Page 2 of 3   <       >

Celebrated Author Elevated Listening to an Art

But when he was interviewed, his eclectic references meandered from opera singer Enrico Caruso to civil rights activist Malcolm X to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He seemed comfortable dropping in references to Greek mythology as he discussed the closing of steel mills and auto plants. After he took a bad fall in 2004, he described the incident as "choreographed more by Bob Fosse than by George Balanchine."

He was so closely identified with Chicago that it might surprise some to learn he was born Louis Terkel in the Bronx, N.Y., on May 16, 1912. "I came up the year the Titanic went down," he often said.

He moved to Chicago in the early 1920s with his parents, Polish immigrants Samuel and Anna Terkel. His father, an admirer of Socialist labor leader Eugene V. Debs, was in poor health for much of his life. His mother, whom he described as a "tough little sparrow," operated a boardinghouse that catered to transient workers, railroad firemen, labor organizers and the like.

Decades later, Studs Terkel would remember such characters affectionately, particularly the goofs, philosophers and radicals who orated from atop soapboxes in the patch of park known as Bughouse Square.

He graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in philosophy and also from its law school, and came to Washington as a government lawyer in 1934. Bored by the work, he took up stage acting before returning to Chicago to write weekly radio shows for the Federal Writers Project alongside novelists Richard Wright and Nelson Algren.

His continued acting, on stage and radio, often featured in gangster roles. During this period, he took his nickname from Studs Lonigan, the Depression-era antihero of the James T. Farrell novels about working-class Irish in Chicago.

In 1939, he married a social worker, Ida Goldberg, who died in 1999. Survivors include their son, Dan Terkel.

For many years, Terkel depended on his wife's income. "She made a lot more money than I did," he once said, recalling their early times together. "It was like dating a CEO. I borrowed 20 bucks from her for our first date. I never paid her back."

In the 1940s, Terkel began hosting radio shows focused on lively and spontaneous interviews. From 1949 to 1952, he had a television interview show, "Studs' Place," which was canceled after the House Un-American Activities Committee raised questions about Terkel's earlier political associations.

He told The Washington Post in 1983 that he had never been a communist but that he had "belonged to a left-wing theater group. Basically my name appeared on many petitions. Rent control. Ending Jim Crow. Abolishing the poll tax. You know, as subversive issues as that."

He added that being blackballed from TV might have helped his career. "If it weren't for the blacklist I might have been emceeing [today] on these network TV shows and have been literally dead because . . . I'd have said something that would have knocked me off [the air], obviously. But I would never have done these books, I would never have gone on to the little FM station playing classical music. So, long live the blacklist!"

His first book was "Giants of Jazz" (1957), a primer aimed at younger readers unfamiliar with such legends as Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.

<       2        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company