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Studs Terkel and the FBI

November 18, 2009 |  9:08 am

Studsterkel_couch

In the 1930s, Studs Terkel applied to the FBI to be a fingerprint guy -- maybe if he'd gotten the job, we would have had "CSI: Studs Terkel." But the FBI turned him away and in 1945 began surveillance that would last for more than four decades. Our report has the details:

Terkel's paper trail started in 1945. It references Terkel speaking at a Paul Robeson rally in Chicago and quotes a source who questioned Terkel's "loyalty to the United States" because he worked with the BBC on a piece about the "sordid side of life in Chicago."

Terkel was an energetic journalist who lost his broadcasting job during the McCarthy blacklist era. He went on to write landmark oral histories of working-class America, including "Division Street," "Hard Times" and "Working," which made him either a patriot or suspect, depending on your point of view. After he died in 2008 at age 96, New York's City News service filed a Freedom of Information Act request, leading to this week's release.

Terkel was aware he was being tracked by the FBI, and several accounts of his life recall him joking that his file wasn’t as thick as the one compiled on his wife Ida Goldberg, a social worker and anti-war activist.

The FBI stopped following Terkel in 1990. More than 100 pages of Terkel's 296-page file remain undisclosed for "privacy and other reasons," City News reports. Exactly whose privacy is mysterious -- Terkel outlived most of his contemporaries.

The Chicago History Museum has a selection of his recordings online; his final book, released last year, was "P.S.: Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: What's that, an agent upstairs? Studs Terkel at home in Chicago 2003. Credit: Aynsley Floyd / Associated Press

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