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Hanging on in the Windy City

America's favorite oral historian, and Chicago's laureate mouth, talks (and talks and talks) about his hometown.

By Bill Beuttler (American Way, February 15, 1989)

Classical music is wafting through the fern-filled reception area at WFMT, Chicago’s fine-arts radio station. In a studio up the hall, Studs Terkel is taping an interview with novelist Louise Erdrich for his daily hour-long radio show. I, in turn, am waiting to interview Studs. Not about his latest book, The Great Divide (subtitled “Second Thoughts on the American Dream”), or his role in Eight Men Out, John Sayles’ film version of the 1919 Black Sox scandal (which stars bratpackers Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, and D.B. Sweeny). I’m here to talk with him about Chicago.

No one knows the city any better than Studs. He moved here from New York when he was eight years old, riding into town on a day coach (a 20-hour solo trip from Manhattan). He was being met at the LaSalle Street station by his elder brother. This was in 1921, the year after eight members of the Chicago White Sox were banned from baseball for life for fixing the 1919 World Series. (In Eight Men Out, Studs plays Hugh Fullerton, a Tribune sportswriter who helped break the scandal story.) In those days, a thousand passenger trains a day passed through Chicago. The boy looked on in astonishment at the people teeming through the station — a swirling mix of affluent Palm Beach types, poorer folks carrying their own cheap bags, and red-capped Pullman porters. Sixty-eight years later, Studs still looks on Chicago in wide-eyed wonderment. This is why he knows the city so well.

I’m not kept waiting long. Soon Studs, Erdrich, and her husband (the novelist Michael Dorris) are striding briskly past the reception desk on their way to the elevators. Studs is shorter than I’d pictured him (there is something almost elflike in his height and disposition), but he is easy to spot: white-gray hair, blue sport coat, red-and-white checked shirt, gray slacks, bright red socks, gray Hush Puppies. And, of course, the famous mug. I stand up and introduce myself, reminding him of our appointment. He slaps his forehead with the heel of his hand, trying to figure out how he can be gracious and escort Erdrich and her husband downstairs without putting me off any longer. She helps Studs solve his dilemma by assuring him that she and her husband can make it out of the building on their own. So he says goodbye and leads me to a nearby sofa for our chat.

I ask how he would explain his hometown to a non-Chicagoan. He begins by sketching out the scene at the train station the day of his arrival, then works around to discussing the city’s architecture. “You see, Chicago is the Athens of architecture ... Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the skyscraper. And remember why this is — a new kind of metal came into being: steel. And here was the steel. Remember Sandburg said, Chicago, stacker of wheat, hog butcher of the world, something about steel — and so that became Chicago, too.

“But also,” he continues, “Chicago, if I were to explain it to an outsider, in contrast to other cities like New York or New Orleans or San Francisco — they’re called the storied cities, these three cities, and they’re supposed to have social graces. Chicago never had that. Chicago is what I call a horny-handed city, a city of hands. A city of building and construction, heavy industry, the stockyards at the time. At the time. There’s no stockyards today, but at the time Chicago was known — ‘hog butcher of the world.’ And so they came — that is, ‘they’ meaning from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, as well as blacks from the South — to work in the yards. They came to work in the steel mills; they came to work in the farm-equipment plants, railroads, heavy industry. It was a city of hands.

“Of course, today packing houses have moved to wherever the feed lots are, there are no more railroads to speak of. So there Chicago is a different city to a great extent. It’s lost a lot of its uniqueness, as most cities do nowadays. You get off at an airport you don’t know what city you’re in — there’s Howard Johnson, there’s Marriott, there’s the Red Lobster, there’s the golden arches of McDonald’s. But when it comes to buildings, Chicago still has a certain excitement.

“And the Lake! Up against that, in the heart of the city, there’s a lake! People can come here to the beach in the summertime — I mean people of modest incomes and poor people — without traveling for miles and miles and miles. Right in the heart of the city! And it’s crowded o a hot afternoon in the summertime. So this is Chicago.”

All this and more Studs rattles off in answer to one question. (I left out a chunk about Mrs. Potter Palmer and other of Chicago’s early arts patrons, the Lillian Hellman play The Little Foxes, and Jane Addams’ Hull House.) That afternoon, I had met a Playboy editor who had lunched with Studs a few weeks earlier. He’d told me to expect an easy interview. There would be no monosyllabic answers from the master interviewer, a man who clearly loves to talk. His half-dozen books of oral history (the last of which, “The Good War”, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1985) demonstrate Studs’ uncanny ability to put strangers at ease and engage them in heartfelt conversation. It turns out that Studs is just as engaging when the other guy’s holding the mike. He even offers me some advice on whether certain of his remarks would be allowed to see print (one such zinger refers to the word “liberal” having taken on a pejorative connotation during the presidential race: “The phrase used to be ‘card-carrying Communist.’ So now it’s ‘liberal,’ and I say five years from now it will be ‘card-carrying moderate.’ And five years after that — ‘He’s a card-carrying sane person.’”).

