Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

 See the
Conversations with History Blog

See a webcast of this interview:

Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times: Conversation with Studs Terkel; October 29, 2003, by Harry Kreisler

This interview is part of the Institute's "Conversations with History" series, and uses Internet technology to share with the public Berkeley's distinction as a global forum for ideas.

Studs Terkel Interview, full text:

Studs, Welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you.

My interviews are called Conversations with History. And, my God, this is a conversation with history that we're about to have. So let's put some background information on the table. You are ninety-one, going on forty?

I'm ninety-one. I was born in 1912. The year the Titanic went down, I came up.

I was just wondering about the Titanic; rather interesting connotations there, you know, it was touching the tip of the iceberg, and so in a sense, rather interesting. Ninety-one years old. By the way, I have a difficult time hearing, and I may miss some of Harry's comments and misunderstand them. I try to answer them as I think they are. Sometimes having a hearing impairment is very good. It gets you closer to the truth. For example, during the few days of Bush's triumph in Iraq, we heard the phrase "embedded journalists," continuously. But to my ear, it comes out "in bed with journalists." And so you see, hearing impairment does away with euphemisms. We compose it to a higher truth.

Another case in point: Justice Scalia, the most powerful man in America, the man who appointed our president, Justice Scalia, who, by the way, taught at my alma mater once, the University of Chicago Law School -- more about that in a minute -- but Justice Scalia's name comes out to my ear as "Scarpia." For those of you [who know] the opera Tosca, you know Tosca's a diva, and Scarpia is the police chief; the "whole room trembled," the sort of J. Edgar Hoover of Rome at the time. And so it's not Scalia, it's Scarpia. And so you see, it works.

The other confession is that John Ashcroft, our Attorney General, and I are fellow alumni. We both attended the University of Chicago Law School. I did about thirty years before he did, but I figured it out. He is considerably older. John Ashcroft, I figured out, is 350 years old. Let me explain to you why.

You saw an early incarnation of John Ashcroft when you saw Arthur Miller's play The Crucible. Now you all know The Crucible. It's 1690-something, Salem, Massachusetts. The fear of the terrorists today: witchcraft, the witches. And so here comes this reverend -- and that's John Ashcroft's previous incarnation -- Reverend Parris, his name is. And he says to the young hysterical kids, "You're with me or you're against me. And if you deny my God, if you deny my God, you are consorting with the devil." So they hanged a few old ladies. So I figured out his age: he's 350 years old.

So, in a sense, you have now my hearing impairment and my confession. Studs TerkelAnd now we begin.

You're ready for the next question?


I think with that soliloquy, people have a sense of your extraordinary mind.

Now, as I went through and prepared for this, it struck me that there are two influences that were an important part of your education. One was your mother's hotel, and listening to all those voices there. Tell us a little about that. How did that affect you?

Well, you see, I was more than University of Chicago Law School, let me tell you that. The hotel was a men's hotel during the Great American Depression. But this is before the Depression. Now, the hotel was not a flophouse. It was skilled guys -- retired firemen, boomer firemen. Many of them were Wobblies, IWW, you know, who believed in "one big union." Other guys were pro-boss. So they'd have arguments back and forth. They called the Wobblies' IWW "I Won't Work" [instead of the Industrial Workers of the World]. You know, that was their name. Whereas, the other guys said, "The boss is there because he earned it!" Remember John Houseman's commercial? "They earned it! Because he earned it!" And so the Wobblies, as the IWW, called these guys "scissor bills" or "capitalists with holes in their pocket." And so I used to hear these arguments.

The thing we miss today is argument. We miss debate. We miss the whole idea of people going back and forth. I loved hearing those arguments. Many [of those in the hotel] were autodidacts, were self-taught. They carried little blue books. They were called "E. Holderman Julius Blue Books." They cost a nickel and a dime; printed in Gerard, Kansas. And it would be the works of Shakespeare; it would be the works of Clarence Darrow defending people. It would be Plato, Aristotle. It would be about agnostics.

Oh, by the way, I happen to be ... even when I wrote this book, Will the Circle be Unbroken, I happened to be an agnostic. An agnostic, you know, is a cowardly atheist.

I see.

