Celebrated Author Elevated Listening to an Art

By Bart Barnes and Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 1, 2008

Studs Terkel, 96, the preeminent oral historian of 20th-century America who described the major events of his time through the experiences and observations of the ordinary men and women who lived them, died yesterday at his home in Chicago after a fall.

As a radio host and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Terkel used a folksy but probing interviewing style to draw out unfiltered answers from political leaders and common people alike. He illuminated America from the ground up, seeking out stories from bartenders, housewives, businessmen, artists, doctors, social workers, coal miners, farmworkers, bookmakers and convicts.

"Who built the pyramids?" he once asked in his inimitable sweet growl. "It wasn't the goddamn pharaohs who build the pyramids. It was the anonymous slaves."

Through his daily radio interview show, which was broadcast from 1952 to 1998 and nationally syndicated, Terkel's voice -- slow and mellifluous, with a working-class edge -- became known to millions of people. He always ended his show with a line from an old union song: "Take it easy, but take it."

His best-selling books usually were transcribed from tape-recorded interviews with hundreds of people. His prolific use of the recording device led Time magazine to write that "next to Richard Nixon the person whose life has been most dramatically affected by the tape recorder is Studs Terkel."

He won the Pulitzer for nonfiction for " 'The Good War': An Oral History of World War II" (1984). Besides two volumes of autobiography, his other major books included "Working" (1974), "Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression" (1970) and "Division Street: America" (1966).

These folk histories were told in first-person vignettes and anecdotes taken from interviews with a wide variety of people.

Terkel was an artist of conversation who once described his work as "listening to what people tell me." He was unusually skilled at drawing out his subjects, who told him about their dreams and memories, their fears, frustrations and anxieties, the condition of their lives.

"The average American has an indigenous intelligence, a native wit," he once said in a speech. "It's only a question of piquing that intelligence." He described this process as "guerrilla journalism," but writer Garry Wills described Terkel's philosophy and politics as "underdog-ism."

"Studs is a representative of an all-but extinct American breed," Chicago-born writer and lawyer Scott Turow told London's Guardian newspaper in 2004. "He is a leftist humanist, whose faith in the capacities of every human being has informed both his politics and his literary efforts."

Besides his radio, TV and book work, Terkel also had been an actor in radio soap operas and films. He memorably played a newspaper reporter in "Eight Men Out" (1988), the John Sayles film about the 1919 "Black Sox" baseball scandal. He also was a playwright, jazz columnist, disc jockey, lecturer and host of music festivals.

Despite his national celebrity status, his presence as an interviewer was barely discernible in most of his books. Like a psychoanalyst, he allowed his subjects to talk freely, with minimal questioning.

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.

His greatest fame in print came from his oral histories. "Division Street: America" consisted of 70 interviews with people in or near Chicago. To Terkel, these conversations reflected the divisiveness and antipathies among rich and poor, black and white, young and old. A New York Times reviewer called the book "a modern morality play, a drama with as many conflicts as life itself."

Then came "Hard Times," which he described as a "memory book" of the Great Depression, reflecting the "small triumphs" of those who survived the ordeal. It was a bestseller for five months and was translated into many languages.

To produce "Working," Terkel spent three years recording the thoughts and reflections of 133 Americans from almost as many occupations on what they did for a living. Many were frustrated and dissatisfied by the monotony of their jobs and the lack of personal fulfillment. Reviewing the book, Peter S. Prescott of Newsweek wrote, "Terkel understands that what people need -- more than sex, almost as much as food -- and what they perhaps will never find, is a sympathetic ear."

For " 'The Good War,' " Terkel talked to World War II privates and generals, civilians and celebrities, including Maxene Andrews, one of the singing Andrews Sisters. The book's title became a shorthand description of the nation's sense of common cause and shared sacrifice during World War II. In later books, including "The Great Divide" (1988) and "Race" (1992), Terkel's interviews reflected the widening abyss between the haves and the have-nots in American life. He was astounded by the high degree of ignorance of U.S. history and later described "The Great Divide" as being about "society's Alzheimer's disease."

President Bill Clinton awarded Terkel a 1997 National Humanities Medal for giving ordinary people a national voice. "Through their words, he gives us a portrait of ourselves," the citation said.

Terkel, who arrived at the White House ceremony in his customary red checkered shirt and red socks, told an interviewer: "Who do I choose? People who articulate what others feel but can't say."

Staff writer Matt Schudel contributed to this report.

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