Studs Terkel, the pre-eminent oral historian of 20th-century America who described the major events of his time through the experiences...
WASHINGTON — Studs Terkel, the pre-eminent oral historian of 20th-century America who described the major events of his time through the experiences and observations of the ordinary men and women who lived them, died Friday at his home in Chicago after a fall. He was 96.
“He lived a long, eventful, satisfying, though sometimes tempestuous life,” said Dan Terkell, who spells his name differently from his father’s. He added that his father’s death was “peaceful, no agony. This is what he wanted.”
As a radio host and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Mr. Terkel used a folksy but probing interviewing style to draw out unfiltered answers from political leaders and common people alike. He illuminated America from the ground up, seeking out stories from bartenders, housewives, businessmen, artists, doctors, social workers, coal miners, farmworkers, bookmakers and convicts.
“Who built the pyramids?” he once asked in his inimitable sweet growl. “It wasn’t the … pharaohs who build the pyramids. It was the anonymous slaves.”
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Through his daily radio-interview show, which was broadcast from 1952 to 1998 and nationally syndicated, Mr. Terkel’s voice, slow and mellifluous, with a working-class edge, became known to millions of people. He always ended his show with a line from an old union song: “Take it easy, but take it.”
His best-selling books usually were transcribed from tape-recorded interviews with hundreds of people.
He won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction for ” ‘The Good War’: An Oral History of World War II” (1984). Besides two volumes of autobiography, his other major books included “Working” (1974), “Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression” (1970) and “Division Street: America” (1966).
These folk histories were told in first-person vignettes and anecdotes taken from interviews with a wide variety of people.
Mr. Terkel was an artist of conversation who once described his work as “listening to what people tell me.” He was unusually skilled at drawing out his subjects, who told him about their dreams and memories, their fears, frustrations and anxieties, and the condition of their lives.
“The average American has an indigenous intelligence, a native wit,” he once said in a speech. “It’s only a question of piquing that intelligence.” He described this process as “guerrilla journalism,” but writer Garry Wills described Terkel’s philosophy and politics as “underdog-ism.”
Besides his radio, TV and book work, Mr. Terkel also had been an actor in radio soap operas and films. He memorably played a newspaper reporter in “Eight Men Out” (1988), the John Sayles film about the 1919 “Black Sox” baseball scandal. He also was a playwright, jazz columnist, disc jockey, lecturer and a host of music festivals.
Despite his national celebrity status, his presence as an interviewer was barely discernible in most of his books. Like a psychoanalyst, he allowed his subjects to talk freely, with minimal questioning.
He was so closely identified with Chicago that it might surprise some to learn he was born Louis Terkel in the Bronx, N.Y., on May 16, 1912. “I came up the year the Titanic went down,” he often said.
He moved to Chicago in the early 1920s with his parents. He graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in philosophy and also from its law school, and went to Washington as a government lawyer in 1934. Bored, he took up stage acting before returning to Chicago to write weekly radio shows for the Federal Writers Project.
He continued acting, on stage and radio, and was featured in gangster roles. During this period, he took his nickname from Studs Lonigan, the Depression-era anti-hero of the James Farrell novels about the Irish in Chicago.
In 1939, he married a social worker, Ida Goldberg, who died in 1999.
His first book was “Giants of Jazz” (1957), a primer aimed at younger readers unfamiliar with legends such as Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.
He is survived by their son, Dan.
Mr. Terkel planned his funeral years in advance. He wanted his ashes — and Ida’s — to be scattered in the Chicago square where, as a young man, he’d stand atop a soapbox and shout out his leftist views. And he wanted this as his epitaph: “Curiosity did not kill this cat.”
Information from the Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press is included in this report.