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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.''