Q: You were telling me that you had problems operating your tape record er, a simple machine you've used thousands of times. Why?
A: We're talking about being mechanically inept. Makes me a man of distinction. I'm one of the few Americans that cannot drive an automobile. Ronald Reagan can drive a car. Anybody can drive a car.
Q: Have you ever tried to drive a car?
A: Years ago they called me in for an "industrial film" -- a euphemism for a commercial. We're working in this place in Waukegan and the last day the director says, "Studs, you hop in the cab of that big truck, and you drive out of the garage and we fade out on you." I said, "I've got to talk to you." He's walking away. "C'mon now," he says, "I got no time for it." I said, "It's important." He said, "Well, make it snappy." And I said, "I have never sat behind a wheel in my life."
He turns around and walks toward me and says, "My God, old ladies drive cars. People in asylums can drive cars. Anybody. And I choose the one guy that can't. Get in the cab of that -- " I was terrified. I got up there. I didn't know what to do. Finally they just pushed it out. And that's the only time.
Q: Is there an advantage to not driving?
A: I would not recommend it to people. I have to depend -- I'm like Blanche Dubois.
Q: You depend on the kindness of strangers?
A: I depend on the kindness of strangers, yeah. You know Blanche of (the play) "Streetcar (Named Desire")?
Q: Not personally.
A: Huh? Not personally? This guy's cute.
Q: How do you get around?
A: I take a bus. I live about a block from a bus that takes me down to the radio station.
Q: Did you ever interview anyone you met on a bus?
A: Oh, often. I met one or two people on the bus for "Working." I sit there reading. When I get mad about something, they think I'm a nut if I start talking out loud to myself. But someone nods at me and that's my cue, you see. "Do you see what those guys did? You see what the Pentagon budget is today? Unbelievable!" But I'm not a nut because I'm not talking to myself.
Q: Are you ever worried that your version of the truth, your philosophy, will affect the observations of the people you interview?
A: That's the danger. In "Hard Times" I'm interviewing Gerald L. K. Smith, a celebrated American fascist, a renowned anti-Semite, anti-black. He would not have objected at having been called a fascist. I interview him as a human being -- what makes this man tick? I abhor what Gerald L. K. Smith represented. And he, no doubt, would have abhorred what I feel. But he liked me personally because he knew that I would observe him as a human being who has a certain -- what I think is horrendous -- point of view.
Q: How do you swallow your hate for someone like that?
A: I didn't hate Gerald L. K. Smith. That's the whole point of it, you see.
Q: How would you swallow your rage if you were interviewing Adolf Hitler?
A: Well, there again, what makes Hitler this horrendous, this monstrous figure? What makes this mass murderer tick? That is the key. What led to that person becoming that. And what is it that makes that person attractive to others, perverse though that may be to you.
For example, the story of this ex-Klansman, C. P. Ellis. His story is a great one because it's one of redemption, of revelation. He understands himself now better. Here's this lost poor white whose life was wretched. He's led into this room and he's the center. He, with the white robes on and the illuminated cross -- by God, he's somebody! And so with Hitler, too, I suppose.
Q: What if you'd just driven 500 miles to interview someone and then they change their mind about being interviewed?
A: Oh, yes, of course. Here was a case of the Nobel Laureate, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi. He won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of Vitamin C. We became friendly in a casual way and I'm doing a book on American dreams lost and found. I want Szent-Gyorgyi, the emigre scientist, the ambiguous feelings, the despair that he feels and maybe hope. And he says, "By all means, come to see me."
So someone drove me out to see him, a long trip, and he says, "I'm glad to see you, dear boy -- " he's about 85 at the time -- "glad to see you, but I'm in such despair -- " I was about to put on the tape recorder. "Don't put on the tape recorder. I'll simply tell you, I have no dream anymore." He was implying the world was going to blow up before the century is over.
Then he told me he's still trying to find a cure for cancer. I said, "Why, if the world's going to blow up?" "I must. It is not humanitarian reasons, it is my curiosity, you see." I think, "What an interview it would have been! The guy's still being driven to work, trying to find a cure for cancer." So what could I do? Nothing.
