Louis (Studs) Terkel, the third son of Russian-Jewish parents, was born in the Bronx on 16th May, 1912. Eleven years later the family moved to Chicago where his father found work as a tailor. He later opened a rooming house for immigrants.
After graduating from high school in 1928, Terkel went to the University of Chicago where he received a law degree in 1934. The following year he found work producing radio shows as part of the Federal Writers Project. Terkel, who now adopted the name Studs (after the hero in James Farrell's novel, Studs Lonigan), also became involved in the Chicago Repertory Theatre.
In 1939 he married the social worker Ida Goldberg. The marriage was to last for 60 years. On the outbreak of the Second World War Terkel attempted to join the army but was rejected because of a perforated eardrum. He joined the Red Cross but he was not allowed to serve overseas. He later discovered that this was because of his left-wing political views.
During the 1940s Terkel became a familiar voice on radio working as a news commentator and disc jockey. He also acted and appeared on several television programmes. In 1949 Terkel began his own television show, Studs' Place, an improvised sitcom where he played himself as a restaurant owner.
After being investigated by Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953, his contract was cancelled. Terkel refused to give evidence against other left-wing activists and was therefore blacklisted and prevented from appearing on television. He later recalled: "I was blacklisted because I took certain positions on things and never retracted... I signed many petitions that were for unfashionable causes and never retracted."
Terkel eventually found employment with the Chicago Sunday Times where he wrote a regular jazz column. He also acted in various plays including John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. In 1958 he started his long-running daily radio programme on WFMT, the Studs Terkel Show.
In the 1960s Terkel became interested in oral history. His first book on the subject, Division Street: America (1967), contained interviews with seventy people who had lived in Chicago. This was followed by Hard Times (1970), which featured interviews with Americans talking about their experiences of the Depression, and Working (1974), an account of people's working lives. Terkel wrote: "Work is about a daily search for meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor, in short for a sort of life, rather than a Monday-to-Friday sort of dying.”
Ed Vulliamy pointed out: "As you listen, you know in your bones that each person has never told their story as cogently or as fully before and will never do so again, for that was Terkel's art. He was maestro of that most precious craft in the practice of both journalism and history: listening... But this distinction did much more for the archives of history than bequeath unrepeatable recordings of the great, the good and the gregarious. Terkel's obsessive interest in the propulsion of people's lives was at its most curious and passionate — and his subjects at their most brilliantly articulate — when he was dealing with everyday people, from whatever background: carpenters, judges, hub-cap fitters, priests, admirals, sharecroppers, models, signalmen, tennis players, war veterans and cooks."
Other books in the same style by Terkel include American Dreams: Lost and Found (1980), the Pulitzer Prize winning The Good War (1985), Chicago (1987), The Great Divide (1988), Race (1992), Coming of Age (1995), Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times (1995), My American Century(1998). Will the Circle be Unbroken?, a book about death, was published in 2001. This was followed by Hope Dies Last (2005), And They All Sang (2006), They All Sang (2007) and Touch and Go: A Memoir (2008).
Terkel has been described as a historian and a sociologist but he prefers to call himself a "guerrilla journalist with a tape recorder". He created controversy when Tony Blair resigned and he asked: "Why was he such a house-boy for Bush?"
Studs Terkel died in his Chicago home on 31st October, 2008 at the age of ninety-six. He asked that his epitaph should be: "Curiosity did not kill this cat."