Studs is a delight to sit and talk with. Stories spill out of him like water down a mountain, his stream-of-consciousness forking conversations off into dozens of little tributaries. He talks in a familiar rasp, punctuating his tales with a fine sense of drama. The theatrics come naturally: Studs earned his living playing gangsters in radio soap operas in the 1940s. “‘Get in there, youse guys,’” he recalls himself snarling. “That was me. I was terrifying all the housewives.”

There is something fitting in Studs’ having worked as a radio mobster. Chicago has always had close ties to the Mob in the minds of outsiders. Even today, the most frequent response Chicagoans get when abroad is: “Al Capone,” extended index fingers and thumbs, “Boom, boom.” I ask Studs what he makes of this. “My answer is Chicago is not the most corrupt of American cities, but it’s the most theatrically corrupt. I also say the respectables of the city are” — here he starts whispering — “secretly proud of it.” Studs resumes at normal volume. “There’s a secret pride in that history. Today, of course, organized crime is not just Chicago. But it’s the Big Daddy of corrupt cities.”

Studs identifies Chicago more with the music, literature, and visual arts that have flourished here. He is proud of the city’s fine symphony orchestra, and of his friendships with Chicagoans Big Bill Broonzy (“perhaps the greatest country-blues singer of our century”) and gospel great Mahalia Jackson. He is also a great fan of jazz (his first book, published in 1956, was Giants of Jazz), and brags about the role Chicago played in its development. He notes that his friend Bud Freeman, the jazz saxophonist, in a new autobiography “tells of these Austin High School white kids in the early ’20s going to the South Side” to hear bands from New Orleans like that of “King Oliver, featuring a young trumpet player named Louis Armstrong. They heard that, and they heard Bessie Smith sing, and it changed all their lives completely.

“Someone once called Chicago a seedbed,” he continues, “in that the guys who develop and grow up here go elsewhere” to make it big. Writers, too, Studs adds. “There was one time when H.L. Mencken said, ‘There is no literature worth talking about’ — American literature — ‘that hasn’t come out of the palatinate that is Chicago.’ He was referring to Theodore Dreiser, and to Sherwood Anderson, and I suppose to Ring Lardner to some extent. Frank Norris. We’re talking about the turn of the century. There’s a very strong tradition. Again, writers moved elsewhere; just as jazzmen have, writers have. So this is Chicago to me.”

I ask Studs, who is nicknamed after the James T. Farrell character Studs Lonigan (his given name is Louis), about two contemporaries, both good friends of his — the late novelist Nelson Algren and Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko. “Nelson, to me, was the poet of Chicago,” he answers. “The best essay on Chicago is called Chicago: City on the Make. It’s a prose poem of love-hate, one of the beautiful tributes to Chicago. And his novel The Man with the Golden Arm, of course, was a classic — the first book that dealt with drugs, really. The words ‘monkey on his back’ are a Nelson Algren phrase, now part of the regular American vocabulary. The short stories in The Neon Wilderness are very beautiful and very moving. He has a way of making something ordinary lyrical. And he’s also a very witty guy, with a fantastic sense of humor.”

In his books or talking to him? I ask. “In everything. In real life he’s known for the famous phrase: ‘Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never play cards with a man called Doc. And never go to bed with a woman whose troubles are greater than your own.’”

Of Royko, he says, “Mike Royko is basically an honest, decent, and courageous man — maybe pound for pound the best columnist in America. What he has is a mother wit, much like Algren’s, yet it’s his own. His change of pace is phenomenal. He can write a very funny column with this character Slats Grobnik, or a memory of childhood which is suddenly poignant as well as funny. He’s also a great investigative journalist who can expose something a small-timer is suffering from — he’s a defender of those up against it. And then he can write a column analyzing a political event.”

Talk turns to Chicago’s visual arts: the worldclass Art Institute on Michigan Avenue, the Picasso statue in Civic Center Plaza. But Studs chooses to focus on the neighborhood art. “Chicago is street art, wall art — much like the Mexican mural tradition of the three great artists Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros. It’s also a throwback to New Deal days. The WPA had a theater project, an arts project, a writers project. I was on the writers project. The arts project did a lot of murals — they’re still in certain post office buildings, certain high school auditoriums. And somewhere in the ’60s, I think, it started again in the neighborhoods — the black, Hispanic, and ethnic white communities. There’s a black artist named William Walker, elderly man; he’s the dean of these wall artists. He painted a famous one in the black community called Wall of Respect. It had pictures of Martin Luther King, Mahalia Jackson, Paul Robeson.”

