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Touch and Go: A Memoir

Touch and Go: A Memoir

by Studs Terkel

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This memoir by the oral historian and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Good War is “a masterpiece about a life which itself is a sort of masterpiece” (Oliver Sacks).
Chosen as a Best Book of the Year in 2007 by the Chicago TribunePublishers Weekly, and Playboy, Studs Terkel’s memoir Touch and Go is “history from a highly personal point of view, by one who has helped make it” (Kirkus Reviews).
Terkel takes us through his childhood and into his early experiences—as a law student during the Depression, and later as an actor on both radio and the stage—offering a brilliant and often hilarious portrait of Chicago in the 1920s and ’30s. Describing his beginnings as a disc jockey after World War II, his involvement with progressive politics during the McCarthy era, as well as his career as an interviewer and oral historian, Touch and Go is a testament to Terkel’s “generosity of spirit, sense of social justice and commitment to capture on his ever present tape recorder the voices of those who otherwise would not be heard” (The New York Times Book Review).
It is a brilliant lifetime achievement from the man the Washington Post has called “the most distinguished oral historian of our time.”
“The master storyteller tells his own story, as no one else can, irresistibly.” —Garry Wills

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595585875
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 291
Sales rank: 780,042
File size: 774 KB

About the Author

Sydney Lewis is the author of three oral histories and transcribes for and otherwise assists oral history maestro Studs Terkel.

Studs Terkel (1912-2008) was a free spirit, an outspoken populist, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, a terrible ham, and one of the best-loved characters on the American scene. Born in New York in 1912, he lived in Chicago for over eight decades. Terkel's humanity, his talent for storytelling in the oral tradition, and his landmark book, Working, served as touchstones for the multi-component initiative Working in America created by Project&.

Norman Dietz is a writer, an actor, and a solo performer. He has also performed frequently on radio and television, and he has recorded over 150 audiobooks, many of which have earned him awards from AudioFile magazine, the ALA, and Publishers Weekly. Additionally, AudioFile named Norman one of the Best Voices of the Century.

Date of Birth:

May 16, 1912

Date of Death:

October 31, 2008

Place of Birth:

New York, NY

Place of Death:

Chicago, IL


J.D., University of Chicago, 1934

Read an Excerpt


Street Scene

Natacha Rambova, Rudolph Valentino's wife, is tousling my hair. Gently, fondly. Or was it Pola Negri? She, too, has something to do with the Sheik of Araby. No, it was not Pola, whose two eyebrows furrowed into one like those of Frida Kahlo, who had been married to Diego Rivera. That put Frida out of the running, the insatiable Mexican painter keeping her much too busy. Who else might that dark lady have been at that delightful moment eighty-six years ago when I was a heaven-touched eight?

Theda Bara? She was the pioneer, the first sultry temptress of our silent films. How could one forget that most memorable of subtitles? Sidling across the Persian rug with serpentine grace, certain of her kill, the hapless WASPy dolt in her encircling arms from which only Houdini could have escaped, we saw the words which she so stunningly synched: "Kiss me, my fool."

No. Not only was she slightly before my time, she was beyond the pale. She was aka Theodosia Goodman, daughter of a Cincinnati tailor. Cincinnati. Not a touch of the Arabian Nights in these quarters. It is true the Cincy baseball club had a sidearm pitcher bearing the exotic name Eppa Jeptha Rixey, a perfect one for a Jesus-obsessed sinner in a Flannery O'Connor short story — but not exotic enough to match my fantasy moment.

Though the ninety-four-year-old mind's eye sees the name, Hannah Stein, let the eight-year-old's impression prevail. It was Natacha of the raven locks parted in the center, with her fingernails painted blood-red, fooling around with my small boy's pompadour. It was a Sunday afternoon in the early spring of 1920. And oh, how I was enjoying the chocolate ice cream soda.

It was but a year or two before that, on the steps of the Forty-second Street Library, that my father was holding me high on his left shoulder, as we watched our soldier boys marching in the Armistice Day parade, having triumphed Over There in the war to end war. For some reason, my father paused a long time before shifting me to his right shoulder. A few years later, we were told that he had a case of angina pectoris and that his heart was failing fast. I, though a sickly, frail child, may have weighed sixteen tons to him, though you'd hardly have known it. He happened to be enjoying the moment because he felt I was enjoying the moment.

So it is this Sunday afternoon, so many months after the celebratory march, we three are seated at a tiny round table on an East Side sidewalk café: Natacha Rambova, my father, and I. It didn't take me long to discover that he had arranged it. I had never seen her before, yet in no way did her delicate ministrations diminish my delight as my straw slurped away my sweet repast.

