“When Studs Terkel listens, everybody talks.” [includes rush transcript]
This comes from a recent review of Studs Terkel’s new book, The Spectator, by John Leonard, who quotes the late broadcaster Charles Kuralt.
For 45 years, Studs Terkel, broadcaster and author, spent an hour each weekday on his nationally syndicated radio show conversing with famous and not-so-famous guests and with a loyal audience of Chicago listeners.
With his unique style of oral history on subjects such as race, war and employment, Terkel has spent decades interviewing Americans across the country, creating intimate portraits of everyday life and chronicling changing times through this century.
Studs Terkel’s work becomes particularly significant as we race toward the year 2000 in the midst of an unprecedented technological revolution with unforeseen consequences. He reminds us of where we have been and with whom we have been.
- Studs Terkel, broadcaster and author who for the past 45 years has interviewed Americans across the country on a broad range of topics — from the Great Depression to World War II, to their jobs. His books include My American Century, Division Street, Hard Times, Working, “The Good War” (which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction), and his latest, The Spectator. For decades, he was host of a nationally syndicated radio show based in Chicago.
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, “When Studs Terkel listens, everybody talks.” Well, I got this from a recent review of Studs Terkel’s new book. Believe it or not, folks, he is not stopping. It’s called The Spectator, and the review is by John Leonard in The Nation, quoting the late broadcaster Charles Kuralt.
For 45 years, Studs Terkel, broadcaster and author, spent an hour each weekday on his nationally syndicated radio show talking with famous and not-so-famous guests and with his loyal audience of Chicago listeners. He has a unique style, to say the least, of oral history on subjects like race, war, employment. He’s spent decades interviewing Americans across the country, creating intimate portraits of everyday life and chronicling changing times through this century. Studs Terkel’s work is particularly significant now, as we move into a new century, as a chronicle of the last century.
And we welcome you to Democracy Now!, Studs.
STUDS TERKEL Thank you very much, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you here. Gosh, I don’t know where to begin, because, well, you just embody everything, to say the least, not only all of the people that you’ve been listening to for so long but also a new approach that you’ve got in the first of a trilogy of books that you’re writing — it has just come out, this one, called The Spectator: Talk About Movies and Plays With Those Who Made Them — because I’m not used to seeing you talk to the famous. And here you are.
STUDS TERKEL Well, this is a continuation. You might say it’s a way, a strange continuation, a sequel to Working. Remember, I’m known for having spoken to the anonymous people. You know, the irony is, I’m celebrated for having celebrated the non-celebrated, the anonymous ones who—so-called ordinary people who are capable of extraordinary things. In this case, through 45 years with this station in Chicago, WFMT—I’m now with the Chicago Historical Society trying to save those tapes—but I’ve interviewed all variety of people, whether it be Bertrand Russell, North Wales, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or South Africa in the apartheid days with Chief Albert John Luthuli, the predecessor of Nelson Mandela, who was still in prison. But meantime, interviewing people who were celebrated—not celebrities, but celebrated for their work and their skill: Buster Keaton, in silent films; Marlon Brando, in plays and theater; Zero Mostel, whether be a painter or a wild comic who’s on stage when he’s off stage; Carol Channing, brilliantly analyzing Lorelei Lee, or the playgirl of the jazz age, showing how sharp she is. And so, in a sense, it’s continuation. They’re talking about their skills, their work. The only trouble I had was Brando, when he turned the tables and tried to interview me, and that became something of a duel of sorts.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, you were an actor yourself, weren’t you?
STUDS TERKEL What’s that?
AMY GOODMAN: You were an actor yourself.
