Curiosity Didn’t Kill This Cat: Studs Terkel on Creativity

by Nick Yulman

Studs Terkel was never one to avoid uncomfortable topics of conversation. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author, radio host, and oral historian enjoyed casually mentioning that he’d already picked out his epitaph: “curiosity didn’t kill this cat.” Unlike the unfortunate proverbial feline, Studs didn’t see his curiosity as a liability or a selfish temptation to be resisted. Instead, it was a gift that he gave to the people on the other side of his microphone —and to his devoted listeners. Curiosity was his medium of choice, and it sparked the creation of a tremendous body of work: thousands of lively, intelligent interviews with people from all walks of life, covering a mind-boggling range of subjects. This kind of freewheeling, adventurous conversation is likely familiar to podcast listeners today, but when Studs was getting started, a radio show that simply involved two people talking about what interested them was a radical departure.

Studs is best known for championing the voices of so-called “regular” people — or as he put it: “I’m celebrated for celebrating the uncelebrated.” His social conscience lead him to seek out the personal stories behind historical events. He captured first-hand accounts of the labor movement, the Second World War’s horrors, and the byzantine politics of Chicago, his adopted home, which he dubbed “the most theatrically corrupt” city in America. These ground-up oral histories counterbalanced official narratives that too often served the purposes of those in power.

Studs’ other great fascination was creativity and the lives of artists. His long-running radio show’s guest list reads like a who’s-who of twentieth-century cultural innovators — though Studs often invited them to chat before they were household names, or well after their time in the limelight had passed. While social justice and art may occupy separate spheres in the popular imagination, it’s clear that Studs saw no such distinction. He found in both a fundamental lesson about the importance of free expression and the courage that it takes to stand up for your beliefs.

A comprehensive look at Studs’ contributions to our understanding of creativity could fill several volumes. Here are a handful of moments from the vast Studs Terkel Radio Archive that demonstrate how vital and insightful a voice he was in celebrating culture.

Buster Keaton — still from The Goat

Buster Keaton, 1960

Studs’ interview with silent film pioneer Buster Keaton covers many aspects of the comedian’s craft — from directing films before scripts were commonplace to the unwritten rules of slapstick (“There are certain characters you just don’t hit with a pie. We found that out a long time ago!”). Studs is most emphatic when the conversation turns to Keaton’s admiration for his contemporary Charlie Chaplin’s advancement of the art form through subtle storytelling that respected the audience’s intelligence:

Buster Keaton: I went into pictures with Roscoe Arbuckle … I’d only been with him a short time and he says, “Here’s something you want to bear in mind: that the average mind of the motion picture audience is twelve years old. It’s a twelve-year-old mind that you’re entertaining.” I was only with him about another couple of months or something like that, and I says:
“Roscoe, something tells me that those who continue to make pictures for twelve-year-old minds ain’t gonna be with us long.” Well, it was only a couple years later, a scene like this of Chaplin’s kinda proved that — the minds jumped much faster than we were making pictures.
Studs Terkel: It’s marvelous! The same principle applies of course — we hear it today applying to television and radio: the same false belief…
BK: Yes…
ST: That the public isn’t ready for adult [ideas] — or to use the imagination. What Chaplin did and what you appear to do in so many of your films: allow the imagination of the audience to flow freely.
BK: Well sure — I always tried to do that. I always wanted an audience to outguess me. And then I’d double cross them sometimes.
Simone de Beauvoir — Moshe Milner

Simone de Beauvoir, 1960

Studs concludes his interview with French novelist and feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir by pronouncing, “you are an artist who calls her shots: American slang for someone who sees the truth and writes of it.” This tidy summation comes after a conversation focused on de Beauvoir’s political awakening and the inevitability of one’s art having a social impact:

Simone de Beauvoir: There is no possible neutrality … You are always picked, one way or another way — you always help this one or this other. The poor against the wealthy or the wealthy against the poor — you have no choice. And if you pretend to just stay and do nothing, even staying and doing nothing means something, and it goes to one camp or the other.
Studs Terkel: You say, staying and doing nothing — this too is a matter of choice.
SdB: Yes, but it’s a choice that is a very tricky choice. Because in a way, you pretend you do nothing, for instance, and then you doing nothing helps some people to do something you don’t want. If you see what I mean.
ST: Indeed I do.
SdB: You just shut your mouth, and you let people say the contrary of what, in fact, you rather think. So you go against yourself and there is only one thing: to begin to speak yourself, your own way.