At the same time, I do not deny people's right. I envy them -- those who believe in the hereafter. I can't make book on it. Nobody can be a bookmaker in that respect, right? So if they get solace out of it ... See, my point is, if someone is given solace out of a certain belief, that's enough. But the big thing is that wasn't a book about death at all. It was a book about life -- how we live our lives today determines the nature of our death. We can't, we don't know a thing as to what happens later. We do what we do now. And so, in a sense, it was about life.

This all came about out of [your question about] the hotel. You might even want to ask me one more ... I know that Harry is about to ask me one more question. But I've got to finish this. Now maybe I'm jumping the gun ...

No, please, go ahead.

How I find people.


How I find people. Well, I love jazz, and many of the people I know about ...

I read the item in the papers about a former Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan -- I can tell you that story later -- who is a transformed man, who works now ... he did work as an organizer for a black union, the same guy as the Ku Klux Klan one.

Well, here's a case in point. For the book Working, I try everything: a housewife, a teacher -- "What do you think about ... ?" [I ask, for example,] a spot-welder in an auto plant, all day doing the same work: "What do you think about ... ?" So in this case, it's a gas meter reader. You know what a gas meter reader is, don't you? The guy who comes into your basement with a flashlight. You've had that, haven't you?" He visits you -- a gas meter reader.

So I asked him, "Tell me about your day. What goes on in your mind?" He says, "Two things: dogs and women." As he's talking, I realized the first is the reality; the second, the fantasy. So I say, "Okay, let's talk about the dogs first. What about the dogs?" "The worst are those poodles and the Pekinese pups. They're horrible; they're spoiled. They gnaw at my pants. They tear at my pants, and I use my flashlight as a weapon of defense. And when I hit them -- as the lady of the house is going down the stairs, I follow her, and there's that little dog, and I just give him a whack to make up for the one I missed at the other house."

But I say, "Okay, let's talk about the women now." He says, "Oh, well, nothing has happened, you understand. Nothing's happened. However, in my mind, you go to a house -- " and he names a nice suburb on the north side of Chicago. "And the lady of the house is very pretty. And the sunshine, the summertime, and she's on the patio taking a sunbath. That is, she's lying on the blanket with her back up, her chest down. She's in a bikini and the bra is unbuttoned so that the sun can shine on her back in full. What I do is I creep up very, very softly. And when I'm right next to her, I holler, 'Gas man!' and she turns around -- !" And then he says, "You know, I get balled out an awful lot. But it makes the day go faster."

That is what goes on in the minds of many people -- "How do you make the day go faster?" And so that's a part of it.

Which brings me to my next question, Studs. I think that it was mentioned that you did soap operas. And you were on the stage. I think the audience has a sense, now, that you're really a performer. So the surprising thing in your life story is that a performer, a man of the stage, became such a good listener. How did that happen? Because your books are about listening.

Well, first of all, I was always cast, because of a gravelly voice, I was always cast as a gangster, a Chicago gangster. In case you don't remember radio soap operas, Chicago had more than New York and Hollywood put together -- radio soap operas. Now, all the soap operas were the same. Guiding Light was about a minister. Woman in White was about a nurse. But they all had the same characters, all you do is shift them around. They always had three gangsters, the villains. They have the same plot -- the bright gangster, middle gangster, dumb gangster. I was the dumb gangster, the one who said, "Get in there, you guys." And so I became that.

Then I became a disc jockey. But I became a rather eclectic disc jockey. I played operas. I played jazz -- Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues." I might play an aria from Fidelio with Lotte Lehman singing Leonore. And then follow with Woody Guthrie doing the dust-bowl ballads. That's when I first discovered Mahalia Jackson. I heard this voice ... it was an Apollo record. It was called, "Move On Up a Little Higher," a gospel song, written for her by Professor Thomas A. Dorsey, a great songwriter who wrote "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," Martin Luther King's favorite song. I said, "This is a voice I've never heard before." So I played her a lot, and she used to give me credit as being the white disc jockey who enlightened the white world. She would have been known anyway. But that's how it came about. And the Mahalia story is interesting -- this is autobiographical, isn't it?


This is my life.

We're going to bring out Ralph Edwards.

