Quantcast

Curtain Call With Terkel | The Nation

  •  

Curtain Call With Terkel

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Charles Kuralt, who got around a lot himself but wore out faster, once remarked: "When Studs Terkel listens, everybody talks." Not so many years ago, in fact, we asked Kuralt to review a Studs book for these pages. Kuralt said he would, and then he died. This was shortly after we had asked Murray Kempton to review an earlier Studs book. Kempton also said he would; then he died, too. Maybe I'd better finish this before the moving finger sticks it to me.

About the Author

John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

Also by the Author

Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, blasphemes not only Islam and Hinduism, but Thatcherism and the advertising industry. He's unkind, too, to V.S. Naipaul. For this they want to kill him?

John Leonard, former literary editor of The Nation, died November 6 at 69. From the archives, his iconic piece on Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize win, in his honor.

In The Spectator, a compendium of forty-five years of wonderful conversations with film and theater people--to be followed by a similar volume on writers--the everybodies who talk to Studs actually include a mime. Marcel Marceau positively babbles, not only about such antecedent white clowns as Harlequin, Pierrot and Punch, and not only about silent screen stars like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, but also about Mozart, Shakespeare, Bach, Chekhov, Molière, Picasso, Einstein, Dickens and Don Quixote. In 1960, it was hard to shut Marcel up:

There is something of Pirandello in what I do: that we are not one man, but we are many. We have not one face, but many.... We change. It is inevitable. I am very happy to grow a little older. I was just thirty-seven this month. People say the more you grow in age, the more you lose possibilities. I would say it's the contrary. That is the great drama for human people. The more you grow in age, the more you grow in spirit and in your experiences, but the less you grow in your physical possibilities. This great divorce makes the tragedy of man. If you could combine wise people and the power of youth, the world could live in harmony. And you would not give to people who are older the complex that they are no more useful to society. It is the problem of Faust, of Goethe.

Of course, while Goethe and Mozart were unavailable, Studs had already talked to Buster Keaton, and follows up with Jacques Tati and Zero Mostel. And he interrupts himself in the middle of Zero to excerpt a later chat with Eugene Ionesco--"A writer can't give up food already digested. He gives the audience raw meat"--after which Zero hits him: "I just hit Studs on the arm...[Into the microphone]: Again I hit him!" And then, as though to spin the bottle on mimes and clowns, Terkel concludes with a puppeteer/ventriloquist, Burr Tillstrom, who will reminisce on everything from the WPA Federal Theatre to Jane Addams at Hull House to Thornton Wilder at the University of Chicago directing something called Identity or I Am Because My Little Dog Knows Me, a play for puppets by Gertrude Stein.

Did you know that Gertrude Stein wrote a play for puppets? That Thornton Wilder once advised Ruth Gordon to get up early in the morning so that "other people don't breathe up all the air"? That Arthur Miller wanted to be a radio crooner, like Russ Columbo? That James Cagney wanted to be a farmer and enrolled at an agricultural school? That Sybil Thorndike would rather have been a concert pianist? That Eubie Blake, whose 1921 all-black musical Shuffle Along had Josephine Baker in the chorus line and Paul Robeson in a quartet, first wrote "I'm Just Wild About Harry" as a waltz? That Carol Channing went to Bennington, where she played Mrs. Alving in Ibsen's Ghosts, as well as Joan of Arc? Or that Henry George was Agnes DeMille's grandfather?

There is something of Pirandello in what Studs does, too, as though in his books on old age and the Great Depression, on working and race, on war and dreams, he always seeks the authentic individual beneath the "naked mask," behind the imposition of a social role. (Except that, unlike Luigi, he's never despondent. To all this splendid shoptalk, he brings a radical bonhomie. And the shoptalkers tend to reciprocate, finding in their performance of whatever craft not fabrication, not delusion, but the contours and grain of citizenship.) And there is something of Proteus, the original Old Man of the Sea, who knew everything about the past, present and future. (Except that Studs shifts shapes--from witness to reporter to advocate to fan--not to duck our questions, but the better to spill the beans. So he is part Ancient Mariner as well, buttonholing strangers at the wedding, thumping them with a left-wing albatross.) But there is something even more of Walt Whitman and his Democratic Vistas, because once these strangers start to talk, what Studs hears is America singing. He is less an oral than an oratorio historian.

