CHICAGO — Long before the FBI identified him as a suspected communist and spent decades watching him and talking to confidential informants about him, late Chicago author Studs Terkel came to the agency for a job.
That's just one of the revelations – and maybe the most surprising one – contained in a thick FBI file that the NYCity News Service posted on its Web site over the weekend after obtaining it under a Freedom of Information Act request.
The release of the file marks the most extensive look into Terkel's work and activities as viewed by federal authorities, particularly by the FBI when it was headed by J. Edgar Hoover.
That the FBI kept such a file is hardly a surprise. Terkel was an avowed liberal who supported the civil rights movement and opposed the Vietman War. His books and radio interviews stand as a tribute to working people and the downtrodden. Terkel spoke and wrote openly about being blacklisted during the McCarthy era, when studios – fearful of being accused of sympathizing with communists – refused to hire actors, writers, directors and others suspected of having pro-communist sentiments.
Terkel, who wrote the best-seller "Working" and Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Good War, died last year at the age of 96.
Andre Schiffrin, who edited all of Terkel's books, said Terkel was "very proud" that FBI started a file on him, although he had applied for work at the agency as a "student fingerprint classifier" in 1934, according to one document.
"He was proud of the fact that when he applied for work at the FBI ... Hoover (was) saying, 'He's not our kind of guy, not our kind of boy,'" said Schiffrin, a longtime friend of Terkel.
Documents in the FBI file date to 1945 and most are from the '40s and '50s. But the file also contains some documents from the 1960s and '70s and, for some unknown reason, a copy of a 1990 Wall Street Journal article about junk bond king Michael Milken, in which Terkel was quoted.
The news service reported that it received only 147 pages of what it said was a 269-page file. It said the FBI refused to hand over the rest for "privacy and other reasons."
Most of the pages are devoted to the FBI's effort to determine if Terkel was a communist.
Some references – such as one about a confidential informant telling the FBI that Terkel had agreed to give a "short talk at the Red Army Celebration" – seem laughable now. But they are the types of accusations that resulted in scores of people in the entertainment industry being blacklisted in the late 1940s and into the 1950s.
One confidential informant reported that Terkel appeared to take inspiration from the New York-based communist newspaper "Daily Worker" and that he once said blacklisted actor and singer Paul Robeson "is a product of all the people fighting for freedom, for justice for all."
A 1950 file states that Terkel "reportedly has been Master of Ceremonies at various functions from 1945 to 1949 sponsored by the American Youth for Democracy, Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, civil Rights Congress and International Workers Order, which have been designated by the United States Attorney General as Communist Organizations."
In at least one instance, a person whose name was redacted said Terkel was a member of the Communist Party of America.
Yet nowhere in the file does the FBI assert point-blank that Terkel was a party member.
And Schiffrin said Terkel wasn't.
"He was certainly sympathetic to a lot of their causes, but he never did join," said Schiffrin. "He used to boast that he never met a petition he didn't like."
Schiffrin said Terkel might have been disappointed to learn of one notation in the file: that he was discharged from the Army in 1943 because he was too old.
That wasn't the reason, said Schiffrin. "Military intelligence got him out because he was subversive," he said.