It was in the days when TV was brand new, television -- 1949, 1950, there was new medium called television. It was on 6:00 to 10:00 at night. It didn't have the commercial or political possibilities then. It was in the hands of the writers, the actors. Chicago had three programs that the whole country looked to. One was called "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" -- a wonderful puppeteer named Bert Triffin made these little rags in his hand come to life. Another was the Dave Garroway Show. Dave Garroway went to New York and was the first face ever seen on daytime TV, the Today Show.

The third program, the one I was involved with, was "Studs' Place." All three had a Chicago quality; all improvised. And so I'm pretty hot stuff at the time, called "hot property." That's when they came from New York and said, "Look, you signed all these petitions" -- the McCarthy days -- "You're a hot property. Now, what are we going to do about this ? Did you sign these petitions -- anti-poll tax, anti-lynching, anti-Jim Crow?" And I said, "Yeah." I said, "In fact, I never met a petition I didn't like." And that's when he said, "You know, communists are behind these things."

Well, it happens I read something about Archibald MacLeish in Harper's magazine, who had spoken about how the U.S. and the Soviet Union are both in thrall to one another. Both are nutty as fruitcakes. He was saying, "One does the opposite the other does." Studs TerkelAnd that's when I got the idea, "Well, suppose communists come out against cancer. Must we come out for cancer?" And so the guy says, "That is not very funny." And then he says, "You've got to stand up and be counted." So I stood up, you know. He says, "Sit down; that's not very funny either." Finally he said, "Look, there's a way out. You can say you were dumb, you were stupid, you were duped; you didn't mean it." I said, "But I did mean it."

So I got canned. I got blacklisted. To this day, people say, as tonight, "Oh, Studs was heroic." I wasn't. I was scared breathless, you know, except that my ego was at stake. I wasn't dumb; it was my ego. That's what did it. My self-esteem, some might call it. So that's how it came.

Now comes the Mahalia story. So I'm out. I'm blacklisted, but I live in Chicago. My kind of town, Chicago is. People know me there. So I make a buck or two at women's clubs, speaking about jazz and folk music. And there's a Legionnaire in town who would always follow me around, and warn the women. They all ignored him. One woman, very old and very elegant, was furious with him. She says -- I was getting a hundred bucks a lecture, and she said, "I will make it two hundred," the result of that. She was so furious.

This man's name was Ed Clamage, who has since gone to the great Legion Post across the sky. So Ed Clamage, I wrote him a note, and I send him a check for $10.00. I says, "Do you realize that you've made me an extra hundred bucks? You're my agent, so here's a $10 check." And you know what? He never acknowledged my check. So that's how it began.

So Mahalia is now internationally known with CBS. The first experience was with NBC. And CBS says, "Mahalia, we're going to give you a national radio program." She says, "Yes," and, "Studs Terkel is going to be the host," she said. And they said, "Oh, no." She said, "Oh, yes." So I'm the host. So the show has an audience that comes to see it, as you did [tonight]. It's about 7 o'clock at night and we're doing a dress rehearsal. It's about the third week of the show, when another guy comes in from New York, and he hands me a leaflet, a piece of paper to sign. He says, "This is just pro forma. It's a loyalty oath. Are you [or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party]?" I said, "Well, I'm not going to sign ... I don't believe in this stuff." And our voices are raised, and Mahalia is going to the piano to rehearse a new song we thought of as the theme. And what was it? I forget the song now ... "His Eye is on the Sparrow." And so we're going to do a song, and she hears this back and forth argument. And she always said to me, "Studs, you've got such a big mouth, you should have been a preacher," you know, Mahalia said. So, finally, she says, "Is that what I think it is, baby?" I says, "Yeah." She says, "Are you going to sign it?" I says, "No." "Okay, let's rehearse." He said, "But Miss Jackson" -- he's very polite -- "Mr. Terkel has to sign it, because headquarters said he must." That's when Mahalia said, "If they fire Studs, you tell them to find another Mahalia." And you know what happened? Nothing. He disappeared. He vanished. The moral is: She said no. She said no to the official word. And she had more Americanism in her, more guts, than General Sarnoff, Bill Paley and all of them put together.

And that's what the moral is all about -- saying no to the official word, if you know it's a cockeyed word. And now is the time. So that's, more or less, the story. This is a confessional.

