San Francisco — 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.
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.
Terkel hams it up in public. His raised voice and gesturing arms invite eavesdropping. Next to him that day sat a spiffily dressed honeymoon couple. Enthralled with Terkel's clowning, they let their eggs Benedict go cold. At the end of breakfast he nodded in their direction, as an actor would in acknowledging the audience at curtain call. They answered with fawning smiles.
Terkel, feigning embarrassment, turned to me and whispered: ''I never know whether people recognize me. I just smile and hope they know who I am.''
* He was born Louis Terkel in New York in 1912: ''The year the Titanic went down and I came up,'' he likes to say.
When he was 11, the family moved to the Windy City, the Chicago of Wobblies and gangsters. At the time novelist James T. Farrell was writing ''The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan,'' a rough-and-tumble trilogy about Chicago's Irish South Side. Young Terkel, it is said, always had a Farrell paperback stuffed in his hip pocket. The nickname ''Studs'' rubbed off, and Terkel has carried it ever since.
Terkel's father was an invalid. So Studs was raised by his mother, who owned a hotel for men, where he voraciously read the classics and boiler-plate fiction. Terkel got his education close to home. In 1934 he graduated from the University of Chicago Law School; he never entered the profession.
In the '30s he worked with the Federal Writers' Project; tried his hand at sportscasting; and, as part of the Chicago Repertory Group (when he was 25), entertained for dissident steelworkers. During World War II he took a job in a radio soap opera called ''Ma Perkins.'' Terkel, who does a competent James Cagney impression, played the part of a gangster, Butch Malone.
Whatever his occupation, Terkel never strayed far from politics. A self-proclaimed ''romantic independent leftist,'' he was an early signer of Jim Crow petitions against segregation in the South. He joined the Alabama ''freedom marchers'' in 1965 and three years later covered the police riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Today, Terkel dismisses political labels as ''boring.'' He is, nevertheless, willing to confuse matters, and interviewers, by labeling himself a ''radical conservative.''
''Conservative,'' elaborates Terkel, ''because I want to conserve fresh air and the Bill of Rights. Radical, because I like to get to the root of the matter.''
Terkel's refusal to sign loyalty oaths in the '50s (''What a bunch of nonsense that was,'' he recalls) lost him at least one job. The issue came up again when he was writing material for a Mahalia Jackson program; the singer, however, successfully rose to his defense:
''If Studs don't write, Mahalia don't sing.''For standing by his political beliefs, Terkel was blacklisted on television and radio through the early '50s.
One day in 1954 he tuned into Chicago's WFMT, which was playing Woodie Guthrie protest ballads about the industrial unemployed, migrants, and landless dust-bowl farmers. He liked what he heard and went for a job interview. He has been at WFMT ever since.
In 1956, he wrote the children's book, ''Giants of Jazz'' and two years later emceed the Newport Jazz Festival. He also wrote a play entitled ''Amazing Grace.''
Back in his snug seventh-floor room, Terkel paced the room, talking about the new World War II book. As one might expect, he doesn't buy the ''great men'' theory of history. He prefers the butcher-baker-candlestickmaker approach.
''Who built the great pyramids?'' he asked, referring to a Bertolt Brecht poem. He stopped by his nightstand and answered his own question with another: ''The Pharaohs?''
''Of course not,'' he went on. ''The Pharaohs didn't lift a finger! It was all those anonymous slaves captured by the Egyptians. In Latin I, we get Caesar's Commentaries: 'All Gaul is divided into three parts.' You'd think Caesar conquered Gaul by himself.
''We're all told Sir Francis Drake, that guy with a neatly trimmed beard and a plume in his hat, conquered the Spanish Armada and that King Phillip II of Spain wept. And then we must ask: Were there no other tears? It raises the whole question of who makes history?''
Needless to say, Terkel's history of World War II will not feature the Churchills or FDRs, Rommels or Hitlers. Nor will it highlight heroics on the battlefields of Stalingrad or the beaches of Normandy.
''It looks at the war through the eyes of the noncelebrated,'' Terkel said. ''It looks at Japanese relocation camps, American women who took jobs in the factories and were dismissed after the war, the zoot-suit riots when GIs beat up Mexican kids in Los Angeles.''
