[Interview with Studs Terkel about Nelson Algren]

Interview with Studs Terkel shot for the documentary "Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, The Road is All," produced by Mark Blottner, Ilko Davidov, and Denis Mueller.

00:00Copy video clip URL Camera starts rolling in mid sentence as an interview with Studs Terkel begins. He says he met the writer and poet Nelson Algren years ago shortly after World War II, maybe 1945. They were both on the Illinois writer’s project. He was adapting material for ABC radio, a series called Author’s Playhouse, adaptation of books. Terkel was adapting one of Algren’s stories for radio, “A Bottle of Milk for Mother,” which was about a mugging and killing.

02:02Copy video clip URL Terkel says he did another adaptation for Algren, and later Algren had a friend came to a radio performance of one of Terkel’s adaptations. Terkel was emcee of a jazz show at Blue Note. He tangents on a story of meeting with Algren and Algren’s lover, Simone de Beauvoir, at a Paris hotel and how Algren was dressed like a suspicious person, and how he was a “clown figure” and often the “fall guy,” “but in his own mind he was the winner.” Terkel tangents with a story of how Algren wanted to be paid cash for “Walk on the Wild Side,” and did. “Pelts is the witness to that!”

05:01Copy video clip URL Coming back to his original story, Terkel says Algren lead him to a French jazz club also called Blue Note. “The last thing I wanted.” They took him to a place for breakfast that offered “Fruit de la mer: fruit of the sea.” Terkel was expecting pineapple, instead they were served a dish of various seafood including eel.

06:35Copy video clip URL Terkel tells of going to an old, elegant restaurant in Paris with Algren. Algren and de Beauvoir were the talk of literary Paris and people were staring at them as they ate. Algren was wearing a battery operated neck tie that he could light at will. When he did, it would startle the people staring at him. He talks about a cafe Algren liked to frequent and how Algren was a fall guy and was more fascinated by the losers in life. In general, the dull people who win aren’t as intriguing as the flamboyant who lose. This leads to a story Terkel tells about Algren hosting poker night at his Chicago apartment on Evergreen Avenue. “Nelson lost all the time.” Terkel describes the people who attended the poker nights: Teddy, a Polish barber; a guy named Lou who ran a furniture store. “And then there was that famous game with Morretti, a de facto cop from a rather celebrated family and a Black Hawk Indian called Chief. Algren is dealing out the cards and everyone’s winning but him. Terkel was there, too. After the game, the gang goes out for an early breakfast, 5am. Algren is quiet throughout. The group wonders if he’s a sore loser. Terkel dismisses the idea. The next day Algren accuses the others of cheating. He had fantasies of killing the guys he was certain cheated him.

11:30Copy video clip URL Terkel notes Algren loved the Art Carney character in The Late Show with Lilly Tomlin. “That was Nelson’s image!” Terkel says with a smile. In his mind he could take on anyone and win. But he adds Algren was always involved in something that ended up wrong, like those bumbling crooks that goof an easy job. Terkel tells a story of Algren in a car with others who have just stolen hundreds of vinyl music records. As the car passes a police officer, the trunk opens and all the stolen property spills out. The police knew Algren, knew him as a writer, “as a flake” and let him off. “They liked him.”

13:00Copy video clip URL  Terkel says Algren would go to the Turkish baths on North Avenue. Algren would go to O’Rourke’s where young male and female writers would be. He was a fixture at that bar. He told stories. He knew he was funny. He played the part of the scapegoat. He would go to old time gyms in New York where people boxed.  He loved the idea of boxing and was very good at describing it. He describes it better than anybody.

15:40Copy video clip URL Terkel tells a story of Algren staying at the Iroquois Hotel, a real flea bag, near the Algonquin Hotel in New York’s theater district. At a breakfast with a journalist, being interviewed for a story, Algren sees two quarters on the table: the tip for the waiter from the previous customer. Algren says to the journalist, “Look it’s not even eight o’clock and we’re a half a buck ahead already!” Terkel explains, “That’s Nelson’s humor.”

16:36Copy video clip URL Terkel says he was aware of Algren before meeting him. They were both involved in the WPA Writer’s Project before World War II. He knew him casually in a general sense. He lived on the south side of Chicago in an artist colony. He says critics crucified him for his work “Walk on the Wild Side.” Terkel describes how he was blacklisted too, and how Algren admired him for being able to bounce back from such criticism of his work.

21:15Copy video clip URL  Terkel says critics either declared a book was terrible or it wasn’t. “I call them the anointed Mandarins.” He suggests Algren was their “pigeon.” He says he knows Algren had worries about getting a visa and passport, but never really talked about his FBI file. Terkel notes the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg case and a petition he signed asking for clemency might have played a role. He adds the 50 were a blacklisting time in general.