I had neither the time nor the inclination to ask about other things. Why was she here? And behaving in so familiar a manner? It really didn't matter. Let's be realistic, first things first. The chocolate ice cream soda was what is was all about.

Statistic: I was born in 1912, three weeks after the Titanic blithely sailed into the tip of that iceberg. Make of it what you will.

And yet — what was she, the strange dark lady, doing here as my father's companion? True, I was a child of eight, fast going on nine, yet I may have been preternaturally endowed with a keyhole view of carnal knowledge. Somehow, I had a slight suspicion that something illicit was going on. Did I or did I not recall the moment I saw their fingers tentatively reach out and touch as I was downing the good stuff? All in all, it was A-OK with me. Call me a pragmatist.

Why didn't I feel as Biff Loman did when he discovered his father, Willy, in that Boston hotel room with a woman not his wife? "What happened in Boston, Willy?" was the recurring refrain in Death of a Salesman. Why was what was so devastating to Biff Loman so delightful an experience for me as a merry go-between? In short, why did I enjoy my first moment as a small boy pander? It was simply a matter of my own happiness, at that moment, being dependent upon my father's happiness. I was, I feel certain some eighty-six years later, aware of the burdens wearing him into a premature gray.

By the time we three, Natacha, my father, and I, sat that Sunday afternoon at the sidewalk café with the chocolate soda never tasting sweeter, my father's mustache was a bit too roughly trimmed and turning a portentous ash-gray. It was the cloudy color of trouble ahead. Still, it was Sam's mustache, no matter how it shaped up, that distinguished him from others.

The earliest movies I saw lacked my kind of hero; the one with a mustache; someone whose hallmark would approach that of my father; who would bear a signature that would afford me comfort. Unfortunately, in the movies, only the villains wore the telltale handlebars. Invariably. Slick. And rotten to the core, Maud.

Lowell Sherman immediately comes to mind. He was among the first. Brilliantined, patent-leather black hair, with a mustache that also appeared patented; evil-eyed; a cad in a class by himself. Lew Cody, a fair-skinned, craven toady up to no good. Their mustaches gave them away. What the scarlet letter was to Hester Prynne, the damnable facial adornment was to them. There was a note of redemption and hope in the saga of Warner Baxter. Oh, he was a bad one, twirling his mustache until the day an imaginative producer transformed him into the Cisco Kid. Now he was a Mexican, but a good one, a greaser who did not throw knives at gringos. With talking pictures, the biggest transformation occurred in the person of one actor: William Powell.

Remember the two-day silent blockbuster, Beau Geste? (Sure, its hero Ronald Colman had a growth, but he was a Brit, so it didn't count.) Remember how this movie opens? There are louts, clods, and poltroons whom the screen offers us as heroes: the French Foreign Legion. Their fortress has guns pointed out of each turret, aimed at the advancing Arabs. We realize that in a moment the outnumbered Legionnaires will be dead. Among the Legionnaires, especially the Geste brothers were true Kiplingesque heroes ... "Theirs not to reason why, theirs to do or die." Among them is a wretched coward, Boldini, played by William Powell, mustachioed, of course.

Comes the first full-length talking picture, Interference. We now hear the plum-rich voice of Powell; no villain this one. He, indubitably a good guy, gives up his life to knock off the troublesome Evelyn Brent and thereby save the marriage of Doris Kenyon, the woman he loves. We think further of Powell and his incredible good luck with talkies. He is teamed up with the wondrous Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man series; cold martinis and the witty stuff of Dashiell Hammett.

The one I best and most reverently remember as my mustachioed hero of the silents, aside from the Little Tramp of Charlie Chaplin, is Raymond Griffith. He was aptly described as Chaplin in a top hat, white gloves, and cape; with a slight buzz that added to his charm. I have no idea how talkies may have affected his career as an actor. But I shall never, ever forget him in a talking movie, an adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front. He didn't utter a word, yet his quite brief scene still astonishes me. How long ago was it? Would you believe seventy-five years?

It is during World War I. Lew Ayres plays the lead, a young German soldier, Paul. During an horrendous battle Paul finds himself in a foxhole with a French poilu, played by Raymond Griffith. Remember, it's the first time I've seen this iconic comic actor in years. Here he is, stabbed to death a moment ago by Paul. As Lew Ayres, the actor, looks over the letters and notes of the dying Griffith, he bursts into uncontrollable sobs and begs forgiveness. Ayres was great, but it is the mute performance of Griffith that haunts me even as I type these words. His look is one of wonderment. Bewilderment. I never met this handsome young German kid in my life. Why has he bayoneted me to death as I had been taught to do unto him? That brief moment, lasting but a few seconds, his death pose in the trench, his eyes open yet unseeing — is that a world-weary Griffith smile pasted onto a corpse? — tells us all we need to know of the absurdity of war.