Q: Do you consider yourself a professional entertainer as well as a journalist?
A: I hadn't thought of myself as an entertainer, yet I am, of course. I am a clown, and I am not putting myself down in saying that. A clown in the traditional sense is Lear's jester. Remember, he could tell the old man the truth and get away with it.
During the early '50s we did a program calledd"Stud's Place." It was a part of Chicago-style TV along with (Dave) "Garroway at Large." The dialogue was improvized, and it would seem so real that viewers thought there was such a place -- it was a little restaurant. Some old lady on the bus, years after it was off, she'd say, "Well, where is it?" And I'd say "In your dreams; in mine." See? Illusion and reality. Do I entertain people? Sure.
Q: Do most people talk down to the average man? Even your friend (syndicated columnist Mike) Royko makes a living off of talking about the foibles of your average Chicagoan, who is not an individual who studies Ulysses or its deep interpretations.
A: I think that's underrating the intelligence of people. Those not too well educated often are most eloquent. I don't mean to romanticize someone, but academic training alone doesn't make a person eloquent. Very often the other way, our education system being such.
Right now I'm working on a book on World War II, an oral approach through all points of view. The woman who worked in the factory. The little girl playing war games, terrified, on the West Coast, putting ketchup on herself so people think it's blood and won't kill her. The widow of a guy killed D-Day. Or a Chicano guy coming home after the zoot-suit riots and anti-Mexican hysteria on the West Coast. Or a Japanese internee.
Q: If you were going to interview Studs Terkel about being in the war, what would you ask him?
A: I was here, stateside, limited service. Perforated eardrum. I was going to go, and for some reason I couldn't get over. I still wanted to go Red Cross, and they said no.
Q: Were they concerned about your political leanings?
A: How did you know that? As a matter of fact, I didn't know they were at all. I was an innocent. I was called in once by Army intelligence. I was with the Labor Theater, and a theater group called the Chicago Repertory Group. I got my Freedom of Information files, and there I was, spied on by people in the barracks. I didn't even know it.
Q: What did your report say?
A: Oh, it said things like, "Studs? My conclusion -- he's loyal, good-natured, funny, companionable, marvelous company." And then below, the boss of this guy (writes), "Wonderful. Just watch him." One was, "Even though he'd talked so great about the rights of colored people" -- the phrase used then -- "we still think he's loyal." Even though he talks about that, "we still think he's loyal."
Q: What were your communist affiliations during those times that led you to be blacklisted in the '50s?
A: I 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. Coming out in favor of Social Security prematurely. You think I'm kidding? These were very controversial issues, considered commie issues.
Q: Were you a communist?
Q: Did you ever join the party or any party-affiliated --
A: Hey, wait a minute. I never answer questions of that sort. You know why? Because there's an aspect of duress to it. I would have said to HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee) I would take the First Amendment if I were a reporter.
Q: I was wondering whether you were unfairly --
A: No, that doesn't mean anything. I don't give a damn if a guy was a communist or not. Either we have an open society or we don't. I'm for any point of view. That's why I was with the ACLU on the issue of the Nazis in Skokie. Remember the Nazi march in (heavily Jewish) Skokie? Of course I was for the ACLU's point of view (of allowing it).
Q: What did being blacklisted do to your career and your income?
A: Oh, it didn't help it, to put it mildly. It affected "Stud's Place" very definitely. They said, about these petitions and everything, if only I could say I was duped, everything would be fine. But I wouldn't. I'm too stubborn. Can you imagine my saying I was duped into something I believe in? So I make jokes. When they say, "You gotta stand up and be counted" -- meaning, you know, patriotic -- I stood up physically. I stand stiff for this executive. He said, "That's not funny." I said, "Well, I'm standing up and being counted." He didn't think it was very funny, and "Stud's Place" was dropped.
Now I'm going to make a case on behalf of the blacklist. If it weren't for the blacklist I might have been emceeing on these network TV shows and have been literally dead because I'd have -- . No, I'd have said something that would have knocked me off, obviously. But I would never have done these books. I would never have gone on the little FM station playing classical music. So, long live the blacklist! My joke now.
