Table of Contents
ALSO BY STUDS TERKEL
Lost and Found
Coming of Age
The Story of Our Century by Those Who’ve Lived It
Giants of Jazz
“The Good War”
An Oral History of World War II
The Great Divide
Second Thoughts on the American Dream
An Oral History of the Great Depression
Hope Dies Last
Keeping the Faith in Troubled Times
My American Century
How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel
About the American Obsession
Studs Terkel Interviews
Film and Theater
Talking to Myself
A Memoir of My Times
Touch and Go
Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith
People Talk About What They Do All Day and
How They Feel About What They Do
For Sydney Lewis
Among My Souvenirs
“AMONG MY SOUVENIRS” was a popular sentimental ditty of the mid-20s. It was to song as Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” was to poetry. Nonetheless, it served my purpose in seeking out this old junk, scattered around and about in what could whimsically be described as my workroom. I was reminded of a gimpy old guy wheeling, with some effort, his huge plastic bag, all of his worldly goods, toward his home under the bridge. A few yards away was a paper-thin old doll, pushing her worldly goods toward home under the bridge. Her frame was skeletal, yet her grip was as firm as a pro-football linebacker’s.
So it was with me on my findings in my workroom, which I hadn’t visited in years. There were scattered, torn sheets of wrinkled paper under the desk, behind the bookcases, beneath the couch, tossed in boxes, everywhere. I put together two major conversations. One, with James Baldwin, took place shortly after his return from exile in Europe. His new book was a series of essays, titled
Nobody Knows My Name.
This is one of the strongest interviews I’ve ever done. The other was an old conversation I thought I had lost with E. Y. “Yip”
Harburg. He was perhaps one of the most perceptive as well as committed lyric writers extant.
There were also two documentaries that I had done with Jim Unrath, the resourceful WFMT radio announcer who volunteered to be my engineer. The one documentary,
Born to Live,
was the 1962 Prix-Italia award winner. It was submitted during the Cuban missile crisis, which, for those who may remember, was one of the nation’s most traumatic moments. The Prix-Italia was an annual award for radio and TV. It is as prestigious in those worlds as is a Nobel Prize for the written word. The other documentary consisted of voices of the Great Depression. From the fifteen hours of tape collected for use in my book
Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression,
I condensed the words into one tape:
A Gathering of Survivors.
(The situation then was not too removed from the one we face today in the matter of joblessness and need. Today, we use euphemisms: instead of depression, we say recession. But to the man and woman designated out of work, one is a synonym for the other.)
The rest of the book consists of pieces that appeared in the WFMT magazine
that have never been republished and that I thought were still interesting.
Here we go.
SCARING THE DAYLIGHTS OUT OF MA PERKINS, 1974:
Confessions of Butch, Bugs, the Chicago Kid . . . but Not Clark Gable
IN 1934, I became a gangster.
It had nothing whatsoever to do with Bugs Moran or Al Capone or Hymie Weiss or Murray the Camel or the Genna Brothers or Jake Guzik or that most ill-starred of horticulturalists, Dion O’Bannion. (How often after his sudden passing did I go by Scofield’s Flower Shop, so near and dear to Holy Name, and reflect on God’s will and
qué será, será
. For it was in that bower, amid roses and orchids and lilies of the valley, that dapper Dion, with a seasonal flower as his boutonniere, met his maker. He was the minstrel boy who to the war did often go; in this instance, it came to him, as a message from Al.)
True, I did have a glancing acquaintance with the garage where the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre occurred. (I glanced in one day, looking for Upsadaisy Conners. He was a sometime mechanic—and at times a soldier for the Mob—who owed my
mother six months’ rent, coming to about two hundred dollars. He had disappeared. Some weeks later, he was found floating down the drainage canal. A slight misadventure. My mother wore sackcloth and ashes. At least two hundred dollars’ worth. Happily, all was not lost. I inherited his silk dressing gown. It was similar to the one worn by Clark Gable as Ace Wilfong in
A Free Soul
. Fortunately, Upsadaisy was my size, not Gable’s. Unfortunately, Norma Shearer was not around. As I looked into the mirror, a study in subdued scarlet with thin black stripes, I missed Norma. Though she may have been slightly cockeyed and, as Lillian Hellman observed, had a lovely face unclouded by thought, I missed her terribly. Oh, well.)
No, my gangsterism had nothing to do with the precipitous demise of Dutch Gentleman (What a lovely name for a hood!), his brother, and several comrades-in-arms. Jack McGurn was reputed to have machine-gunned their passage to Valhalla on that celebratory afternoon when boys and girls passed innocently erotic cards to one another. Fortunately for Jack, he had a blond alibi, Louise Rolfe. (In my silk dressing gown, I saw the vision of Louise. I missed her terribly, too.) Unfortunately for Jack, he was remembered on a subsequent St. Valentine’s Day and was himself dispatched by a cupid’s dart in the form of lead. It was at a fine bowling alley. As he let the three-fingered ball go, he appeared to have made a strike. Jack fell down and broke his crown, but the ninepin did not come tumbling after. It was a bloody spare. Thus was the martyred Christian saint twice memorialized. It was truly a love that passeth understanding.