And, in fact, I'll read Studs to Studs, because in your biography this is what you say: "As I look back at the McCarthy period, my obstinacy was not due to any moral stance. No, that had nothing to do with it. It was something else. Call it hubris, if you wish; though I pretend to modesty, I have an enlarged ego. I was being asked to ask to play the fool," you say. "'Dupe' was the word used. True, I often played the fool, but on my own terms. If I am to be the clown, I'd rather play it to King Lear than to Karl Mundt. It's a matter of aesthetics as much as ethics. Don't you think so?"

Where did you read that?

That is from your biography.

My God, I forgot.

My job here is to feed you some of your biography.

Yeah, well, I forgot about that. Thank you.

So it's a question I'm going to pursue. But, okay, so we've established that Studs is a performer. He's doing soap opera. He's producing radio. Mahalia Jackson gives him a break. But I still want to understand how you became a listener. Studs TerkelAnd I want to throw some more of your biography at you.

You say in your biography that you were performing in a play of Sinclair Lewis's called It Can't Happen Here. You really liked that part. And you're talking about the part. I think that this is very important because it's an entry point into your role as an interviewer. We have you on the stage, but we've got to get you with that recorder talking to all of these people. This is what you write: "I remember that one exhilarating instant ... " Studs is playing a fascist in this play, a working-class guy who joins a proto-Nazi group. "I remember that one exhilarating instant during the day's rehearsal when my Corpos uniform fit so snugly, so naturally, it became me. I no longer slouched. I was ramrod straight, my hands on my hips in the manner of General MacArthur, glowering past the last row of the theater in the Wardman Park Hotel. I looked beyond. Chad --" that's the part he was playing "-- was miraculously somebody." Why is that important, Studs?

Oh, boy. See, you hit something very interesting. Now, do all of you remember Sinclair Lewis's novel It Can't Happen Here? It was a novel during the thirties when a lot of fascist groups [were on the rise]. Father Coughlin was speaking Sunday night, Silver Shirts, [John R. Brinkley] -- there were a lot of various, American native fascist groups. That is, they proclaimed themselves fascists. Sinclair Lewis's book is a fantasy of a fascism called the Corpos, obviously a take-off on corporate stuff. They took over the country. And I [played] this handyman who hates my boss, a liberal New England publisher, a kindly liberal guy. I hate his guts because he doesn't recognize me, this guy. I'm sort of a George Wallace figure, but definitely someone who could easily become a storm trooper.

So I finally do become that when the Corpos wins. I become the go-galighter of this town, and I'm describing the feeling of these nobodies. I've come across these nobodies [in real life], who were just ordinary people, but they feel frustrated by something and they take it out on the wrong person. And I remember putting that uniform on, the Corpos uniform, and you were describing that -- that was in the book. And I'm addressing this audience. This is the Washington Civic Theater. I was a member of that group. The Wardman Park Hotel was the theater. And I'll never forget the feeling of power, the power that I, a nobody, felt as a somebody. That's what Sinclair Lewis had in mind.

So you bring that up because we have this today. You have many who are furious and angry. I've [seen] several books of neo-Nazis who changed, because they feel outside. Sometimes liberals are good, sweet people who ignore them completely as being illiterate, as being chauvinistic. They're not. They want to be part of something. They're frustrated, and they take it out on the wrong people, of course. So that's why that was an indelible experience for me, because it's timely now, too.

A theme that runs through your work is that, in general, in our society we don't listen to people, and that, by listening, you bestow upon them a kind of respect, a kind of dignity.

You're hitting a very big thing. You're hitting the important thing. Listening to people. Who am I, as I talk to this woman?

Now, I've got to warn you, people think this is deliberate. I'm very inept mechanically. I'm not a Luddite, but I'm just learning to use the typewriter. I really am. It's an electric typewriter. It's very exciting, you know. I hunt and peck. But the fact is, I use a tape recorder, and sometimes I press the wrong button. I can't drive a car. I fall off bicycles. And so I press the wrong button sometimes, and the person is seeing and says, "Look, he is not somebody from Mount Olympus, and he's not from 60 Minutes, and he's not Baba Wawa. No. He's just a guy." And the person says, "It's not moving," when I had reel-to-reel. "Well," I said, "Well, I forgot about it." So I've lost Martha Graham. I've lost Michael Redgrave. I almost lost Bertrand Russell. This was in North Wales, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. If I did, I'd have put my head in the oven, you know. But I finally caught it. So that defect that I have -- like my not hearing and getting the truth -- so my ineptitude sometimes works in my favor because that person feels I need him.