Much of Terkel's book will focus on the ''war at home.''
Textbooks and TV docu-dramas, said Terkel, have a habit of skimming the historical surface of World War II: ''What did 'Winds of War' (ABC's recent miniseries) tell us about World War II and Pearl Harbor? Nothing.''
''I interviewed a big Hawaiian guy, John Garcia, whose financee was coming home from church in Honolulu the morning the Japanese attacked Pearl. Our guns were going crazy, firing hysterically at the Japanese. His fiancee was killed by an American gun.
''Not many people know it, but the night after Pearl people here in San Francisco went wild. Crowds roamed downtown, throwing rocks at all the marquees because they (were afraid of a Japanese attack on the West Coast and) wanted all the lights out.''
''I'm thinking of starting the book with Garcia. He later got a job as a cop in Washington, but refused to use a gun. He'd walk empty-handed into a liquor store that three guys were robbing and say, 'The cops are waiting outside, so you might as well surrender.'
''It sounds crazy, but he got away with it.''Terkel speaks quickly and often in sentence fragments. Occasionally, his mind jumps about as if someone hit the fast-forward button. Tracking the train of thought requires frequent leaps of faith. You trust he knows where he's going - and usually aren't disappointed. Conversational detours come with the territory.
''I wanted to get Lew Ayres,'' said Terkel. ''He was a conscientious objector in World War II. People criticized him because he played the young German soldier in the film ''All Quiet on the Western Front.''
''He first agreed to do the interview with me and then backed down. I don't blame him. To show you what a clod I was, I was one of the guys who criticized him. I wanted to put him in the book and apologize in the introduction. I'll apologize anyway.''
Terkel appeared restless and headed for the bedside telephone. ''Heard of the Port Chicago Mutiny?'' he asked as he dialed. ''They were loading a dynamite ship (in San Francisco Bay) and it exploded. A lot of guys were killed. They had no safety devices, and the workers went on strike. Fifty guys got sent up to prison for 13 years. I'm trying to find one of those guys. I'd pay for the interview. But I'm afraid they won't talk. They all got dishonorable discharges.
''They may hang up on me.'' The phone was still ringing, but Terkel was getting no answer. He would try again later.
Meanwhile, he wanted to explain why World War II sparked his imagination.
''You see, World War II was a real benchmark. During the Great American Depression, the nation's beautiful machinery slipped on a banana peel; the gears were stripped. World War II ended the Depression, and then came the bomb - and the Cold War. It was such a different world before World War II. Not only the US , but the whole world.
''It changed the way we live. You had the whole military taking over. Before World War II, you never had a George Marshall or an Omar Bradley with such power. There was no Pentagon. You didn't have a Department of Defense. It was a Department of War. And as Admiral Gene LaRocque, one of the heroes at Pearl Harbor, points out, you could criticize the Department of War then, but now you're considered a traitor to criticize defense.
''Vietnam's still too close to understand. By contrast, World War II, which altered history, is forgotten. I've got (on tape) Steve McConnell, (US Rep. and Florida Democrat) Claude Pepper's aide, who was part of the big postwar baby boom. He played offensive tackle on the same team as O. J. Simpson. He was part of that golden generation born into affluence - the generation toward whom every commercial is targeted.''
Terkel was still pacing and spotted his profile in the dresser mirror. He swept back his mane of white hair and patted his paunch. ''This is ridiculous,'' he said. ''I've got to get this down. He again glanced at his reflection and back down at his stomach. ''When my wife sees this, she's going to. . . .''
He stopped in mid-sentence and returned to his World War II project.
''I've got hundreds of interviews, and so far it's a wild mural. I'm waltzing along now, but when I start editing the stuff will evolve in my mind. I've got a daily radio show, and it's hard to take off much time. When I do, I work at home. I don't get out of my pajamas for a couple months, don't leave the house, work seven days a week, 12 hours a day.''
Terkel makes ''no pretense at statistical truth or consensus.'' He likens himself to the prospector who ''heads out where the gold is'' and pans on hands and knees for a few precious nuggets.
''I tell the tape transcriber, 'Don't leave anything out.' Out of a hundred pages, I might use eight. Sure, I edit it. I cut to highlight the truth, never to distort it.''