We had known Griffith as the cheery, generous-hearted, slightly plastered peace courtier. It was peace at any cost. Consider, in a long-forgotten farce, the two attractive young women who love him and seek marriage. He loves them both. Equally. How did the Raymond Griffith modus vivendi work out in this instance? He packed both women into his roadster and off they drove. The film ends with a rear bumper sticker: Bound for Salt Lake City.

There are a number of memorable scenes in All Quiet, yet this is the one that's hung on to me. Lewis Milestone, the director, chose the perfect actor for that tragic cameo role, a grand comic with a mischievous mustache.

A long-delayed confessional. Call it contrition, though it warrants no forgiveness. Lew Ayres, as a result of his role in the film (still one of the strongest of antiwar movies) was converted into a conscientious objector. He took a public stand that no doubt may have disturbed his career. World War II had begun. I was conducting a local commentary series on a Chicago radio station. There were no tapes then. I have recently searched for a copy of the script, yet somehow I've lost it. Fortunately. It may have been the most craven thing I've ever done. I'm sure the loss was Freudian.

I was criticizing Ayres, gently, of course (making it all the worse; I should have worn the mark of T for toady as Hester wore A for adultery). I was righteously addressing Ayres, in sorrow, of course (this sounds worse and worse as I type it) for his hurting the efforts to recruit soldier boys. I am fairly certain he never heard it. Mine was a limited local audience.

I had the effrontery to call him years later while I was working on the oral history "The Good War." I had intended to apologize and ask if he'd appear in the book as a conscientious objector. I had no chance to tell him my dirty little secret (he fortunately never found out). He was remarkably gracious, though by this time weary of the subject and planning a memoir of his own. I don't think he ever got around to it.

As Natacha, oh so gently, touched my cheek — eighty-six years later, I'd say "sensually" — Sam lit his Turkish cigarette. Murad was his favorite brand. I've always wondered why Russian Jewish tailors preferred Turkish tobacco to all others. It was, I suspect, more expensive than, say, Camels, for which, said the billboard, you'd walk a mile. I remember the popularity as well as the aroma of Helmar and Melachrinos among his collegial craftsmen.

As a prelude to his lighting up, he invariably tapped the elegantly long cigarette against the hard Murad case. He was at the moment Noël Coward; but once he lit up and blew smoke rings in the air, the cigarette poised between thumb and index finger, he was transformed into Uncle Vanya. He offered Natacha one, of course. Her smoke rings matched his. They needed no Chesterfield ad to tell them what to do.

The most popular billboard of them all was the Chesterfield ad: a pretty girl — was she a John Held Jr. lovely? — invited the unseen other to "Blow some my way." As the smoke wafted in, hers was a more satisfied smile. No Mona Lisa, that one. I don't recall whether she had as yet removed her earrings.

Of all the works of billboard artistry, the ones that still impress me most were devoted to the delightfulness of cigarettes. From time to time, there were the scolds and Cassandras whom the tobacco industry had to deal with. The Lucky Strikers and the others did not have as rough a time as they do now, but there were troublemakers.

During the resurgence of the suffragist movement, early in the century (the twentieth), the tobacco companies discovered an astonishing spokesman who was master of his craft. I had the enthralling experience of meeting Edward Bernays a number of times. Always there was the professorial air: the graying welltrimmed mustache; the spectacles; the easy, witty conversation. He was a pioneer, in fact; a revolutionary in his field. He had a reputation as a free thinker on the liberal side. But a job is a job is a job. He was the master of his. It was he and his way with words who transmuted "press agent" into "public relations counselor."

When we think of the press agent, we think of a cigar chosen from the lobby counter, of the medicine man hawking Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, or a jolly backslapping as a matter of reflex. A genial drinking companion.

Edward Bernays, in the manner of a medieval alchemist, had transmuted dross into the semblance of gold. It doesn't matter that the work itself hasn't altered. They are still coat holders for their clients. What Bernays had done, in fact, was to affect our daily working vocabulary. When I was in the tall grasslands of Inner Mongolia some twenty years ago, I heard the Chinese interpreter teach his Mongolian colleague what a PR man does. He used the actual English initials. I realized in that revelatory moment that, among words or phrases universally understood, whether you are in Inuit country or Tierra del Fuego, "PR" rates along with "Taxi!" and "No problem." Some years later, in reflecting on the pretty girl in the Chesterfield ad pleading "Blow Some My Way," I thought of Bernays. It may have been a sign that the wind was blowing his way.