So this is one story I must tell. This is very early days; I think it was Division Street America -- 1965. How many years ago was that? Thirty-eight years ago. And the tape recorder is still not as ubiquitous as it is today. I'm in a housing project, and it's mixed. I can't remember if she was white or she was black. She was light-skinned. She was very pretty. But she was skinny and had bad teeth, because no dentist, you know. Three little kids running around -- five, six, seven years old. They want to hear their mama's voice; she's talked into my tape recorder. So I say to the kids, "Now you quiet down, and I'm going to play it back." She hears her voice for the first time in her life. She hears her voice and something she said. She puts her hand to her mouth and says, "Oh, my God." And I said, "What is it?" She said, "I never knew I felt that way before," hearing herself. And to me, that's "Bingo!" Bingo for her. Suddenly she realizes she thinks certain things she never thought of. And for me, of course, as a fellow-journey man with her, it's pretty exciting. That's the kind of stuff that I find very rewarding.

Studs, I wanted to say that I was afraid that you wouldn't feel at home with a Berkeley audience, so that I should have some props here. I knew that we might wind up talking about your tape recorder. I don't think you noticed here, but in your book, you're always talking about the "Uher." And I read this -- "What's a "Uher?" And then I did some investigating. So this is a "Uher" ...

That's a "Uher," it is an early one.

... with a tape. It's a Uher, and I couldn't figure out whether it was your "Charlie McCarthy," the tape recorder, or what, but you are abusive toward it. It's a tool. It's a way ...

There's only one other person addicted to the tape recorder, and that was Richard Nixon.

I see. I see.

I call Richard Nixon and myself fellow Cartesians -- you know, Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am." But Dick and I are neo-Cartesians, "I tape, therefore I am." I hope our purpose is somewhat different. But, nonetheless, I am addicted to the tape recorder as Dick was.

This reminds me, I'll share anecdotes with you, having read many of your books. I noticed in one of your memoirs that at the time of Watergate, this very serious business, you convened a panel of burglars and safecrackers, three. And so I'm reading this book and it comes to Watergate. And these are second-story men. And Studs is asking them, "Well, what do you think of the way they did the job?" So I say to myself --

I did that ... I did that ...

-- "See this is the difference ... "

I happen to know, as you probably gather, I know all variety of people living in Chicago.

That's right.

And two people I know are -- how shall I put it? -- I call one Doc Graham, and the other Kid Farrow. And they are ... Well, I know them and they know me. They are soldiers of ... They want saloonkeepers to be good, honest citizens. And so when, for example, the jukebox is being underfed with nickels and dimes by them, they go there and they see to it that the person comes through and pays, you know. If he doesn't, well, there might be a finger slightly disjointed, you know. But these two guys are authorities on housebreaking. And so I ask them, "What do you think about Watergate?" And they are furious. They are indignant. "How dare they call themselves burglars! They're such amateurs! We would do it -- these guys, Nixon -- "We would do it ourselves. We would do it ... Why it's the simplest thing in the world. I'd come there ... We'd come all dressed, S&W, our suits." Studs TerkelS&W, Smith and Wesson, you know. "We would come dressed Smith and Wesson." And there was a dark-colored gentleman, the hero of it -- do you remember? -- who was a young, African-American watchman, who was hardly mentioned. He was the hero. He was the one who found it. So, "We would surround him. We would see to it that he's handcuffed. And then we'd walk out with our valises. And we'd have walked out. It's the easiest thing in the world. And there these amateurs, all they had to do is go to Leavenworth. They could have gone to Alcatraz. They could have all the college boys ..." They called that college, you know. "[For] all our college boys, [it] would be the easiest thing in the world. Instead, those amateurs doing damage to our reputation was horrible." So that was a Fourth of July commentary.