I seize upon and try to make likely to happen all of the good accidents of timing. And if you get these good accidents of timing, suddenly you've got Nijinsky.
   (William Saroyan)

So, at age 87, Studs sees stars. We are more accustomed from his previous books to being introduced to citizens who never show up on Face the Nation or Ted Koppel or Charlie Rose; whose names somehow never achieve the Rolodex or Speed Dial of the soundbiting vampire-bat producers of TV newsmagazines or the charity-balling trend editors of those monthly slicks not to be usefully distinguished from their own scratch-and-sniff ads for vodka and narcissism; who go to their early graves unwinked at by the basilisk peepers of Leno or Letterman, unconsulted by a Cokie, Sam, Dan or Oprah, unSallied and unGeraldoed; who were never infamous enough for VH-1 to wonder whatever happened to them and are insufficiently kinky to qualify for freak shows on alien abduction or satanic abuse; who are not numbered among the unabombers and technoblabbers on the all-chat channels; who are less thrilling than the Capital Gangbangers, the mellowspeak salesmen and other blow-dried gauchos on the cable/pampas walkabout, singing the mediascape into pale/male pixels.

To be sure, in Division Street: America (1967), Hard Times (1970), Working (1972) and The Good War (1984), Studs talked to folks whose names we recognized, but the larger point was to listen to those who hadn't been heard--whose signals had been buzzed and jammed by the celebrity culture's static cling. In American Dreams: Lost and Found (1980) Joan Crawford, Vine Deloria, Jesse Helms, Ted Turner, Jann Wenner and Coleman Young spoke to him about fame, love, money, justice, food, grace, neighborhood, respect, a big score and a successful sting, but mostly we heard from workers of steel and promoters of wrestling; miners, nurses, loggers and cabbies; Wobblies and Nisei; cops and cons. Ramona Bennett, for example--a schoolteacher and tribal councilor of the Puyallup Indians--had this lesson to deliver:

When I went to school, we learned history so we won't make the same mistakes. This is what I was told. I know damn good and well that if American children in school had learned that the beautiful Cheyenne women at Sand Creek put their shawls over their babies' faces so they wouldn't see the long knives, if the American schoolchildren learned that Indian mothers held their babies close to their bodies when the Gatling guns shot and killed three hundred, there would never have been a My Lai massacre. If the history teacher had really been truthful with American children, Calley would have given an order to totally noncooperating troops. There would have been no one to fight. There would have been a national conscience. The lie has made for an American nightmare, not a dream.

And in The Great Divide (1988), while Victor Reuther and Art Spiegelman were included in his conversation about the whereabouts, after Ronald Reagan, of our old ideals of social justice, more often the symposiasts turned out to be pilots and Teamsters, ministers and dentists, social workers and radio engineers, commodities brokers and real-estate agents, sellouts, burnouts and NYPNS ("Neat Young People in Neat Situations"). They testified for the most part to states of mind like greed, doubt, anger and absence of memory, as if we had forgotten the Depression, never heard of the Civil War and never read the Bill of Rights. On the other side of this "Divide" was the past we'd lost as a caring country. But there were pockets of resistance and renewal--organizers of union locals and community action, doctors committed to low-cost healthcare, teachers who refused to quit the inner city, a police chief acquainted with the social pathology of crime and a sanctuary movement for refugees from death squads. We were read another lesson by Jean Gump, the grandmother who spent eight years in prison for defacing a nuclear missile:

As inmates, we're property. We belong to Mr. Meese, we belong to the Bureau of Prisons. A month ago, a young woman had come here from another federal institution. She had been locked up for fourteen months without seeing the light of day. On arriving here, she was so happy to be out in the sun-light, she lay down and got herself a sunburn. They wrote a shot--that's an incident report. The shot read: Destruction of government property. Her skin, okay?