Q: Two of your books -- "Hard Times," about the Depression, and "Working," where people talk about their jobs -- have become topical lately when unemployment is at the highest since the Depression.
Q: Do people seem to be saying the same things now as they were saying back during the Great Depression?
A: Where I go to the studio to work, in that building there's a personnel office. About two weeks ago, I saw this incredibly long line. Young people, black and white, 19 or 20, 21, 22. And I said what in the world are they waiting for? Movies? Too early to see a movie. Then I realize it's a job line. It was a long one, about 300. I walked up to a kid. The face was so scared. They were bewildered. They'd never waited in line for a job. I walked inside, and there was a woman talking to them. I said, "I'm just curious: How many jobs do you think are available?" "Oh, I don't know. Five or ten." And there were 300! That, of course, evoked a memory of the '30s, when there were a thousand people for five jobs. I said, "Hey, it's happening all over again. It's the same bewildered faces."
Q: We were talking about getting close to your interviews. I think you're very close to a person who you interviewed who's appeared in "Working" as a social worker and in a number of your other books under a pseudonym -- your wife.
A: How did you know that?
Q: I do my homework. What was it like to interview someone so close to you?
A: Okay. That's a good one. I want to know about the Depression, right? I met her, she was a social worker and we married. I would have found someone else, but hey. She's telling a story about a new rule was passed that you had to look in the closet of a person seeking relief. Of course, she's disturbed by this. She's a young girl. She starts telling me the story, which fits in this book so well. She says, "A tall, gray-haired guy once worked on the railroads in Centralia, Ill., and now has no money and a couple of kids." She said that she was hesitant and said, "I have to look in your closet." He said, "In my closet?" And as she's telling me the story, you can see her voice choking up as she remembers that moment. And he says, "Okay, if you must." And she says "I went in there, and it was empty, of course." And then she starts sobbing. Just sobs. "And he was so humiliated, and I was too -- " The double humiliation, you see. Well, as she's sobbing, I'm saying, "Keep going! That's great! Just keep going!" Bastard! See, I gotta get the story. Even though she's crying, I gotta get that goddamned story.
Q: Even though she's your wife.
A: Oh, I did say you could take a minute out if you want.
Q: In "Talking To Myself," why weren't you a totally honest interviewer with yourself? Why didn't you reveal much of your personal life -- even the most simple things?
A: Like what? Like what?
Q: Like who your father was. What he did.
A: Now, that's interesting.
Q: You mentioned your father once in passing, not even by name or occupation. How come? What was his name, and what did he do? What was your mother's name, and what did she do? Why didn't you put them in your books?
A: I don't know. There's an inhibition there. He was a good man, a decent man, but I was thinking of colorful, abrasive people at the time, and that was my mother. You're asking me very legitimate questions.
Q: What's the answer?
A: I don't know the answer.
Q: Weren't you trying to protect your own privacy?
A: I shy away from personal stuff, I really do. In the book "Talking to Myself" -- there's stuff I haven't revealed, and it's not worth revealing.
Q: Why wasn't it worth revealing?
A: I don't know. I didn't feel it was.
Q: Was your mother a big influence on your life?
A: My mother? Well, no, I don't think -- no. I loved "Look Homeward Angel" because of Thomas Wolfe's writing. But his mother, Eliza, had that quality that I found in my mother -- not particularly endearing.
Q: But what about your father?
A: He was a very marvelous man.
Q: How long did he live?
A: He died when I was 19. He was a wonderful man. Very gentle and kind. See, I'm shy talking about that --
Q: The question's been asked twice and you've yet to tell me that he was a tailor. Are you embarrassed he was a tailor?
A: No, no, because he was very good. And then he helped run the hotel. I didn't say that because it's my mother running the hotel. And then he got ill and died.
Q: Mahalia Jackson once said that you would make a good preacher. What would you preach?
A: I don't know what the hell I would preach. The value of an examined life, I suppose.