When I read that, I said, "Oh, at Berkeley then, we would have convened an academic group to talk about Watergate, and we probably wouldn't have had as much insight into the actual event itself," which leads me to make a point about you, Studs, which is that you are a very smart, theoretical person but you have an amazing sense of humanity, of people, and what makes them tick. I think that's really what distinguishes you. I want to talk, before we talk about your new book, I'm going to force you to talk a little about your art, even if I have to throw quotes at you. You said in of all your work, you're "looking for the faces in the crowd to commemorate lives, the people who over a long haul of daily trials and small revelations found a sort of redemption and transcendence. It is in these faces in the crowd that most attracted me during my searches."

Well, that's true. These are the faces in the crowd. They could go either way, you know. There were faces in the crowd that Hitler was addressing, too, and there are faces in the crowd today, who are looking for something. I'm convinced, by the way, of the innate intelligence and innate decency of the American people. It's true. In all the books, you'll find that undercurrent. But I'm also friends with some of the conservative Tribune editors, Chicago Tribune. I asked Bruce Dole, the [Op-Ed] page editor -- he's an honest guy -- and I say, "Tell me about the letters. I see a surprising number of anti-Bush letters in the Tribune, once owned by Colonel McCormick." He says, "It's true." I says, "What's your rates?" "Well, most, maybe, if anything, slightly more anti than pro, but certainly 50/50 at best for that." That's an astonishing ... See, letters to the editor, to me, are revealing things. In neighborhood papers, you'll find that. And more and more of this knowledge ... I believe the people are way ahead of the politicians. For example, I knew Dennis Kucinich's name was not known. We know that. He's got as much chance of winning the nomination as the Chicago Bears have the Super Bowl, you know. But, of course, he's the most qualified guy. So, of course, I'm for Dean. I know that. But I'd hope that Dean has some of Kucinich's guts -- that's the thing.

So coming back to this subject at hand, once people get the facts -- it's getting the facts; and remember, our media, which is called ... this is funny. Our media is called "liberal media," which is an obscene joke, of course. "Our media" -- is not the most powerful mogul the Australian Neanderthal, Rupert Murdock? So this is the most astonishing thing. It's almost as though W.C. Fields wrote the scenario, as it we have it today. Of course, the humor, it's almost outrageous in its humor.

But through it all, I sense in the people a tremendous feeling that something else is possible, something good. I think once they were getting facts -- and that's what the book is about: the book is about people, this book, Hope Dies Last. I thought it was going to be a crazy book to do, because the others are more visceral. "What's it like to live during a Depression? What was it like during World War II? What's it like being a teacher?" But this is hope. Studs TerkelIt came because of a woman in Fresno. Fresno is how far from San Francisco? Not too far, right? Well, it's Jessie De La Cruz, a retired farm worker -- worked with Caesar Chavez. She said, "We have a saying in Spanish when things are bleak and confused: Esperanza muera a ultimo -- 'Hope dies last.'" And I thought, "That's it."

So it's a tribute to all the activists down through the years, and those today. Activists are those who act to do something; and they, to me, imbue the rest of us [with hope]. They have hope; otherwise they wouldn't be activists. They give hope to others, and that's what it's about.

When you talk to these people, how do you get the story out of them? I have a quote here to Ivy Compton Burnett, and you're talking about an interview with her, and you tell her, "I'm constantly play-acting." Here, with you talking to [her as a] writer: "I begin to talk like you. When I'm with a Chicago hoodlum, I talk like him. I'm a chameleon."


It's quite impressive what you've done in all of these works.

I am a chameleon. That's true.

Ivy Compton Burnett is a very sophisticated writer, who is now dead, who wrote about masters and servants -- that's her theme throughout. She's very strong. At the end, crime pays. Crime pays. She's a little old lady that came out of Victorian days, and so as I wander into her place, I become like she is, you know. And she starts quizzing me. She's very curious. And all of a sudden she's asking me. She's got me on the spot!

As for my becoming a chameleon, when I'm with Doc Graham and Kid Farrow -- my two companions I told you about -- I become like they are. This must be the Grand Hotel influence, I suppose. So it's the ham actor in me, too.

But it's also the Chicago influence, isn't it? Chicago is both such a provincial place and such a cosmopolitan place. It's so much of everything.