Likewise in Race (1992), we heard from psychologist Kenneth B. Clark, Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, novelists Charles Johnson and Frank Chin, In These Times reporter-editor Salim Muwakkil and Afrikaner traitor-to-his-class Rian Malan. More often, though, Studs was in the streets, on foot, because he's never learned to drive. Or in barbershops, talking to firefighters and paramedics, hairdressers and evangelists, carpenters and software salesmen; ex-Communists, ex-priests, retired domestics, black separatists and Ku Klux Klanners. Or bluffing his way into a South Side housing project, up the stairs and into kitchens where nobody imagined that a capital-gains tax cut was a miracle cure for moral fatigue, social paralysis and economic catastrophe, whereas almost everyone, white, black, brown, yellow, agreed that race relations were worse than they had ever been, even during the sixties riots, probably because of the go-go greedhead years combined with a drug epidemic. (Louis Farrakhan came up a lot, but so--as if in counterpoint--did Big Bill Broonzy's country blues.) Still, they all had jobs to find, children to raise, neighborhoods to save and a nation to recover from its waste of humanity and scruple.

And they included people like Mamie Mobley, who, when her son died in 1955, quit an Air Force job, went back after seventeen years to college, graduated fifth in her class and taught in a South Side grammar school for the next quarter-century. During a teachers' strike, the Blackstone Rangers brought Mamie Mobley coffee and sweet rolls on the picket line. Of course, the son this mother lost happened to be Emmett Till.

Finally, in Coming of Age (1995), Marvin Miller, Norman Corwin, Jacob Lawrence and Uta Hagen have their say, plus John Kenneth Galbraith. ("I'm deeply accustomed to giving advice that is not heard.... Even if you don't succeed in reform, you do succeed in making enough people angry to make it worthwhile. Even if I don't expect that identifying something wrong, something insane, is a solution, I'm prepared to irritate for its own sake.") But these are people who have always had their say. More compelling, in and out of retirement homes, are the librarians and press agents, public interest lawyers and bird-watching pacifists, farmworkers, jazz musicians, street vendors and environmentalists, Gray Panthers and black Quakers (one a Luddite who contemplates going around like Carry Nation, "chopping down fax machines"), an admiral, a judge, a homicide detective, two Congressmen and two accountants, a settlement-house landscape painter, a Mattachine Society activist, a Physician for Social Responsibility, a whistleblowing former intelligence agent, a blacklisted recovering alcoholic and the usual excess of schoolteachers and union organizers--all over 70, more than a few almost as old as the century, none of them cute.

But who could resist Gertie Fox: "I'm really 131 years old, but I've been knocked down to seventy-seven. When I go to the K-Mart, the blue light goes on and the bells ring. I'm a real bargain." Or Bob Schneider: "When people ask me what my job is, I say, 'I'm a social engineer, self-employed.'" Or an unidentified "portly woman" Studs meets in Manhattan: "I sang Brunhilde in Germany, and I sang Kundry in Parsifal at La Scala. Without an agent. Are you interested in music? The story of my life is unbelievable."

He is interested in music. In all these books, brave songs become cantatas; noble voices mass to choral movement.

Ibsen, too, was waiting for Godot. All education has to be resumed every day, anew, afresh. We are never completely educated. And if we lived a thousand years, we'd still have much to learn, much to investigate, and much to be extremely curious about.... I say most people are latent human beings. And to become a human being takes an awful lot of effort and determination throughout a long life, because you can die long before you're buried.
   (Harold Clurman)

