[18 November 2007]
Studs Terkel is a living legend whose fame as an interviewer has reached far beyond Chicago, the city he has called home for eight decades. Normally, his books such as Race, Working, and Division Street: America, are collections of interviews with numerous people all gathered around a central subject. With his latest book, Touch and Go: A Memoir Terkel himself is the central subject.
Terkel’s memoir is not a typical memoir. As is fitting of its subject, it’s more like sitting in on an engaging and funny conversation that is sometimes sad and occasionally cringe-inducing, but never boring.
The discussion wanders, but never far from whatever the main train of thought is at the time. Some things are mentioned in one chapter only to be brought to conclusion two or three chapters later. His life has ranged from teenaged SRO desk clerk to law student, from stage actor to radio soap opera actor, DJ to TV actor, and ultimately to the specialty that he would become most-renowned for: interviewer.
No life as varied, as long (he’s 95), and so downright busy as Studs Terkel’s can possibly fit inside a 280-page book. Nor could it fit inside a 1000-page book. I suspect it would take several 1000-page volumes in small type. Even so, the life that emerges in Touch and Go is one that has traveled the path laid out by his own wide-ranging curiosities and been driven for social justice.
Terkel’s activism in the service of social justice eventually got him into trouble. It was in 1951, during the McCarthy Era, that his live TV Show “Stud’s Place” was canceled by NBC. A public relations man from the network delivered the news.
He said: We’re in trouble because of you. There are all these petitions and your name is near the top.” These were petitions for the Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, the Committee for Civil Rights, things of that nature.
I said: “Yeah.”
He said: “Don’t you know that Communists are behind these petitions?”
I couldn’t help myself, I said: Suppose Communists came out against cancer? Do we have to automatically come out for cancer?”
He said: “That’s not very funny.” And then he says, “These days you have to stand up and be counted.” Well, another moment when the imp of the perverse, as Poe calls it, took over. I stood up. He said: “That’s not very funny either.”
For years afterwards, Terkel was watched closely by the FBI with agents often visiting his home to harass him and his wife Ida.
It was after the cancellation of “Stud’s Place” that he landed a job at a new radio station called WFMT. And the rest, as they say, is history. He was on the air from 1952 to 1997 conducting those interviews with artists, actors, writers, and everyday people he became so famous for, not to mention writing his best-selling books. Over 2000 hours of his interviews conducted on the radio for WFMT are archived at the Chicago
Terkel is candid about his own failings, be they with technology (from never having learned to drive to being computer illiterate), in temperament (he describes his brothers Ben and Meyer as being far more giving and selfless than he), or ambition (he once urged his wife Ida to tell a heart-breaking story so he could use it in Hard Times, despite knowing that it would make her cry, and he was elated at the time for having it on tape).
While the book serves as an excellent introduction to Terkel’s life, its shortcomings can be found in its inconsistent depth. Some periods and relationships are evoked with great clarity of thought and very strong emotion, while others seem more anecdotal. Overall, the reader gets a great feel for Terkel’s rich life. While I found out how much he adored his wife Ida and just how influential she was to him, I wanted to know more about his brothers, his parents, and his own son Dan. I wanted to know more about his friendships with famous people like Nelson Algren, Mike Royko and Paul Robeson, and the not-as-famous like activist Peggy Terry and attorney Pearl Hart. I did not want the conversation to end.