STUDS TERKEL Well, I was a hambone actor. And one of the reasons I like this book so much—and Garry Wills does the introduction, said it’s my best book. That’s his opinion. But it’s because I was in a play once, summer stock, with Buster Keaton, long after his silent film days were over. You know, during summer stock, actors would need a buck or two and play in something. It was a play called Three Men on a Horse. And it was not the role for him. You know, it’s about three men. Three touts kidnap a timid card-writing greeting salesman, because he’s clairvoyant in picking out winners. And I’m one of the three racetrack touts who kidnap him. The play wasn’t much, but there was a scene he put in. I’m on the wings watching him. It’s 1949 in the summer stock company. I was watching this master invent a scene—nothing to do with the play. He’s caught with a bed sheet, and that bed sheet sort of puzzles him. He can’t get out of it. Suddenly, he becomes a Roman toga, and he’s a senator, you know, with that deadpan look. And he can’t get out of it. Suddenly, he’s a sheikh. He becomes a Valentino, you know? And suddenly, he becomes a white shroud. And I said, what would W.C. Fields do with this? W.C. Fields would destroy the thing. He’d kick it. Chaplin would embrace it and dance with it, ballet. And so, in a sense, that’s how it begins—my own fantasies.
How my day begins, like after a hard day’s night, I wake up, and I see the sun through the window. It’s a cold sun, and the leaves are trembling. It’s the opening of Rashomon, you see? It’s Kurosawa’s sun, as a guy, the woodchopper, is going through—people, I assume, have seen this movie—he’s going through the woods, and he sees a woman’s hat on one bush, a man’s robe on another, a rope on another. Something terrible has happened. Something terrible has happened: I’ve overslept, you see? I’ve had Benadryl. And next thing you know, I hear a voice, and it says, “Rise and shine.” But it’s Laurette Taylor’s voice. It’s Amanda in Glass Menagerie, see? And—but, finally, here’s the payoff, one of the things. I had a quintuple bypass about several years ago, so I use dumbells as part of the rehab. And a dumbell was lying carelessly on the way to the bathroom. I trip over the dumbell, and I sprain my neck, so I wear a neck brace. So, I look in the mirror, and I’m Erich von Strohein in Grand Illusion, you know, hollering out—if you remember the great, marvelous antiwar movie in which he’s the commandant, German commandant of French officers who are prisoners. He admires the other officer because they’re both members of the same class. But this other officer, Captain Boeldieu, is helping two other guys escape. And I don’t want to shoot him; he’s my friend, a fellow aristocrat. So I holler—in the mirror, it’s me, hollering, “Come down! I beg of you, Captain Boeldieu!” And you hear my—the voice of my wife says, “You come down! Breakfast is getting cold!” See, so that’s how my day begins.
So, I’m also fantasizing, at the same time interviewing these various people about their skills and their craft. So, I find it—for me, it was exciting.
AMY GOODMAN: I have to say, Studs, you’re really looking terrific, because the last time I saw you was at the Democratic convention a few years ago, and you weren’t looking—
STUDS TERKEL No.
AMY GOODMAN: —as young as you are right now. You’re 87?
STUDS TERKEL Eighty-seven, yeah. I was born in 1912. The Titanic went down, and I came up. And—but then, as Jimmy Carter said, “Who said life was fair?” So, there you have it. You see, my publisher’s name is André Schiffrin of the New Press, and he, when I did this, says, “Studs” — I said, “Well, that’s about it, André, this book.” He said, “Oh, no. See, this is—you’re interviewing people of the theater. You’ve interviewed—what about lieder singers? Let’s say, Lotte Lehmann, the great lieder singer of our century, her farewell concert—or John Jacob Niles or Jean Ritchie or Dizzy Gillespie or Lil Hardin Armstrong. That’s called The Listener, see? Music.” I said, “Well, that’s interesting. I’ll be 91-2.” “Yeah, then there’s a third.” “Oh, there is?” “You have interviewed writers and poets, you know. That’s called The Reader.” “Well, André, then I’ll be about 101.” He says — “And then what do I do?” “Then we’ll talk about it further,” he says. So that’s the nature of this.
AMY GOODMAN: It does have to be a quartet. The trilogy is not enough.