Chicago has always been a city of hands. You know, "hands," that old-fashioned word for workers -- city of hands. It's not the storied city like ... Lillian Hellman, in The Little Foxes [wrote about] Alabama, 1900. Remember, the central figure, played by Tallulah Bankhead -- Betty Davis in the movie -- is this rough, tough sister who was going to make the money and going to make it big no matter what. She wants to be part of society. Where is she going to go when she gets it? Up north? New York? San Francisco? No. She says, "I'm going to Chicago." Of course, Chicago, 1900 had all sorts of ... It was a city of Louis Sullivan and the skyscraper, the city of all sorts of predators as well. But at the same time, it was a city of writers. It was a hotbed of creativity. It always has been.

I went to a bookstore today -- serendipity: I found a little book called Chicago, with pictures of the city, with commentary from you. I noted that they lifted an intro that you had done for the Nelson Algren book. And in that you're talking about Chicago as "the North Star to Jane Addams as to Al Capone; to John Peter Altgeld as to Richard Daley; to Clarence Darrow as to Julius Hoffman." In talking about Algren, you say he saw Chicago not so much as Janus-face, but as the "carnie freak show's two-headed boy -- one noggin Neanderthal, the other noble brow."

You know, Janus, the two-headed God -- both are Chicago, more dramatically, I think, than any other city in the country. The two sides of Chicago: the one side a Jane Adams, the other side a Capone, let say. Both were there, you see. John Peter Altgeld was the great governor who pardoned the four men of Haymarket.

Oh, one quick thing. Before we close, we are suffering what I call a national Alzheimer's disease. That's why Bush and Ashcroft [have] no memory of yesterday, as though there were no Depression, as though the free marketeers (I call them marketeer to rhyme with buccaneer) ... The free marketeers, during the Great Crash of 1929, fell on their knees and begged the government, "Please help us out." And so the New Deal helped them out with regulations. And [now] their grandchildren, whose granddaddies begged the government, say, "Too much big government," when it comes to health, education, and welfare, and not Pentagon. So there's this loss of memory. The young have been deprived of this. Many young kids are anti-union.

So here I am -- and this is the anecdote -- I'm waiting [for a bus]. I talk a lot, as you can gather, and sometimes down the street I go, talking to myself. I find the audience very appreciative. And so they know me at the block. They know I wrote some books. But they also know me as the old gaffer talks to everybody.

So I'm waiting for the bus. But this couple, I cannot reach. There's a couple, I have to call them yuppies, because they are. Most young people are not. Most young are lost in the world, and wondering what ... but these two are. He's in Brooks Brothers, and he's got the fresh-minted Wall Street Journal under his arm. And she's a looker. She's got Bloomingdale, Neiman-Marcus clothes, the latest issue of Vanity Fair. But I can't ... they won't recognize me. My ego was hurt, you know. Everybody knows me! We start talking. The bus this day is late in coming. So I said, "I'm going to make conversation with them." So I say, "Labor Day's coming up." That is the worst thing I could possibly have said. He looks at me. He gave me that look that Noel Coward would give to a speck of dirt on a cuff, and he turns away.

Now I'm really hurt, you know, my ego is hurt. The bus is late in coming. So when I say something, I know it's going to get them mad. The imp of the perverse has me. And so I'm saying, "Labor Day, we used to march down State Street, UAW-CIO. 'Which side are you on?' 'Solidarity Forever.'" He turns to me and he says, "We despise unions." And I say [to myself], "Oh, I've got a pigeon here -- no bus!" Suddenly, I fix him with my glittering eye like the ancient mariner, and I say, "How many hours a day do you work?" And he says, "Eight." He's caught! "Eight."

"How come you don't work eighteen hours a day? Your great grandparents [did]. You know why? Because in Chicago, back in 1886, four guys got hanged fighting for the eight-hour day -- it was the Haymarket affair -- for you." And I've got him pinned against the mailbox. He can't get away, you know. The bus [hasn't come], and he's all trembling and she's scared. She drops the Vanity Fair. I pick it up; I'm very gallant. I give her the Vanity Fair. No bus. Now I've got them pinned. "How many hours of week do you work?" He says, "Forty." "How come you don't work eighty hours, ninety hours? Because your grandparents [did], and because men and women got their heads busted fighting for you for the forty-hour week, back in the thirties."