Studs's favorite actor is Spencer Tracy. I wish I'd known this at his eightieth birthday party in an Upper West Side penthouse, where Kenneth Clark was on the couch, in black-tie, obviously headed somewhere fancier, and Pete Seeger was in the kitchen, without a banjo, and Nelson Algren should have been outside on the ramparts, looking down at Broadway and explaining that "Mortimer Adler is the Lawrence Welk of the philosophy trade." Studs, telling naughty stories about Saul Bellow and Newton Minow, was his usual motley of red checkerboard, open-collared--but had there been about the roll of his shoulders some Bad Day at Black Rock? Probably. We've all been to Chicago. And if we're lucky, we've been interviewed on his radio show after he's read every word of our book, highlighted half of it and found some raucous tape snippet to shock us into sentience. And if there is about him a ghostly aspect of the sportswriter in the press box (he played one in Eight Men Out, the John Sayles Chicago Black Sox film), there is also about him the specter of a Cagney/Warner Bros. gangster out of Brecht (and he's played them, too, in thirties radio serials, the only man with a University of Chicago law degree to appear regularly on Ma Perkins). Who else would start smoking cigars because he liked the way they looked in the insolent mouths of the Cossacks in the Soviet movie Chapaev?

For that matter, how come the guy who lost his local television show, Studs' Place, during the fifties Red Scare is always so damned cheerful? Shouldn't those of us who were losing with the Cubs even before we lost the Spanish Civil War be moping in a corner and sucking on an egg? Act your age, like Abe Rosenthal.

But Studs leads a rich interior life, imagining himself as Erich von Stroheim playing Colonel von Rauffenstein in Grand Illusion. Or Conrad Veidt playing the somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. Or Takashi Shimura, in Kurosawa's Ikiru, singing "Uta No Gondola." Or the French chanteuse Lucienne Boyer singing "Plaisir d'amour" in Balieff's Chauve Souris. Or a "shuffling old Theseus in need of Ariadne and her ball of thread," whistling "Who Will Buy My Pretty Violets?"--the blind flower-girl's song from Chaplin's City Lights. From his Division Street beginnings, he was forever to be found at the theater, in an opera house or concert hall, losing it at the movies. (He even talks here to Pauline Kael.) From 1929 on, living in a "Rooms for Men" boardinghouse within walking distance of the Loop, he got two free tickets to almost everything in exchange for putting up posters in his seedy lobby. During the fifties blacklist, he even mismanaged an art-house theater. Ever after, he had his radio program five days a week on WFMT.

By most of what he saw and heard--from Ethan Frome to Beau Geste to Pather Panchali--he was so often either "bowled over" or "knocked out" that it's amazing he was never floored. And he hasn't forgotten an image or a note. He pleases Vittorio De Sica by recalling the name of the little kid in The Bicycle Thief, startles Satyajit Ray by having seen the all-but-unknown Kanchenjungha, amazes Edward Albee by knowing the real-life vaudeville model for a character in A Delicate Balance and flabbergasts James Bell, the actor who was electrocuted at the first-act curtain of The Last Mile in a 1930 Chicago production, by calling him up thirty-eight years later to offer him the part of an old Wobbly in a play Studs himself had written: "You want me?" says Bell, too old and too sick to stir from Virginia. "I had a funny feeling he was crying," Studs tells us.

This isn't to mention such historical nuggets as Studs's reminding Cagney that George M. Cohan "was a fink" in the early days of Actors Equity, firing anyone who dared to join the union. Or such grace notes as his memory of Buster Keaton playing with a bedsheet, now a Roman senator, now an Arab sheik, now a white shroud. Nor even to hint at the search engine at work in these pages, the browsing and the hyperlinks--from Edith Piaf and William Powell to the black Macbeth of Orson Welles to Steiner's suicide in La Dolce Vita to Simone Signoret's French version of Little Foxes to Billie Holiday and Lotte Lenya to Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens, Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain and E.G. Marshall in The Iceman Cometh. As if his own wise head were a Cinema Paradiso, he free-associates these interviews to weave a ramifying pattern. Thus Buster Keaton shows up in the middle of Truffaut, and De Sica in the middle of King Vidor, and Tallulah Bankhead in the middle of Carol Channing, and Diana Barrymore in the middle of Tennessee Williams, and Marcello Mastroianni and Alain Cuny in the middle of Federico Fellini.