Indeed he did know what she meant. Studs’ own career as an actor was cut short by McCarthy-era blacklisting, as he explained to the Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman in 2002:

A man comes from New York. He says, “These petitions, your name is on all of them: anti-poll tax, anti-lynching, friendship with the Soviet Union…. don’t you know the communists were behind them?” And he said, “Look, you can get out of this pretty easy. All you got to do is say the communists duped you. You were dumb. You didn’t mean it.” I said, “But I did mean it!” To this day people say, “Oh, Studs, you were so heroic.” Heroic? I was scared shitless! But my ego was at stake. My vanity. “Whaddya mean, I’m dumb?!”
Laurie Anderson — Bert Hollestelle

Laurie Anderson, 1983

Studs welcomed multimedia performance artist Laurie Anderson to his Chicago studio in the midst of her trailblazing United States Live performance tour — even lending his distinctive voice to read selections from the piece. He identifies that she is “onto something about this crazy, high-tech age we live in — an age of so much tension and weaponry that could wipe us all out.” He also asks about her childhood in nearby Glen Ellyn, Illinois and her current home in New York City:

Laurie Anderson: So I live on this island — I live next to the Hudson River. And across the river is America. Now, I have a pretty good view. But also, it’s a little bit removed from the country. So, I really value that I come from here because New York is kind of a strange outpost almost. The whole point of working on United States was to make a portrait of the country. But it wound up being not so much about the United States but about people who lived with technology. And people who had a lot of phones and television sets — and how do you still stay human with all those machines? That’s really the theme of the work…
Studs Terkel: We’re talking more and more about the computer — high-tech silicone chips. How to do that and still retain a semblance of humanity.
LA: A lot of the things that I say about technology in this particular work are pretty critical of it. But at the same time, I’m saying that stuff through fifteen thousand watts of power and lots of electronics and—you know — state of the art technology. So that’s saying at least a couple of things: I hate it and I love it. And I love it because it’s fast — ’cause it’s like the brain. It’s just: [snaps] instantly.
The Maya Angelou Documentary

Maya Angelou, 1960 and 1970

Studs interviewed poet, author, and performer Maya Angelou on multiple occasions. Her 1970 appearance came shortly after the publication of her landmark memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It begins with the two of them listening back to a recording they made a decade earlier—Angelou describing her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas and her grandmother’s store, which served the community of African American day laborers:

About four thirty in the morning, my grandmother would light lamps and these men and women would come in with so much vitality and promises about how much cotton they were going to pick today — and what they were gonna get done. And they’d buy stuff for lunch. The feeling of the store in the morning was one of life and hope and all sorts of wonderful things. And then in the afternoon, around six, the workers would come back and the trucks would pile up in the yard. And these men and women would get out. And it would be so heavy. Not relaxed. It was a tenseness that was just from exhaustion really. And they’d come in and get food sometimes for dinner. But most of them — a lot of the men — would sit out on what was the front porch. And my grandmother, being very religious, would come right inside the door and close the door. The men would sit there with guitars and sometimes Jew’s harps. And they’d sing these long, mournful songs. And my grandmother would sit right behind the door and say, “I don’t believe in that — that’s worldly music.” But she’d be patting her foot all the time… [both laughing]
Studs Terkel: As she’s saying that… her heart was denying what her head was saying!
Maya Angelou: She loved it—she wouldn’t leave from behind the door. You know, and the door would be cracked open just a little bit.
ST: That’s a marvelous scene. That’s right, because she’s very devout, and the blues was sinful music.
MA: That’s worldly music!

After listening, Angelou describes the experience of hearing herself tell this story, which later found its way into her book:

It’s such a strange sensation to hear that. It tells me, one: how very impressive that situation was—that condition was—on me, and also: how long this book has been gestating. You know, it sounds almost like the book. I just had no idea that ten years ago I knew that.

This moment of self-discovery recalls a story that Studs told repeatedly as a demonstration of the transformative power of hearing one’s own voice. Speaking with Harry Kreisler at UC Berkeley in 2003, he describes interviewing a woman living in Chicago’s housing projects and a revelatory moment in his career:

Three little kids running around — five, six, seven years old. They want to hear their mama’s voice; she’s talked into my tape recorder. So I say to the kids, “Now you quiet down, and I’m going to play it back.” She hears her voice for the first time in her life. She hears her voice and something she said. She puts her hand to her mouth and says, “Oh, my God.” And I said, “What is it?” She said, “I never knew I felt that way before,” hearing herself. And to me, that’s “Bingo!” Bingo for her. Suddenly she realizes she thinks certain things she never thought of. And for me, of course, as a fellow journeyman with her, it’s pretty exciting. That’s the kind of stuff that I find very rewarding.

These excerpts provide a taste of the depth and breadth of Studs’ virtuosic curiosity. Far from being a neutral, journalistic interviewer, he imbued his questions with an enthusiasm and admiration for his subjects that emboldened them to go deeper than they otherwise might in a standard radio appearance. His bravery and brilliance elicited the same from those around him, and we’re lucky to have these recordings.

The Studs Terkel Radio Archive’s current campaign on Kickstarter aims to preserve and share an additional one thousand of his interviews online.