STUDS TERKEL Well, I’d be quite—yeah, that’s—
AMY GOODMAN: Yeah. The book is The Spectator, where Studs Terkel interviews all sorts of performers, like Marcel Marceau.
STUDS TERKEL Marcel Marceu, the mime. As John Leonard says—it’s the forthcoming review in The Nation. John Leonard says, “Hard to stop him from talking.” He just talked and talked. He shows—and it’s quite marvelous talk. I interviewed him several times, once in Paris and once there. And he’s analyzing the role of the mime through history, and also the very nature of life itself, as he does The Mask Maker, he does others. And he all—he says, “A mime cannot lie, see. Words can lie, but a mime can’t lie. The gesture speaks.” And so, that’s the challenge that he faces and meets. And that’s just one of them.
In contrast, Zero Mostel is always on stage. So I have to go along with him as a straight man sometimes, see. You know, Zero Mostel was—he’s a brilliant scholar, when it comes to painting, to art, to literature, to theater—this clown. Used to be a clown in the greatest sense of the word. Sometimes—but he’s always on. Suddenly he puts on an Italian dialect, so I go along with him. I remember a routine he once did with Philip Loeb, very great friend of his. So I decided I’d be his straight man. So he says, [inaudible]. And I say, “Signor Mostelli,” since he starts speaking Italian, “you are the world’s greatest tenor.” He’d just come off the boat. You know, this is pre-airplane days. He says, “Si, si. I’m Signor Mostelli.” I says, “You are the greatest since Caruso.” “Caruso, bah!” I said, “Now, it’s known that Italian tenors are known for their feuds.” They hate tenors, other tenors. So I say, “What is your opinion of—we’re so delighted you’re here as our guest, the Eminent Signor Mostelli. What is your opinion, say, of Luciano Pavarotti?” “A pappaduce! Is a pig, you know.” “What do you think of Franco Corelli?” “These are the two pigs! He’s a pig!” “What do you think of Giuseppe Di Stefano?” “Well, these are the three biggest a pig of all!” “What do you think of Tito Gobbi?” “Oh, he’s a baritone. He’s a baritone.” I says, “Well, Signor Mostelli, this is—I represent the Musical Courier.” It’s the bible of the opera world. “It’s our 75th anniversary. Everyone’s taking ads, from Caruso to Callas to Martinelli.” “No ads-a! No ads-a! Please! Everybody knows Signor Mostelli.” “Well, what about correspondence? I heard you was Radamès in Aida at La Scala last week, and I heard you were awfully sharp.” He says, “I’ll take-a 10 pages!” And so, that’s the way I have to adjust to him, or I adjust to others in different ways. So it works out a rather interesting challenge for me.
AMY GOODMAN: You have been chronicling our world for so many years. There is a very moving quote by Marcel Marceau that John Leonard picks up in his upcoming review, and I wanted to ask what you think about it relating to your own life. He says, “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.” He says, “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.”
STUDS TERKEL: Oh, well, you’re raising the challenge of the ages. In a forthcoming book, the one coming, The Listener, Lotte Lehmann, the great lieder singer of our century—it was in her eighties, sitting down and talking. She says, when she spoke to Bruno Walter, the great conductor, or Toscanini, they spoke of this very thing—you know, how much knowledge they have as they grow older, the wisdom, the maturity, and yet, physically, they can’t. And so, they say, this is the eternal dilemma. And you face it, but do it the best you can. That’s the dilemma. It’s all that—if only you had the same—retained the vitality with the wisdom you’ve accumulated, wow! Everything would be solved.
AMY GOODMAN: We’d end war.
STUDS TERKEL: What’s that?
AMY GOODMAN: We might end war, because if you maintain that strength, but you had the wisdom.
STUDS TERKEL: If you what?
AMY GOODMAN: If you maintain that strength, but you had the wisdom.
STUDS TERKEL: Oh, well, then something is great happening, yeah. I know advances have been made in the whole world of medicine and geriatrics and all else. I mean, our lifespan is increasing. And yet, our society—not our own, all society is such that the older you get, the more redundant you become. And today, guys are being canned before they’re 50 years old, so we have a goofy kind of setup, don’t we?