No, my experience as a paid killer, safecracker, and extortionist was, alas, ersatz. I was a soap opera villain.
My life of crime began in
. Ma, a widow, owned a lumberyard. She and her lifelong friend, Shuffles (Was there a
twilight something going on between them? We never really knew), her son, John, her daughter, Fay, and her son-in-law, Willie, did the best they could. They endured small-town scandals, back-door gossip, serious illness, and trials Job had never envisioned. Yet, Ma and her tribe of decent Americans persevered. For years and years and years and years, Monday through Friday.
I had nothing to do with any of this. Mine was the incursion of outside malevolence. I, and smooth-talking colleagues from the Big City, would, on occasion, slip into Ma’s domain. Not on little cat feet. Ours was a heavy tread.
My first such appearance, indeed my debut as a gangster, was in the person of Butch Malone. He was as brutish a knave as ever terrified a Terre Haute housewife, especially the one who washed her things in Oxydol, courtesy of Procter & Gamble. For six weeks, off and on, I gave Ma and her family an awful time. As Butch, I wound up, if I remember right, in Sing Sing. A life sentence. What was even worse, I was written out of the script.
It was a catch-as-catch-can existence. I’d reappear as someone named Pete or Steve or Bugs or the Chicago Kid. At times, my well-deserved end came in more bloody fashion. I was run off a cliff by some local constable; I was shot by a companion; in all instances, I was disappeared. (In despair, I once asked a director if I couldn’t play the good guy for a change, the hero, perhaps. Ruefully, he explained: Heroes had pear-shaped tones; mine were apricot shaped.)
Though Ma Perkins was my most frequent pigeon, I found myself unbearable to Mary Marlin, whose five-day-a-week martyrdom transcended St. Theresa’s. (On occasion, my menacing gravel came a slight pause after the last chord of “Claire de Lune” was pressed by Helen Westbrook at the Hammond.)
I was unspeakable to Kitty Keene and obscene to Helen Trent (Can a woman find love after thirty-five?). And I wasn’t very nice to “Girl Alone.” I was even bad to a girl who was bad to “Girl Alone,” in the person of Mercedes McCambridge. Let’s face it. I was the most miserable of wretches. I was so vile that in
Betty and Bob
, I once threatened her mother. Or was she
mother? The lovely, gracious dowager was played by Edie Davis, who eventually became Ronald Reagan’s mother-in-law. Oh, well. (It
hard to tell, isn’t it, where soap opera leaves off and life begins?)
The dialogue in all these adventures was like none other ever invented. It was truly sui generis. It wasn’t Melville. It wasn’t Faulkner. Nor could Chekhov ever dream it up. It was, in short, astounding. Most often, it was offered sotto voce. My confederate and I nuzzled up to the microphone in the manner of Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo. But what we crooned boded no good for the good folk.
You know what to do?
Synchronize our watches.
Yeah, stupid. Watches.
I gotcha, boss.
What’ve ya got?
Ya got New York time, stupid. It’s ten o’clock.
: Okay, boss.
There was never in the history of drama, whether it be Euripides, Shakespeare, Ibsen, or O’Neill, a pause that was as
pregnant as a soap opera pause. Especially when the distraught heroine murmured her troubles to the straight-arrow hero. He was forever WASP. He was Bruce or Charles or James. Sometimes he was Gordon. He was never Angelo or Eli or Wladek. He was certainly never Booker. He was usually a banker. Or a broker. Or a man of considerable property. He was as honest as the day was long. And, God,
they long days! The cross he bore was invariably a ne’er-do-well younger brother. She, Cynthia, had a wild younger sister. Talk about troubles. Small wonder they spoke so deliberately, so softly, and oh, so, so slowly. It was this air of monumental patience that enabled them to carry that weight, to gallantly see it through.
Awaiting my cure, I died each day. Each second flew by as quickly as a minute; each minute was as quicksilvery as an hour. Would I were a Zen Buddhist! I had read somewhere that when life is burdensome, take to the Bible. So I reflected on Ruth amid the alien corn. I called on Ecclesiastes, as well: And this, too, shall pass. Thus, in these theological musings, I, too, was enabled to carry that weight, to gallantly see it through. Each of us, in his or her own way, was brave, off mike as well as on. It was chin up all the way. In time, we came to believe the stuff actually was Flaubert and Brontë and Henry James.