What they find in Studs is a quizmaster not the least bit interested in private scandal. He seeks instead "a common thread" of tradecraft. He is--in this respect as in so many others--a vanishing breed. When today's celebrities aren't hiding behind their public-relations agencies, they issue canned or potted prefab sermonettes, attached to the trailers of their budget-busting movies, testifying to the anguish of their art, for which no interlocutor is deemed necessary. Nor are these "virtual privacies" hard to grudge, when every other interrogation in a modern era of bugs, taps and video surveillance is essentially punitive--the loaded questions of therapists, cops, prosecutors, gossip-mongers and deconstructionists. Who better and who else to talk to than a Studs containing so many multitudes that he can simultaneously entertain the contradictory messages of an Edward Albee (we can't live with illusions) and a Eugene O'Neill (we can't live without them), who is equally comfortable with either gnarled Beckett (the Theater of the Absurd) or epic Brecht (social plays with political content), and who can see, through Jonathan Miller's eyes, the common denominator between King Lear and Alice in Wonderland?

No wonder Arthur Miller cheerfully explains that he got the idea for The American Clock from Studs Terkel's Hard Times. That Tennessee Williams would show up at WFMT almost directly from the asylum, confessing that "I'm a man who has the San Andreas Fault built into him." That August Wilson offhandedly confides that his plays draw inspiration from Romare Bearden paintings. That Lorraine Hansberry was anxious to talk about Sean O'Casey. And no wonder, either, that blowhards like Brando and Schwarzenegger end up spouting their whalelike egos all over the innocent studio: "Knowledge in depth about oneself," says Marlon, "is reserved for a few people willing to journey through the night sea and find one's center. History never indicates, however, that people en masse are willing to make the enormous sacrifice required." Compared with this fortune cookie the size of a Big Rock Candy Mountain, Arnold is practically modest: "I am a strong believer in Western philosophy, the philosophy of success, of progress, of getting rich. The eastern philosophy is passive, which I believe in maybe three percent of the time, and the ninety-seven percent is Western, conquering and going on."

And what does Studs get out of it? Some laughs, especially from Robert Morley:

I loathe people with their briefcases hurrying about. That's the only moment I'm unhappy in America; when I get into the elevator in the morning and there are five grim gentlemen with their little briefcases. I wonder what they're thinking about. They're looking as if they're going to sell something improbable and work too hard all day. It's eight o'clock in the morning and they resent stopping at a floor to pick somebody up. You can see it in their faces. They didn't want to stop at the ninth floor.

But he also gets what every American radical has always longed for, which is community and faith. He gets a Federal Theatre and its Living Newspaper; a De Sica who thinks all films should be sensitive to social problems like poor people and old people and housing and unemployment; a Miller who reminds us that until recently, all theater "was involved with the fate of the kingdom, and the importance of power, of rank, of public policy"; a Clurman who insists that "we live to create art through conversation, through comradeship, through friendship"; a Satyajit Ray who says the father in The World of Apu "comes back to responsibility. I believe in that. I don't believe in denunciation. The acceptance of responsibility. I believe in that very strongly"; a René Clair who envisions "a great revolution" brought about by pay TV; a Joan Littlewood who tells us that "each man, each woman is part bird, part fish, wishing to fly, to dance, to fuck well, to eat well, to think.... Raleigh, the intellectual, and Marlowe, the poet, dreamed of a republic of clowns"; and an Uta Hagen whose Greenwich Village theater was wide open and free to all: "They say, 'I want to be a household name.' I say, 'What is that? Lysol? Toilet paper? Bounty? These are household names.' Listen to me, I'm shouting."

And all this is no less than Citizen Studs deserves--the grand old man with the brave songs, the cranky tape recorder and the magic hearing-aid. I wish him, as well, a Paris Commune and a New Jerusalem.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size