Studs Terkel: Still Humming at 95

Historians in the News

By the time you read this, Studs Terkel will have had a big birthday. On April 16, a month before he turned 95, I visited his stolid brick home in Uptown on Chicago's north lakefront. While he's had his "ups and downs" in recent months, his eyes still twinkle with the promise of more stories to tell.

He waved me over to his customary spot, a rumpled chair in a sun-drenched corner of the living room. Studs was suited up in his trademark red-checked flannel shirt and red socks. A hefty stack of newspapers and magazines spilled over a table nearby. Perched perilously atop it sat the final manuscript of his upcoming (and first) memoir, Touch and Go, just back from his publisher, The New Press.

Studs says much of Touch and Go was dictated over the telephone to Sydney Lewis, an author and his longtime assistant. The book, a tribute to his abidingly sharp and perceptive recall of history, is dedicated to his son Dan, also a writer.

The inexhaustible nonagenarian has penned more than a dozen books, among them Working, Hard Times, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good War. His oral histories and singular radio interviews chronicle a crazy quilt of stories -- those of celebrity icons, but even more compelling, the tales of ordinary people.

This is Studs' story. Touch and Go spans the 95 years of his life mosaic: vaudeville performer, radio DJ, vaunted storyteller, historian, rooming house denizen and advocate for the downtrodden.

That spring afternoon, he gave In These Times a sneak preview.

Ninety-five. Did you think you'd make 95?

I'm genetically a cardiac case. My father and my two brothers died in the '50s. I have lived 50 years longer than my two brothers and my father. My heart's OK, that's the amazing thing.

When is the book coming out?

It's coming out sometime in September.

Oh, that's not too long. So you have to stick around for that.

This is it.

So this is your life story, finally.

There's an ironic, and very funny, secret to my success: my ineptitude, mechanically. I can't use a machine, or drive a car. And I make mistakes on the tape recorder. Now the tape recorder was important to two Americans, I think, more than anyone else. To myself and Dick Nixon. I call Dick Nixon and me the New Cartesians, as in Descartes [Rene Descartes, the 17th century philosopher and mathematician]. The Latin phrase is cogito ergo sum -- "I think, therefore I am." In the case of Dick Nixon and me, it's, "I tape, therefore I am."

In my place, I tape therefore they are. Now who is the "they?" The "they" are the non-celebrated celebrities, the people who have never been asked about their lives before....

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