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11/20/2009 10:53 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Studs Terkel, On His Dance With the FBI: 'Oh Well'

I read with interest all the stories this week about the late Studs Terkel and his FBI file. To my dismay, they pretended to discover the ironic revelation that Terkel actually applied to work for the FBI in the early 1930s.

I scratched my head, waiting for someone to remember that Terkel wrote about his attempt to catch on with the FBI -- and about his subsequent unhappy experiences with FBI agents -- in a book first published in 1973, called Talking to Myself.

But no one ever did. Terkel didn't call this the "United States of Alzheimer's" for nothing.

"You see, I was unhappy at law school," Terkel writes. "My one ambition, at the time, was to get a civil service job. That's what I really wanted. Something steady. Something not too exciting or exacting. So that I might, without too much on my mind, see movies and plays and weekend baseball games and attend concerts. I felt I had the makings of a good spectator."

He explains that he'd taken a civil service exam and scored well enough to be invited for an interview by the FBI's Chicago Bureau chief, Melvin Purvis. The position: fingerprint classifier, $1,260 a year.

"Melivin Purvis was friendly enough; though I was aware he was studying me. ... I remember his neatness, his diminutive size, and his soft Southern accent. It was a year or so before he would achieve renown as the FBI man who did in John Dillinger."

He asked me about myself. He was curious: Why should a University of Chicago Law School student seek so modest a job? I tried to explain. He didn't appear too impressed. What kind of books did I read? he asked. I told him Ring Lardner and Mark Twain. What else? Well, it happens that a month or so before, Professor Morris Raphael Cohen of the City College of New York had lectured at the university. So I said Morris Raphael Cohen, though I had read none of his writings. Mr. Purvis asked if I was of Hebrew extraction. I told him yes. I don't remember much else of the conversation, though it was polite. He thanked me and said he'd let me know. I never heard from him again. What did I do wrong? To think that I might have been a member of the FBI. Oh well.

Later, he describes visits to his home from FBI agents, in the 1950s, as they built their dossier on him. In gleeful hindsight, he says his wife Ida treated the agents with contempt and tried to shoo them out. "I, of course, was terribly embarrassed," Studs twinkles. "I myself was hospitable at all times."

I seated them. I offered them choices of Scotch or bourbon. I had triple shots in mind. Invariably, they refused. Once, I suggested vodka, making it quite clear it was domestic. I thought I was quite amusing. At no time did our visitors laugh. Nor did my wife. I felt bad. I did so want to make them feel at home. I never succeeded. [...]

After several such visits, with a notable lack of response on their part, my patience, I must admit, did wear thin. On one occasion, a visitor took out his notebook and studied it. Our son, five years old at the time, peered over his shoulder. The guest abruptly shut the book. The boy was startled.

"Why did you do that?" I asked.

"He was peeking in my book."

"He's five years old."

"This is government information."

"Is it pornographic?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Isn't it fit for a child to see?"

"This is serious."

"Does it have dirty words or dirty pictures?"

"What??"

To what he calls his last run-in with the FBI, he brought none of his elfin charm. "It was a telephone call. I was not in the best of moods," Terkel writes.

In sorting through my records, preparing for my disk jockey program, I had dropped a 78 rpm. It smashed into a million pieces. It was a collectors item: "Joe Louis Blues." Lyrics by Richard Wright. Vocal by Paul Robeson. Accompaniment, Count Basie and his band. I was furious as I answered the phone.

"Are you Louis Terkel, known as Studs?"

"Yeah!" Damn my clumsiness.

"This is Martin Shea, FBI." It was a rich, stentorian bass. Strong, firmly American.

"Cut the shit. Who is it? Eddie?" I was in no mood for badinage.

"Shea of the FBI." A note of uncertainty. An octave higher than before. A baritone.

"Fer Chrissake, don't fuck around! Jimmy, ya sonafabitch!"

"I'm Shea of the FBI!" Another octave up. A mezzo-soprano. I was quite certain it was he. My fury, though, was uncontrollable. All the more so because he was he.

"Look, fucko. Keep this up and I'll kick the shit out of ya!"

Really! I'm so flabby I can't swat a mosquito.

The voice was higher now. It was a countertenor. No, it was a despairing falsetto. A castrato, that was it.

"I'm Shea of the FBI!"

"You prick ..."

A click. He had hung up. From Feodor Chaliapin to Alfred Deller. It was a remarkable piece of virtuosity, surpassing even Yma Sumac. That was the last I heard from the FBI. Oh well.

Oh well.

David Murray blogs regularly at Writing Boots.