22:45Copy video clip URL Terkel says after Algren won the National Book Award for Man With the Golden Arm, around 1950, he appeared on Terkel’s NBC television show Studs’ Place. He says he acted in a sketch about an old German guy who wanted to write. “There’s no kinescope made of it, so it’s gone.” There’s also footage from the 1970s, Terkel says, of Algren describing a shortcut he’s found from Chicago to Paterson, New Jersey, via San Francisco. “It’s a shaggy dog tale. He was a master at urban shaggy dog stories. There was a Mark Twain twist to them.” Terkel recalls Algren’s deadpan style of talking. The more deadpan he was, the funnier the story.

25:02Copy video clip URL B-roll of Terkel’s book shelf as Terkel takes a phone call.

25:40Copy video clip URL Terkel tells a story of Algren acting in a movie, Goldstein. The co-director was Philip Kaufman who also directed The Right Stuff (1983). Terkel tries to explain Algren’s unique sense of ethics and morals. He says Algren’s telling of the Summerdale scandal, in which Chicago police were helping a burglar commit robberies, was his way of commenting on ethics and morality. But he would always do it as a clown character. He said he never met real life people who served as inspiration for Algren’s characters because his characters were composites of many. He adds though that he introduced Algren to someone who became inspiration for a character. Someone Terkel called “Kid Farrow.” He was the key figure in Algren’s poem “Ode to an Absconding Bookie.” Algren apparently gave Kid Farrow twenty bucks to bet on a horse Farrow was sure would lose. They won two hundred bucks, and when Algren went looking for Farrow, Farrow was nowhere to be found.

30:00Copy video clip URL Terkel pulls one of Algren’s books off the shelf and reads the “Ode to an Absconding Bookie” poem and comments on some of Algren’s other work.

32:40Copy video clip URL Terkel says Algren never encouraged his early writing, but liked his older work. He liked “Talking to Myself.” Terkel adds that Algren’s “Chicago: City on the Make” is the best prose poem to a city ever, about Chicago and its history.

34:20Copy video clip URL Terkel goes back to stories of himself, Algren and de Beauvoir in Paris. He says he wanted to find Marcel Marceau whom he’s met before in Chicago. Algren was tickled at how Terkel could fumble through the French language, asking locals how to find Marceau, and find what he was looking for.

35:05Copy video clip URL When asked what Algren and Evergreen Avenue was like in the 50s, Terkel says the area was transitioning from Polish to Latino. There was fancy stained glass in his run down apartment building. He wasn’t affected by the ethnic change.

37:07Copy video clip URL Terkel says what Algren would have to say about the development of the computer would be interesting since his view on corporate America was one of an industry that was so impersonal. Terkel admired Algren’s humor. In a friendly argument Algren would say to Terkel, “What kind of an American are you?” And Terkel wouldn’t have a response. He admired that quality in Algren.

39:05Copy video clip URL Terkel tells the story of a slow-witted man called Popeye. Popeye would watch Bob Hope and never laugh, but howl at the evening news. Algren would say of him, “He has good taste.” Terkel says Geraldine Page liked Algren’s work and how Algren could build on a character’s frustration struggling for expression. His writing was lyrical, there was even poetry in how he described a prize fight. Terkel describes Algren as a cat. A cat bows to no one. He wants the alley for himself. That was Algren. He’d cat nap. He couldn’t sleep at night. He’d cat nap during the day. That unconventional was part of his life. He loved Tod Browning’s movie Freaks. He was fascinating by the outsider or freak within us.

44:30Copy video clip URL Terkel says Algren was commissioned by a magazine to tour the Far East, but the job didn’t go well. The magazine didn’t care for his work. He notes Algren was broke when he died. His catalog of work made money and the money it made went to a nephew Algren loathed. Terkel says one day the nephew approached him and said he understood his uncle still owed him three-thousand dollars and that he would pay it. Terkel waited a long time and never got the money. When he called Algren’s nephew about it the nephew said he consulted a lawyer and because nothing was in writing he didn’t owe any money. Terkel says he called the nephew every foul name in the book. He says Algren would have loved this ending: the dough went to the miserable no-good nephew. That’s a typical Algren ending. One of irony.

48:35Copy video clip URL Terkel says the last time he saw Algren was at a party in New York. Algren was telling a story about winning at a race track and he was running to catch a train, fishing around for a train token. His pants are falling down. Everyone around him was howling at the party. That’s the last time he was Algren. Terkel says he was on his way to China when he heard the news of Algren’s death and burial, and subsequently couldn’t attend.

50:50Copy video clip URL Terkel says the criticism in the ’50s did not affect his career. He was respected as a writer. Terkel says the reason he could maintain a friendship with Algren because he didn’t probe into his life too much. He notes Algren would break from people who pried too much into certain areas of his private life. If someone gets too close he will break away. It goes back to the image of the cat.

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