AMY GOODMAN: Studs, you came to New York for a Nelson Algren event last night. Nelson Algren—and there’s just been a 50th anniversary critical edition of his book, The Man With the Golden Arm, published. Now, a lot of people are probably saying, “Who’s Nelson Algren?”
STUDS TERKEL: Ah, Nelson Algren—well, to me, of course—is one of the most perceptive novelists—poetic, too, in a sense—of our half-century, of the last half-century, ever since World War II. Ma’am, it’s the 50th anniversary of the book awards, but he was—he won the very first one with Man With the Golden Arm. He was so pressured in his understanding of things. That’s about someone who was hung up on drugs. But he saw that way back.
More than that, Nelson represented the have-nots—in his own way, poetically, lyrically. And he always wondered why it is that girl is picked up for a $5 trick, but a guy pulls a million-dollar trick, he’s honored. He’s called a CEO. So this is the thing. Nelson is the one who always said that it’s the curious responsibility of the writer of all ages to get that judge on the dock, get that judge on the bench and bring him down onto the dock. And he says—and he wrote this beautiful poem, exquisite poem, about—to Chicago, called City on the Make. And during a Black Sox baseball scandal, 1919, eight guys were kicked out of baseball, but the owners were not. And he says, “How come the front office men never conspire? How come the senator is always so close to God?” But he always questions that, and he’s quite remarkable in this. But it’s also, he’s also a clown. He’s a great clown figure. And he’s the clown who speaks truth to power, always that, too.
AMY GOODMAN: He had trouble during the McCarthy era.
STUDS TERKEL: Oh, he did, sure. In fact, the—but aside from that, aside from the political troubles he had, he was hard to handle by the so-called, self-proclaimed literary Mandarins of New York. They didn’t know how to handle him. They were scared of him, really, because he was a great—he was uncontrolled. He was himself. And so, they made him a non-person. They declared him a non-person, pretty much. He’s even beyond politics. It’s a guy they couldn’t handle.
AMY GOODMAN: But why, during the McCarthy era, was he [inaudible]—
STUDS TERKEL: Oh, well, he spoke out, you know, on various matters. And when you speak out, you’re clobbered. And the irony, ironic thing, is his book preceding Man With a Golden Arm, Never Come Morning, is the one that Sartre and de Beauvoir liked so much in Paris. And, of course, she fell in love with him. And that’s a funny story. And so, I knew them, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Save that story, because we have to break for stations to identify themselves.
STUDS TERKEL: OK, all right, yeah, OK.
AMY GOODMAN: But when we come back, Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren, and I guess he couldn’t go see her in France, because of losing his passport during the McCarthy era. They withheld it, the U.S. government. Studs Terkel is our guest, the oral historian of this century, and he’s still got another book out. Working, working, working—no, that’s not the title of it. His new book is The Spectator. You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Studs Terkel in the studio. Studs, you were just talking about the writer Nelson Algren.
STUDS TERKEL: Well, it was a remarkable romance of Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren. You know, he used to tell a lot of jokes, you know, in American idioms, and she didn’t understand, but she laughed at all the jokes. So then I knew she was in love with him. But what an unlikely combination they were.
So I was—I was in Paris at a certain time, during the Algerian crisis, when she and Sartre were in danger, really were, from the OAS, the fascist group with the plastique bombs. Remember that? And so, but one day—but they’re in the news. Le Monde, Figaro carry this romance on the front pages, of the American writer from Chicago and de Beauvoir. And so, I’m Nelson’s close friend, so the three of us go to this restaurant, where she’s known, one of these posh, you know, restaurants, an old, old one, about 70 years, 100 years old. They all know her. And the upper bourgeoisie are there, and they’re all looking at this couple. I’m with them. I’m almost like in Zorba the Greek, see, you know—Alan Bates and Tony Quinn and Lila Kedrova, almost that same. So I’m like Alan Bates, and the three are there. And you see people looking. Nelson is a clown. He has a—what seems to be a diamond—a stickpin in his tie, but it’s a little electric light bulb, and he has a battery in his pocket. So when these couples look up and say, “That’s so and so,” he lights the bulb, and the bulb flashes! The people are startled. And she says, “Isn’t he wonderful? Isn’t he wonderful?” I says, “Yeah, but he’s a little crazy, you know.”
So, but the romance was a genuine one, certainly on her part. He later on—it fell apart, but what attracted him and Sartre and their friend Jacques Bost, who translated Never Come Morning into French, is that there’s something he caught that they felt was right in that book prior to Golden Arm. And then on—and he was more or less their American hero for a time.
AMY GOODMAN: In The Spectator, in this book, the first of the trilogy of—talking about movies and plays with the people who make them, you also take on James Baldwin. Did you know James Baldwin?
STUDS TERKEL: Oh, yes. It was when he first came back from Nobody Knows My Name, and that was an exciting interview, when he was speaking of the fact that black people know all about white people. You know, they’re there. They’re the invisible men and women, to paraphrase Ralph Ellison’s book. And so, remember, he came back from Switzerland. He was there. And he heard a Bessie—so I opened up—you know, I work certain ways, and I knew how he is, so I opened up, Bessie Smith singing “Backwater Blues,” because that opens up the avenue. That’s the music he played with a lot of white snow in Switzerland to hear this blues. It was very exciting as he talked—by the way, he also talks, rather interesting, how blacks and whites see a movie, The Defiant Ones. Stan, remember that nice, sweet movie of the two convicts escaping—the black convict Sidney Poitier and the white convict Tony Curtis. And as they’re trying to escape, and they’re chained, and the white convict falls off the train, and the black convict runs off to help him, to help him escape. And then he says the white audience would cheer, and black audience would say, “Get back to the train, you fool! Are you out of your mind or something?” That was very fascinating.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, your first book, wasn’t it about music and the history of—
STUDS TERKEL: Oh, I did a book years ago for young people on jazz called Giants of Jazz, in which I go from King Oliver to John Coltrane, you know, and connect all their lives, through Billie Holiday, through Basie, through stuff of that sort.
AMY GOODMAN: You and Mahalia Jackson had a thing going.
STUDS TERKEL: Well, Mahalia Jackson is—I was the white disc jockey. She always gave me credit. And there’s quite a story goes with this. She gave me credit as being the white disc jockey—I played one of her records called “Move On Up a Little Higher” way back in 1945, an Apollo 78, on a disc jockey show, a rather eclectic program. You had opera and jazz and folk and all that. And whites heard it for the first time, and so she gave me credit for that, though she’d have been known anyways. So I was her—the MC and the host of her network show, and that’s a story. I think I told it the other day, didn’t I? I think I did. About—
AMY GOODMAN: Tell it.
STUDS TERKEL: —the black list. Well, you know, I had—well, it’s too long a tale. I was hot stuff back in 1950 when TV was new. TV was brand new, and it was on 6:00 to 10:00 at night. Chicago had three programs. It was not the sales medium it is, so Chicago had three, one called Kukla, Fran & Ollie with Burr Tillstrom, the puppeteer, who was brilliant. The little rags in his hands came alive, the Kuklapolitans. The second one, Dave Garroway, a disc jockey like I was, who became very easy. He became the first host of The Today Show, the very first face ever seen on daytime TV. And the third show was mine, called Studs’ Place. These three were jazzy, they were improvised. It was live. There was no safety net, no canned laughter, of course not. And so, all of us were hot. Mike Wallace went from Chicago to New York. Garroway did. And I was wooed.
And then came the Cold War. And I signed all these petitions, you know, so a guy calls in from New York, says, “We’re in trouble!” So I say to him, “Where do you get that 'we' stuff?” You know, and he says, “Well, you’re in all these petitions.” I says, “Yeah, it’s anti-Jim Crow, anti-poll tax.” He says, “Don’t you know that communists are behind these petitions?” And that’s when I get cute, and I say, “Well, maybe so, but suppose communists came out against cancer. Do we come out for cancer?” And the guy says, “Not very funny.” I says, “No, it wasn’t.” So—and we go on in this vein. Finally he says, “Why don’t you simply say you were duped, you know?” I said, “I wasn’t. I’m against the poll tax. I’m against Jim Crow.” “So am I, but say you were duped, because you’re valuable property.” I said, “But I wasn’t.” So, to this day, people think that I was heroic. I was scared [expletive]-less, as a matter of fact. But my ego was at stake, my vanity, and that’s what did it. And so, then I’m canned. And then, later on, I got on this FM station.
So, later on, Mahalia—I did Mahalia, and now I’m the host of her show on CBS. It’s now about five years later. And sure enough, we’re doing this—it’s a live show. There’s an audience comes in, you know. And before the audience comes in this one show—it’s for 26 weeks. In the third week, a guy comes—another guy from New York comes in. This time it’s CBS. Last time it was NBC. And he gives me something to sign. It’s a loyalty oath. I said, “Well, I don’t sign those things.” And Mahalia’s passing by. We’re rehearsing, you know. She’s going with Mildred Falls, her pianist, to rehearse. And she’s known about me. She said to me, “Studs, you’ve got such a big mouth, you should have been a preacher, you know.” And so, she hears this conversation. “I’m not going to sign.” He says, “You gotta.” I say, “No.” She says, “Is that what I think it is, baby?” I says, “Yeah, a loyalty oath.” She says, “You’re going to sign it?” I says, “No.” “Well, let’s rehearse.” He says, “Oh, but, Ms. Jackson, Mr. Terkel has to do it. It’s from New York. He has to sign.” “He doesn’t has to do anything he doesn’t want to do. He said, 'I don't want to do it,’ so let’s rehearse.” He says, “No.” Now she says, “Look, if you—if that Mr. Big says to fire Studs, you tell him to get another Mahalia Jackson.”
You know what happened? Nothing happened. The guy disappeared. What’s the moral? The moral is somebody said no. That does it, a whole period that Lillian Hellman called “scoundrel time” was craven time, was coward time. And now someone said no, and that was the answer, simple as that. Nobody said no. So that’s the story.
AMY GOODMAN: Studs Terkel is telling us the story. Studs Terkel, the author of so many books, a interviewer of people known and unknown throughout this century. What are you going to be doing on New Year’s Eve, as we move into a new century?
STUDS TERKEL: Well, strangely enough, Chicago has a great millennium show. There’s a marvelous jazz singer called Kurt Elling. He’s quite—he’s arranging this whole thing. He’s chosen part of Nelson Algren writing as a part of it, so I’m going to do Nelson Algren stuff on this millennial program. So, ordinarily, I say, I would not, but this is Algren, so I’m going to do it. So there will be a Chicago history through various writers, I think.
AMY GOODMAN: Writers. Did you know Lorraine Hansberry?
STUDS TERKEL: Oh, very well. She’s in this book, Lorraine Hansberry. I knew her from Chicago before she wrote A Raisin in the Sun. And the interview took place just after the opening in Chicago. And she speaks of the Irish playwright, Sean O’Casey, being her great—her great influence, the poetry. She is quite—she was young. She died young, you know. And she’s from old Chicago, African-American family, who had been scrappers, rather very well-off family who had been scrappers. And she became this playwright. It was about a year or two before she died.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel when you, who are such an astute observer, see the scoundrels rise, and those with principle, along the way, have so much trouble, and then, later, those people who rose compromising their principles being seen as the heroes?
STUDS TERKEL: Well, there was a great movie years ago called Fame is the Spur, a British film about a great labor leader who sold out toward the end, based on a man named Ramsay MacDonald, a labor leader back in the '20s who became a lord and sold out. It's a marvelous movie, Michael Redgrave in it. And it’s on this very theme, what it does, what power sometimes does. And that’s one of those things that a rare, a rare political figure holds forth.
AMY GOODMAN: So, did you know James Cagney?
STUDS TERKEL: Oh, no, I interviewed him. But see, I knew of him as a play-goer. Remember, I came from Chicago, and often Chicago boom boom. And I blame that whole—Chicago’s reputation in Public Enemy on James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and the Warner Brothers. And I do funny stories about that. The interview with him was rather fascinating. He’s diffident and gentle. You know, the guy played tough guys. But morally, it’s about his work, when he’s trying to explain his job. “It’s just a job I do.” And he doesn’t — “How did you get that phrase?” You know, “What do you hear? What do you say?” He speaks of a childhood. There was a friend of his who was going around with a hooker. He used that phrase, “What do you hear? What do you say?” He picks it up here and there. But he was quite interesting, gentle, very gentle sort of guy. And we—I use—I use hooks, little things, for example. I knew he likes prize fighting, and he did a painting of a prize fighter. And we talked about that, and that opened him up to talk about other things, because he was—and he’s the one, you know, the great scene, for those who remember Public Enemy. Never has a woman been smacked in the mouth with a grapefruit as he did when he smacked Mae West—Mae Clarke. See, in Public Enemy, he falls in—he’s living with a girl, Mae Clarke, a gangster’s girl. And she’s whining, because now he’s in love with Jean Harlow. And so, he’s mad—so, he’s known for this famous scene in which he shoves a grapefruit in her face. And people are all shocked, you know. No way to treat a lady. He said, well, it was originally—originally, it was the scrambled eggs they had planned, but it’s too messy. So the grapefruit did it, modeled after a Chicago gangster doing it, by the way. And I—because I knew about the Chicago gangster, so that led to a very interesting interview.
AMY GOODMAN: Studs Terkel, of all these interviews that you have in your latest book, The Spectator, talking about movies and plays with those who make them, what stood out for you the most? Who most?
STUDS TERKEL: There isn’t one. Each one had a different approach. For example, Vittorio De Sica, Bicycle Thief, I saw him. This very handsome man was an actor in the movie, Vittorio De Sica. He’d be in junk movies to raise money so he could—even after Mussolini was hung by the heels, even after the war, neo-realism, fascists were still in power, and he had a hard time. He had to subsidize his own films. And he was taken when I said, “That little boy, Bruno Ricci, in Bicycle Thief” — you know The Bicycle Thief, the little boy? “Bruno,” he said, “you know the name! You, an American, know the” — I said, “Mr. De Sica, I saw the movie 12 times.” You know, but that he was taken by the fact that I knew the name of this — “You, an American, know Bruno Ricci.” But he would describe how he finds people. He used actual non-actors in it. And throughout, his whole theme was that. Fellini, I asked Fellini, “Why did you choose Marcello Mastroianni as a gossip columnist? Why did you choose in contemporary Rome a gossip columnist?” He says, “Isn’t he the Herodotus of our day? Isn’t the gossip columnist the Thucydides of our day? Isn’t the oral historian?” — being very ironic. And so, that’s how the thing goes.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we just have a few more minutes, but I have another question. And you survived your wife, didn’t you?
STUDS TERKEL: I beg your pardon?
AMY GOODMAN: You survived your wife.
STUDS TERKEL: Survived my wife? No, she’s OK.
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, OK.
STUDS TERKEL: In the room, she’d be like Mark Twain: she’d say, “The rumor of my demise is slightly exaggerated.”
AMY GOODMAN: I’ve done this a few times.
STUDS TERKEL: No, I know. No, she’s OK.
AMY GOODMAN: She’s doing OK. OK.
STUDS TERKEL: She’s having a hard time, but she’s OK.
