Pulitzer Prize-winning author Terkel dies at 96
CHICAGO ñ Studs Terkel, the ageless master of listening and speaking, a broadcaster, activist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose best-selling oral histories celebrated the common people he liked to call the “non-celebrated,” died Friday. He was 96.
Dan Terkell said his father died at home, and described his death as “peaceful, no agony. This is what he wanted.”
“My dad led a long, full, eventful, sometimes tempestuous, but very satisfying life,” Terkell said in a statement issued through his father’s colleague and close friend Thom Clark.
He was a native New Yorker who moved to Chicago as a child and came to embrace and embody his adopted town, with all its “carbuncles and warts,” as he recalled in his 2007 memoir, “Touch and Go.” He was a cigar and martini man, white-haired and elegantly rumpled in his trademark red-checkered shirts, an old rebel who never mellowed, never retired, never forgot, and “never met a picket line or petition I didn’t like.”
“A lot of people feel, ‘What can I do, (it’s) hopeless,'” Terkel told The Associated Press in 2003. “Well, through all these years there have been the people I’m talking about, whom we call activists … who give us hope and through them we have hope.”
The tougher the subject, the harder Terkel took it on. He put out an oral history collection on race relations in 1992 called “Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About The American Obsession,” and, in 1995, “Coming of Age,” recollections of men and women 70 and older.
He cared about what divided us, and what united us: death ó in his 2001 “Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith,” and hope, in his 2003 “Hope Dies Last.”
Terkel won a 1985 Pulitzer Prize for “The Good War,” remembrances of World War II; contrasted rich and poor along the same Chicago street in “Division Street: America,” 1966; limned the Depression in “Hard Times,” 1970; and chronicled how people feel about their jobs in “Working,” 1974.
“When the Chinese Wall was built, where did the masons go for lunch? When Caesar conquered Gall, was there not even a cook in the army? And here’s the big one, when the Armada sank, you read that King Philip wept. Were there no other tears?” Terkel said upon receiving an honorary National Book Award medal in 1997. “And that’s what I believe oral history is about. It’s about those who shed those other tears, who on rare occasions of triumph laugh that other laugh.”
Andre Schiffrin ó Terkel’s longtime editor, publisher and close friend who gave Terkel the idea for many of his books ó said Terkel “had been in bad shape in recent weeks and he really felt that his life had come to an end. But he was as engaged as ever. He was a big fan of (Democratic presidential candidate Barack) Obama and he said one of the things that kept him going was that he wanted to see the results of the election.”
For his oral histories, Terkel interviewed his subjects on tape, then transcribed and sifted. “What first comes out of an interview are tons of ore; you have to get that gold dust in your hands,” he wrote in his memoir. “Now, how does it become a necklace or a ring or a gold watch? You have to get the form; you have to mold the gold dust.”
Said Schiffrin: “He liked to tell the story of an interview with a woman in a public housing unit in Chicago. At the end of the interview, the woman said, `My goodness, I didn’t know I felt that way.’ That was his genius.”
Terkel would joke that his obsession with tape recording was equaled by only one other man, a certain former president of the United States: “Richard Nixon and I could be aptly described as neo-Cartesians. I tape, therefore I am.”
He also was a syndicated radio talk show host, voice of gangsters on old radio soaps, jazz critic, actor in the 1988 film “Eight Men Out,” and survivor of the 1950s blacklist.
In 1999, a panel of judges organized by the Modern Library, a book publisher, picked “Working” as No. 54 on its list of the century’s 100 best English-language works of nonfiction. And in 2006, the Library of Congress announced that a radio interview he did with author James Baldwin in September 1962 was selected for the National Recording Registry of sound recordings worthy of preservation. Terkel’s other interview subjects included Louis Armstrong, Buster Keaton, Marlon Brando and Bob Dylan.
Terkel’s politics were liberal, vintage FDR. He would never forget the many New Deal programs from the Great Depression and worried that the country suffered from “a national Alzheimer’s disease” that made government the perceived enemy. In a 1992 interview with the AP, he advocated “pressure from below, from the grass roots. That means the people who live and work in cities ó that used to be called the working class, although now everyone says middle class.”
Terkel was born Louis Terkel on May 16, 1912, in the Bronx. His father, Samuel, was a tailor; his mother, Anna, a seamstress. The family moved to Chicago in 1922 and ran a rooming house where young Louis would meet the workers and activists who would profoundly influence his view of the world.
“It was those loners ó argumentative ones, deceptively quite ones, the talkers and the walkers ó who, always engaged in something outside themselves, unintentionally became my mentors,” Terkel wrote in “Touch and Go.”
He got the nickname Studs as a young man, from the character Studs Lonigan, the protagonist of James T. Farrell’s beloved trilogy of novels about an Irish-American youth from Chicago’s South Side.
Terkel graduated from the University of Chicago in 1932, studying philosophy, and also picked up a law degree. But instead of choosing law, he worked briefly in the civil service and then found employment in radio with one of his beloved “alphabet agencies” from the New Deal, the WPA Writers Project.
His early work as a stage actor led to radio acting, disc jockey jobs and then to radio interview shows beginning in the 1940s. From 1949 to 1952, he was the star of a national TV show, “Studs’ Place,” a program of largely improvised stories and songs set in a fictional bar (later a restaurant) owned by Studs. Some viewers even thought it was a real place, and would go looking for it in Chicago.
“People were never put down,” Terkel recalled in the 1995 book “The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961.” “The stories were about little aspects of their lives. There was no audience and no canned laughter. … It was one of the most exhilarating times of my life.”
The McCarthy-era antipathy toward activists cost him his national TV outlet. But his radio interview show flourished, first at WFMT in Chicago and then, through syndication, in many markets.
As his editor sponsored elaborate parties to celebrate his 95th birthday and the release of his 2007 memoir, “Touch and Go,” Terkel reflected on a career spent writing about those who rarely heard their stories told.
“My discovery was people needed to be needed by others, need to count; that’s the word,” he said in an interview with the AP.
He also joked about his long life: “Curiosity did not kill this cat.”
In 1939, he married social worker Ida Goldberg, a marriage that lasted 60 years even though she couldn’t get him to dance and always called him Louis, not Studs. “Ida was a far better person than I, that’s the reality of it,” Terkel later wrote of Ida, who died in 1999.
“She had a certain empathy I lack. And she was more politically active than I. … Did she play a tremendous role in my life? Yeah, you could say so.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Terkel dies at 96