The Wall is no longer standing, fire having gutted the building (some panels were saved and moved to Malcolm X College). But Studs’ praise of Chicago wall art inspires me to drive to 21st and Laflin streets the next afternoon to check out another mural masterwork, Leyenda de América Latina. Located in the Pilsen neighborhood, across the street from Benito Juárez High School, the huge mural was painted by Aurelio Díaz, another of the city’s extraordinary muralists. It is, in Studs’ words, “a Gabriel García Márquez story come to the wall” — a surreal celebration of people coming to a new world, a goddess of some kind there to greet them. The mural is a disorienting signal of hope in this bleak urban landscape, jutting up suddenly across a vacant lot. There are no children playing in the schoolyard when I make my visit.

On my way to the Díaz mural, I pick up a high school buddy of mine at his Hyde Park apartment, a few blocks from Studs’ alma mater. Studs earned degrees in philosophy and the law from the University of Chicago, receiving the latter in 1934. (The stint in law school didn’t live up to his romantic expectations: “See, my dream was Clarence Darrow; here I get Contracts and Torts and Real Property — I was going out of my mind.”)

My friend and I head north up Lake Shore Drive for the fine view of the city skyline, Lake Michigan off to the right. Mark has been working as a carpenter for the past year or so, and says that he and his colleagues tuned in to Studs’ show most mornings before it was switched to afternoon drive-time last October. A sardonic sort, he can’t resist poking some affectionate fun at one of Studs’ pet topics. “There’s always the tense moment at the start of the show,” he claims, “where you wonder if it’ll be about something interesting, or if Studs’ll be talking about the Wobblies again.”

Studs’ passion for left-wing populism dates back at least to 1924, the year he stunned and disappointed his seventh-grade teacher. When she asked him whom he was supporting in that year’s presidential election, he blurted out, “Fightin’ Bob La Follette” — the progressive third-party candidate from Wisconsin. Mark and I stop off at a landmark from that era of Studs’ life en route to the Díaz mural: the Wells-Grand Hotel, which Studs’ mother ran for a dozen years, starting in 1925. This was the place where Studs changed the linens for his playboy elder brother, who made a habit of sneaking dates into vacant rooms.

The area has changed considerably since Studs left it. Themed tourist traps — the Hard Rock Café, Ditka’s, the ’50s-esque diner Ed Debevic’s — have sprung up on surrounding blocks in the past few years, and even the Wells-Grand Grill itself, downstairs from the hotel, has become yuppified.

If the Grill is upwardly mobile, the Hotel is the reverse. We ring the doorbell and are buzzed into what is now a hotel for transients. At the top of a narrow, dimly lighted flight of stairs we ask whether this is the place Studs Terkel’s mother used to run. The man who let us in isn’t sure, so he steps into the next room and asks an old-timer, then returns to the hallway with our answer. “He says this was the place,” our emissary tells us with a shy grin. “But that was a long time ago.”

The day before, Studs had told me that he now lives in Uptown, on a “‘have’ street in an area of ‘have-nots.’” He loves Uptown because “it’s a United Nations kind of place.” Appalachian whites, Native Americans, Asians, Indians, Slavs, Hispanics, and blacks are among the groups he lists as contributing to the neighborhood’s ethnic diversity. “I couldn’t possibly live in a suburban area where everybody looks like me and thinks like me, you know, and has two and a half children. Never. I would suffocate. I like the crazy variety.”

Studs commutes downtown to WFMT by bus most days, by cab if he’s running late. He has never driven a car in his life. “I’m a professional pedestrian,” he tells me. “And I have a big problem right now because cars have a right to turn right on red, provided — and here’s the thing — there’s no other car coming in the other direction. Nothing is said about pedestrians. I have a green light, and the cars just turn. We don’t count; the cars count. So now I just step off the curb, I hold up my hand, they screech to a stop.” He chuckles. “One day I’m gonna be hit, but by God I’ll have maintained my principles.”

As we’re wrapping up our interview, Studs pulls out a couple of Polaroids from the 20th-anniversary get-together of the Chicago Seven. We’d talked a bit earlier about Chicago politics, past (he thinks Mayor Daley was “overrated” and should have let the Yippies use the parks during the Democratic Convention of 1968) and present (he says Mayor Washington was just starting to get a handle on things when he let his overeating kill him, and “now it’s a mess.”) Now Studs shows me shots of him with Abbie Hoffman, Dave Dellinger, and Bobby Seale. He asks, offhandedly, how I know his work. When I tell Studs I’m familiar with his books, he says, “Let me give you a couple — come on in back.”

He leads me back to his office and its clutter of records, books, and cassettes. He fishes through several boxes of books, and pulls out copies of three: new paperback reissues of Hard Times and Talking to Myself, and a hardcover copy of his last book, Chicago. Before he hands them over, we step out into the hallway, where he insists on autographing all three. Then he walks me to the elevator and shakes my hand goodbye.

As I step out of the building into the bright sunshine, I start flipping through the flyleaves. Each has a different inscription. I gaze across the river at the Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower, then glance back grinning at Chicago’s flyleaf: “For Bill — Here’s to our crazy, wondrous, toddlin’ town. Studs.”

© Bill Beuttler