. He also required full-time home care. And so, as he kept up an active schedule, always at his side was caretaker JR Millares. He spent more time with Terkel than any one these last years: 84 hours a week, with his son, Paul and Terkel’s son, Dan, taking the rest.
“It has been very interesting and rewarding,” says Millares, who came to the U.S. from his native Phillipines in 1996. “He is the only person I have ever cared for who has no mental disabilities. He’s as sharp as a razor. I admire his interest in life. After him I don’t know if I would be able to care for anyone else. This has been so lively, so filled with activity. I think I may have to start a new career.”
Millares was there in August 2005 when Terkel added another item to his lengthy list of accomplishments, undergoing a risky open-heart procedure to replace a narrowed aortic valve and redo one of five coronary bypasses he underwent nine years before.
“To my knowledge, Studs is the oldest patient to undergo this complex redo,” said Dr. Marshall Goldin, the cardiovascular surgeon at Rush University Medical Center, who operated on Terkel.
The surgery lasted six hours. When Terkel awoke, he began to call friends and say, “I am a medical miracle. A medical miracle.”
Studs then asked the doctor, “How long do you give me?”
“I’ll give you to 99,” said the doctor.
“That’s too long,” said Terkel. “I think I want a nice round figure, like 95.”
After the operation, publisher Andre Schiffrin suggested to Studs’ longtime collaborator, Sydney Lewis, that she fly to Chicago from her home in Massachusetts and start working with Studs on a memoir. “He told me: If it works, great; if not, it’s a good way to keep Studs company,” says Lewis. “It was, on many levels, a labor of love.”
“Touch and Go” did work and even though Terkel said at the time that this would be his last book, it is not. “P.S.: Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening,” to be published in November, grew out of the research for the previous book. It is a collection of radio show transcripts, short essays and others writing.
He mentioned this book at one of his last public appearances, which came at the Printers Row Book Fair in June where he charmed a packed auditorium with a 30-minute monologue touching on everything from ancient Greek mythology to the 2008 presidential election.
He seemed keenly aware, however, that the shadows were closing in. To touch his arms was to feel a living skeleton. He displayed a mind still sharp with its ability to recall names and dates and places from his lengthy and storied past. But he was facing the future too.
“Remember those old Ivory soap commercials, ‘Ivory Soap, 99.44 percent pure?’ Well I am 99.44 percent dead,” he said, sitting in the sun-soaked living room of his house. The place was, as always, a wonderful mess of papers, tapes, books, letters, photos and visitors that so pleasantly cluttered his life.
“The most fun I’ve ever had doing a story was interviewing Studs in that living room,” says WMAQ and WTTW television anchor/reporter Carol Marin. “He was unique.”
He was in that living room last year when he said with zest that when he “checked out” - as a “hotel kid” he rarely used the word “dying,” preferring the euphemism “checking out” and its variants - he wanted to be cremated. He wanted his ashes mixed with those of his wife, which sat in an urn in the living room of his house, near the bed in which he slept and dreamed.
“My epitaph? My epitaph will be ‘Curiosity did not kill this cat,’” he said.
He then said that he wanted his and Ida’s ashes to be scattered in Bughouse Square, that patch of green park that so informed his first years in his adopted city.
“Scatter us there,” he said, a gleeful grin on his face. “It’s against the law. Let ‘em sue us.”
Terkel is survived by his son. A memorial service is planned.
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