Before 'Humans Of New York,' Studs Terkel Showed Dignity In Every People In 'Working'

Sep 25, 2016
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to spend the next couple of minutes talking about work and what work means. In a few minutes, we'll hear from the author of a new book about the African-American women who found work with NASA and, against all odds, became instrumental to the first manned trip to space. The book is called "Hidden Figures," and my conversation with author Margot Lee Shetterly is coming up. We'll also hear about the performer who gives a voice to working people in song, