If you can imagine Walt Whitman hosting a Midwest radio talk show, wearing a checkered shirt and drawling like a movie gangster, you've conjured up America's greatest oral historian.Skip to next paragraph
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Armed with his Sony reel-to-reel and a voice of purest gravel, Studs Terkel, people's poet of the airwaves, has spent the last three decades broadcasting the foibles and dreams of the nation.
For his weekly ''Studs Terkel Almanac'' on Chicago's WFMT-FM, he has interviewed Joan Crawford, Bertrand Russell, Federico Fellini, Billie Holiday, and other glitterati spanning numerous continents and fields of interests. When Studs listens, the world talks.
Terkel, a radical democrat with a small ''d,'' prefers, however, the quiet company and modest wisdom of the hoi polloi - rednecks and loggers; nurses and strip miners; cab drivers, waitresses, and switchboard operators - the nation's unsung working-class ''heroes and heroines,'' he says. They rarely make the headlines; they will always make America.
As a documentarian, Terkel thinks ''ordinary people are more exciting to talk to. With celebrities, you always know what they are going to say. With somebody who's never been interviewed before, it's unexplored territory - like Columbus hitting new shores, discovering new lands.''
Over the years Terkel has assembled these adventuresome interviews with America's Everyman in such best-selling books as ''Division Street,'' ''Hard Times,'' ''Working,'' ''American Dreams: Lost and Found,'' and his autobiograpical ''Talking to Myself.'' Now he is quietly at work on his new book , shouldering his recording equipment into the historical trenches of World War II.
Terkel has already completed two-thirds of what he expects to be 300 interviews for the book, and he recently stopped in San Francisco to talk with several veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, idealistic Americans who fought with the loyalists against Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War, a contest many historians see as the dress rehearsal for World War II.
''The Spanish Civil War vets saw World War II coming,'' said Terkel over breakfast near Union Square. ''They were left-wingers who tried to stop Hitler and were criticized in America for being 'premature antifascists.' Had they succeeded in Spain, there might not have been a World War II.''
He speared a bite of grapefruit.
''Many of them went back and fought in World War II. They were real heroes. Irv Goff was Hemingway's Jordan (in the novel ''For Whom the Bell Tolls''), played by Gary Cooper'' in the 1943 film of the same name.
* When he comes to San Francisco, Terkel takes a $44 upper-story room at the Beresford Hotel. He likes the creaky elevators, the no-frills bedroom furniture, the peeling red flocked wallpaper. In short, he says, he likes ''its tattered elegance.''
We met early one morning in the Beresford's dining room, which is shaped like a bowling alley and furnished in ersatz Victorian. Terkel, a short, portly fellow, was comfortably dressed in gray Hush Puppies; red argyles; slate trousers; and what has become his unofficial uniform, a red-checkered, button-down shirt.
Terkel is warm, passionate, theatrical, and brimming with irreverence. He is kind, but occasionally abrasive. He loves to laugh and to gab. His free association with words is like a jamming jazz musician. He an intelligent raconteur with an actor's knack for recitation; Terkel is capable of quoting anyone from Shakespeare to Beckett. After a few minutes, one begins to feel he is seated across the table from a one-man talk show.
That particular morning, the New York Times had featured a story on its arts page about the recent Broadway revival of an Arthur Miller play, ''View from the Bridge.'' As it turns out, Miller is an old friend of Terkel, who in 1958 played the role of Eddie Carbone, the working-class Italian-American protagonist in Miller's waterfront drama.
Never one to bypass an opportunity to spin another yarn, at breakfast Terkel recounted the play's disastrous dress rehearsal:
''During one of those terribly dramatic moments, someone went to kiss me and slipped,'' he said, pausing to dip his knife into the raspberry jam. ''They hit me in the face, broke my nose, and turned it into a pretty gory scene.''
Terkel continued to stuff slices of white toast into his mouth, holding them in one cheek, chipmunk-style, while speaking out of the other. ''Believe it or not, they patched up my nose and sent me back onstage sounding like Mickey Mouse.''
He punctuated the story with a belly laugh.