By this time the bus comes; they rush on. I never saw them again. But I'll bet you ... See, they live in the condominium that faces the bus stop. And I'll bet you up on the 25th floor, she's looking out every day, and he says, "Is that old nut still down there?"

Now, I can't blame them, because how do they know? Who told them? What do they know about unions? So that's what I mean about a national Alzheimer's disease. It's that aspect. So all these books deal with memory as well. What was it like during World War II? What was it like during the Depression? What's it like being black in a white-dominant [society]? What's it like growing old? What's the job of a teacher or a welder like?

So, in a sense, it's memory as well. And that's what we're dealing with.

If I can editorialize here, it's memory that comes from the voices of the people that you interview. I have this feeling, this is my thesis for this interview, that you just got tired of reading the traditional scripts, basically. You were a character in search of characters, and you took up this tape recorder and went to listen to people, and people that most interviewers probably wouldn't talk to.

Well, that's true. You see I have a way -- I don't know what it is -- maybe it was being raised in that men's hotel. Maybe it was that rooming house before the hotel. I think I have sort of a transient ... I see my background, my boyhood/childhood as out of transient [locales], and so I have a transient quality.

But before we close -- and I hope there's some books to be signed -- it's about this Hope Dies Last. I use the phrase "prophetic minority." You might think that's a Pollyanna phrase. I dedicate the book -- I have to say this: I dedicate the book to a couple named Clifford and Virginia Durr. Now you may not have heard of them. They're a white couple who lived in the South. Virginia Durr was a close friend of Jessica Mitford, who you may have heard of here. And she was the sister-in-law of Justice Hugo Black of the Supreme Court. Studs TerkelClifford [Durr] was a member of the FCC. They were very active in the Civil Rights movement, when blacks of the South protested. They could have lived a wholly different way, but they used to march down, and they were attacked. Oh, there were fifteen, twenty of them who marched down the streets of Montgomery [Alabama], and they were attacked and egged, and threatened. And then years passed, and I'm visiting, and now it's 1965, two years after the march on Washington, the Selma Montgomery march of 1965. Two hundred thousand people showed up there, that Selma Montgomery march. And we're in the house of Virginia Durr, and there were others. Some of them who were in the house were among those fifteen people, twenty years before. Miles Horton, who headed a certain school called Highlander Folk School, that Rosa Parks attended. Rosa Parks was the seamstress for Virginia Durr, and she told her about that school. So it's not accidental that Rosa Parks did what she did. She would have done it anyway. But, nonetheless, that played a role.

So at the end of the day -- it was a remarkable day, 200,000 people ended up at the mansion, outside of the mansion, of Governor George Wallace. We watched them on the TV -- he's excoriating these dirty subversives. And he names people in the room: Miles Horton; E.D. Nixon, the former Pullman car porter who Rosa Parks worked for, head of the NAACP of Montgomery; [Wallace] starts naming them. And suddenly, Miles Horton says, "Isn't it funny. There we were, fifteen people. We knew each other by name. Now there are 200,000 -- I don't know one. They don't know me. Isn't it wonderful?!"

That's the prophetic minority. They did it. Even the beginning of this country: half the country was Tory. Half the country wouldn't have minded the king. But there was Thomas Paine. There was Samuel Adams. They were activists. The abolitionists, they were activists. Then came the sixties, the black people, the students -- activists. And so, in a sense, they are prophetic. It may seem as though the odds are against them, because they have that thing called hope. But because they have that thing called hope, others are imbued with it, too. That's why I honor them in this book.

I think we've given the audience a sense of this listening that has become your art. So we'll be waiting for the next book.

I thought this would be my last book. Remember, I was also saying that before this book, the other one was my "last book." But now I've got another idea. That's amazing. Thank you very much.

So we'll go ahead and make arrangements for you to come through in a year or two with the new book.

One thing, I guess you want to know how I feel about death. I have an epitaph all set. And my epithet is simply this: "Curiosity did not kill this cat."

Studs, Thank you.

© Copyright 2003, Regents of the University of California

Site questions: Email iis_webmgr at