Studs Terkel, who died October 31 at 96, has been universally celebrated as a world-class listener. This is ironic, since for the past few years, anyway, Studs couldn’t hear worth a damn. But that didn’t stop him.
Of course, with his publisher, André Schiffrin, egging him on, Studs invented a new form of history, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his oral history of World War II, The Good War (1984), although it could just as easily have been for Working or Hard Times or any of his other amazing books, including Talking to Myself, his self-interview.
But as any writer who had the luck to pass through his studio at WFMT radio in Chicago could tell you, listening was the least of it. Studs was, of course, also a reader and a nonstop talker who delighted in nothing so much as enthusiastically sharing his pleasure with his audience, reading passage after passage from his interviewee’s book, which he had highlighted in advance with his yellow crayon (“Get this!” he would exclaim. “And this!”).
Bud Trillin once observed that if the Guggenheim Foundation knew what it was doing, instead of giving writers monetary grants it would arrange to get its grantees on Studs’s radio show. An hour on the air with Studs would leave them walking on air, a high that would last at least a year.
He could be funny, too. In the late 1970s Studs, who had a long history with The Nation–as reader, writer, cruiser, promoter–was serving as master of ceremonies at a Nation dinner honoring its recently retired great editor, Carey McWilliams. When the time came to introduce The Nation‘s new young publisher, Hamilton Fish, Studs couldn’t let the occasion pass without a comment on Ham’s reactionary grandfather (of FDR and “Martin, Barton and Fish” fame). It just goes to show, he said, “the more things stay the same, the more they change.”
Studs was a man of taste–and tastes. After Ham persuaded him to join The Nation‘s group of modest shareholders, in those pre-fax days Ham sent his assistant, Shirley Sulat, all the way to Chicago to pick up his signature in time for the end-of-year deadline. Ham asked Studs if he needed anything from New York. Shirley showed up with the requested New York pastrami sandwich, and that sealed the deal.
The late Lee Hayes, of the Weavers folksingers, used to say that if it weren’t for the honor of the thing, he’d just as soon not have been blacklisted. Studs appreciated the various honors bestowed on him over the years, but of none was he prouder than having been blacklisted. So he undoubtedly would have gotten a kick out of a story the New York Times ran a few days after his death. James Houtrides, who used to produce CBS News Sunday Morning, which often featured Studs along with John Leonard and others, wrote, “On Monday, November 3, Edward Rothstein, the New York Times critic, wrote ‘An Appraisal’ of Mr. Terkel and his work. You would have thought that he was a secret terrorist or communist and that the Cold War was still on.” Look more closely, Rothstein wrote, “and it becomes less clear where his liberalism slips into radicalism.”
Rothstein even noted that Terkel “wore something red every day to affirm his attachment to the working class.” Think of that, we can imagine Studs riffing, “to be blacklisted when alive and redbaited after death–too good to be true.” The ultimate comment, not so much on Studs as on the culture he so valiantly resisted.
On more than one occasion Studs would compare a journalist to I.F. Stone, George Seldes and/or Lincoln Steffens to indicate his highest accolade. Studs was more than a journalist, but his name now joins the ranks of those he so admired, with an add-on: he was our national griot, the bearer of the stories of people, ordinary and extraordinary.