Studs Terkel approaches the podium like a confident fighter sizing up his opponent. He’s here to speak at the Conference on World Affairs. Songs by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger have softened up the audience. He talks without notes but never hesitates for a word, forming his sentences like a musician, punching and circling. He’s wearing a neck brace. He twisted his neck, he explains, stumbling over a barbell on his way to the bathroom. He says it makes him look like Erich von Stroheim in Grand Illusion. That sets him off on a riff about Jean Renoir, war, the French, movies … he’s improvising like a jazzman. He’s tired of hearing about Monica Lewinsky. “We’re getting ready to bomb civilians in the Middle East, and all Wolf Blitzer can ask about is sex.” He’s disillusioned by Clinton. “The New Democrats are old Young Republicans.” He evokes the 1960s, “the last decade when the young people were not concerned primarily with themselves.” Were you at Woodstock? asks a student. “I wish I had been,” he says, and quotes Joan Leslie: “The 1960s are put down by those who delight in the failure of dreams.” Studs is Old Left, proudly. He tells the story of a yuppie couple he encounters at the bus stop every day, who ignore him. He mentions that Labor Day is approaching. “I loathe labor unions,” the man tells him. “How many hours a day do you work? A week?” asks Studs. “If it weren’t for some guys who were hanged here in Chicago, at the Haymarket, and a lot of people who walked the picket lines, you might be working six, seven days, 80 hours, like your grandparents.” The couple fled wordlessly onto the bus, Studs says, and now in the mornings he pictures them looking warily out the window of their 40th-floor apartment, “to see if that old nut is still hanging around the bus stop.” He gets a standing ovation. He was invited only a couple of weeks ago, to pinch hit after Madeleine Albright canceled. The audience doesn’t look like it misses her. “I’ve sold 30 of his books this week,” Dick Schwartz, who runs the Stage House used-book store, tells me. I’ve known Studs since 1967, when he asked me to drive the car as he gave Doris Lessing a two-day tour of Chicago. Studs doesn’t drive. “I’ve barely mastered the tape recorder,” he says. Garry Wills calls him America’s father confessor. In Chicago he is also our rabbi, priest, coach, and union organizer. Certain kinds of events are unthinkable without him. When Mike Royko died and they held the memorial service in Wrigley Field, Studs planted himself on the third base line and led us through our memories. When Bob Gibson, the folk singer, wasting away with an incurable neurological disease, booked a meeting room in a North Shore hotel to say goodbye to all his friends, Studs emceed the hootenanny. After the speech, we drive into the mountains to the Red Lion Inn for dinner. Rocky Mountain trout, potato soup, buffalo steak. Molly Ivins sits next to Studs, and they trade stories about the Mitford sisters. Molly was a friend of Jessica’s. Studs knew them all, “even the one who married Oswald Mosley, the fascist–I wish I had interviewed him. I have so many stories of people who started out wrong and went right. He started out right and went wrong. Fascinating.” Molly tells Studs about the time she took Jessica Mitford on the tour of the Death Museum in Houston for research on a revised edition of The American Way of Death. “It was very multimedia. They had some Egyptian dummy in a sarcophagus, wrapped in tinfoil. We pushed a button, and a deep TV voice said, ‘The cult of embalming was first invented by the ancient Egyptians.’ Jessica said, ‘Now there was a culture in which they let the funeral directors get completely out of control.’ “ In the crisp night air, we stand next to a stream in the starlight. Yesterday, Studs says, he emceed the benefit for Michael Moore’s The Big One, “about downsizing, which is the nice word for mass firings.” Tomorrow night, he says, he’s speaking at the anniversary tribute to Paul Robeson in Chicago. Studs is 86. He likes being old. He wouldn’t have missed it. “Why are we so afraid of age and death? I had a friend who walked into the funeral home, and they’d painted his father like a kewpie doll. He got a towel and soap and water and washed it all off, until you could see every wrinkle. My friend said he put those wrinkles there–he and his mother and his brothers and sisters: ‘They’re the proof that we existed.’ “
Photo by Andy Ihnatko.