In celebration of Studs Terkel’s 95th birthday last year, Calvin Trillin paid tribute. The oral historian and great friend of The Nation died Friday at 96.
Studs Terkel’s accomplishments as America’s pre-eminent listener are all the more remarkable when you consider that he happens to be a prodigious talker. He is, in other words, a monument to restraint. A couple of times, I’ve reversed roles with Studs–I’ve interviewed him for an hour on stage–and each time I was tempted to ask him one question, take off my lapel-microphone and join the audience. He could easily have held the audience for a one-hour answer that ranged from his thoughts on jazz to his soap-opera career playing gangsters to the dinner-table conversations at the men’s hotel his mother ran to his antic experiences with the blacklist to the happy times in his favorite Chicago saloon, Ricardo’s, where one of the waiters was cued to stroll over to the table and join him in the Spanish Civil War song “Los Cuatro Generales.” Once Studs got on his roll, in fact, he might not have even noticed that I was missing.
One of those stage interviews was in San Francisco and one in New York, but wherever Studs is he brings Chicago with him. In the early days of cable television–when there were no cable listings in the newspapers and the most talked-about show on local cable in New York consisted of a man who walked around town asking women to show him their breasts and Chicago was not yet even wired for cable–Studs and I did a talk show called Nightcap for a channel that I think was a precursor of Arts & Entertainment. We sometimes referred to Nightcap as the only fully clothed show on cable TV. In each program we chatted with a panel of people who were distinguished in a particular art form–three divas, say, or three architects or three writers of science fiction–and what continued to amaze me was that Studs seemed to know nearly all of them. I concluded that illustrious visitors to Chicago were taken to see Studs in the way that illustrious visitors to Chicago were once given a tour of the stockyards. Once somebody on the show mentioned Jane Austen, and I said, “If she ever went through Chicago, Studs knows her.”
In the years Studs did his interview show on the radio, authors, even some who were not particularly illustrious, were taken to see him when they got to Chicago on a book tour. If an author arrived toward the end of his tour, he was likely to have repeated phrases from his book so often that they were beginning to have a depressing similarity to the flight attendant’s announcement about seat backs and tray tables. Then Studs would open up a copy of the book, which had been heavily underlined with a broad black pen, and read a few passages in that gravelly voice that somehow made the words sound fresh again. The author would find himself thinking, Hey, that writing’s not half bad! I once suggested that foundations that wanted to buck up American writers didn’t have to send them to villas in Italy. They could simply have the writers interviewed by Studs. You wouldn’t even have to air the results.
When I was the visiting author, Studs and I usually got into a taxi after the taping to go to lunch, and the driver almost invariably realized that he had one of Chicago’s iconic figures in the back seat. There usually followed a conversation in which Studs, through his questions, displayed a remarkable familiarity with the driver’s old neighborhood, whether the neighborhood was Back of the Yards or Nigeria. The almost instantaneous connection Studs made with the driver was always a reminder to me that this man, who had interviewed Leonard Bernstein and Bertrand Russell and Ralph Ellison and Zero Mostel and Margaret Mead, created his most enduring work by gathering the thoughts of ordinary people on their struggles and their daily labor and even their deaths. They shared those thoughts with him, I think, partly because they sensed that his curiosity and his generosity of spirit embraced everyone, without regard to rank or station. They recognized him as a monument to much more than simply restraint.