The last time I saw Bernays, he was approaching the century mark. He was frail and hard of hearing, and his memory played hide-and-seek at times, but he still had almost all his marbles.

I put the earphones on him. It was a tape recording we had done years before. Immediately on hearing his younger voice, his face glowed with the wonder of a child. The subject was the nature of his work and, in this instance, of his powerhouse client — the tobacco industry. He was recounting an early moment in the twentieth century, when the feminist movement was in its resurgence. Names come to mind. Margaret Sanger. Helen Keller. Alice Paul. Jane Addams. Florence Kelley. They were advanced in many areas. Certainly the evils of tobacco were among them. Bernays himself was pro-suffragist as well as a peace and civil-rights advocate. But he did have a job to do, one of his biggest as a public-relations counselor:to make smoking cigarettes not only acceptable to the suffragists but a sign of liberation! And, to some extent, he succeeded. As I remember our conversation, to which he was listening at that moment, pressing the earphones tighter to himself, eyes wonder-wide, he had talked some of the spokeswomen, militant and courageous, into smoking during their celebratory march on Fifth Avenue. Puffing away publicly, lighting small fires of flaming tobacco, was their symbol of emancipation. As I relieved him of his earphones, he looked up at me. Mouth slightly open; a small boy bewildered by something. Was he aware of his giftedness and triumph? Did he realize the nature of his works, his expertise?

Parenthetically, Edward Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Whenever he visited his uncle in prewar London he always presented him with a box of Havana cigars.

My father was a master of his craft, too. He was a men's tailor. I look at the gilt-edged daguerreotype of my two brothers, about four and six, in fancy woolen winter clothes sewn by Sam. What stand out are the earlaps, of identical corduroy fabric and design. They add just the right panache to the classy attire. You'd think the photo had been snapped by a Slavic Margaret Cameron. Oh, he was good, my father. I'm still much moved when I come across the picture of the three of us boys. There I am, in my little white nightgown, two years old, looking somewhat bewildered. I am standing on a stool as my two brothers (each in short pants, made by my father, of course) pose protectively on each side of their darling baby brother. When my father and his young wife, Annie, arrived in New York from the Russian-Polish border city, Bialystok, they were both good at what they tackled. She was a nimble-fingered seamstress. When she was not at the factory during a strike or slack time, I still see her, in our living room, on her knees, pins in her mouth, fitting a neighbor woman into a new dress.

It may have been in 1902 or '03 when they arrived. It was quota time instituted by the Brahminesque Henry Cabot Lodge, a quota aimed primarily at Italian immigrants. A shoemaker, Nicolo Sacco, and a fish peddler, Bartolomeo Vanzetti, may have been among them.

I look, from time to time, at an old-world gilt-framed daguerreotype of my mother, Annie, and my father, Sam. It is so obviously unlikely a pairing, and the photograph says it all. His curly-cued flowing jet-black mustachio gives him an Italian look: a Calabrian or Sardinian. He is Mateo Falcone of Sardinia's best credentials for honesty, courage, and above all, sanctuary to all seeking to escape from authority. His eyes appear bright, blazing and ready to face the day, whatever it may bring.


Excerpted from "Touch And Go"
by .
Copyright © 2007 Studs Terkel.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note,
Part I,
1. Street Scene,
2. Bound for Glory,
3. The Rooming House,
4. The Convention That Would Never End,
5. Teachers of the Gilded Age,
6. The Hotel,
7. A Good Citizen,
Part II,
8. Seeking Work,
9. The Actor,
10. Observer to Activist,
11. A Bouquet from the Colonel,
12. Ida,
13. Reveille,
14. Lucky Breaks I,
Part III,
15. American Dreamer,
16. Are You Now or Have You Ever Been ...,
17. Blacklist,
18. Lucky Breaks II,
19. A Casual Conversation,
20. The Feeling Tone,
Part IV,
21. Truth to Power,
22. Didn't Your Name Used to Be Dave Garroway?,
23. Two Towns Called Girard,
24. Evil of Banality,
25. ... And Nobody Laughed,
26. Old Gent of the Right,
27. Einstein and the Rest of Us,
Index of Names,

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"Emotionally charged (but never sentimental), politically charged (but never formulaic) and energy-charged.... Terkel is a self-aware and self-effacing presence who happily knows he has been at the center of many things." —-Kirkus Starred Review

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