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, OK. The Spectator, Studs’ book, is just the first of the trilogy. You said you’re going to be doing The Listener?
STUDS TERKEL: I said I’m going to be doing it. That doesn’t mean I’m going to be doing it.
AMY GOODMAN: And you said—no, you committed to this.
STUDS TERKEL: I’m 87, you see. So I—
AMY GOODMAN: Studs, you committed to this. You said you’re going to be doing The Listener, and you said you’re going to be doing The Reader?
STUDS TERKEL: Yeah. Well, that’s the dream of the publisher, André Schiffrin. He has a dream.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s more than his dream.
STUDS TERKEL: “I have a dream,” he said.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what music are you going to be—
STUDS TERKEL: What’s that?
AMY GOODMAN: —particularly focusing on in The Listener? You’re going to be doing music.
STUDS TERKEL: Well, The Listener, for example, I thought of this marvelous—I mentioned her name before. Lotte Lehmann is the great lieder singer of our century. And she has a farewell concert. This is 20, 30 years ago. And she was still in her prime. And she says, “This is my last concert.” And the audience—you hear the audience in Town Hall, her fans, saying, “No!” You hear this on tape. She says, “Yes, I’ll tell you why. I know—you don’t know, but I know when I’m slipping it.” Her great role was in an opera called Der Rosenkavalier, and she plays this royal woman, the Marschallin, very beautiful, but still—she has a young lover, 17. And she sees the beginning intimation of a wrinkle in the great mirror scene. She gives up the young lover, like that, to the girl. “So I’ve learned from her,” she said. And so, in a sense, this is something I’ve got to learn.
AMY GOODMAN: There was a piece on one of the networks about how people like Danny Glover, who was just in the studio a month or two ago, and Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins take advantage of their celebrity status to promote a cause. They don’t talk about the people who take advantage for money and all that stuff, but to promote a cause, to promote the things they care about. What is your thought about that?
STUDS TERKEL: Well, I think anybody that believes in something, to do it. I happen to admire Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins very much. But of course I do.
AMY GOODMAN: But the idea that they shouldn’t be getting political.
STUDS TERKEL: Oh, that’s baloney! They use—they don’t mind—you don’t mind Charlton Heston promoting the National Rifle Association. Not much is made of that. Jeez, you know. Don’t mind Ronald Reagan promoting a cause, head of his own union, Screen Actors Guild, betraying, informing on his own members. He has, you know, a coded—had a code name as an FBI informant. You know that, of course. All common knowledge, sure. But that we don’t mind, you see? There’s a double standard, isn’t there? But they come out. They’re still—well, Simone Signoret, in the book, by the way, speaks about that very theme. Isn’t that funny? They want her opinions about all the goofiest things in the world, but when it comes to something like citizenship, they say, “Who are you to do it?” And Simone Signoret is in this, too, and she speaks of that very thing.
AMY GOODMAN: Any thoughts on the presidential race of the year 2000?
STUDS TERKEL: Well, I’m looking for a candidate. I don’t know. It’s—let it ride, I think, for now.
AMY GOODMAN: Barry Crimmins, a comedian who we were with last night at the William Kunstler Foundation awards for racial justice, said the only tragedy in this race that’s coming up is that one of them’s going to win.
STUDS TERKEL: Yeah, it’s not bad, not bad. There isn’t much—I hope there is. I think it’s up to—you know what? It’s still the old story. I know the guy with the most dough wins, apparently. But the old story still—I think the idea of grassroots—a phrase hardly used—grassroots, door knocking, the old way, you’re bugging, of course, million-to-one shot, but it has to be something personal, person to person. A precinct captain is the most important person in the world in politics. It’s a door to door, you meet a person, and that, to me, is what it’s about. Even one vote.
AMY GOODMAN: Studs Terkel, thank you very much for—
STUDS TERKEL: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: —hanging out with us today. Studs Terkel, the author and interviewer of a century. His latest book is The Spectator, but it’s not his last. And, by the way, my regards to your wife.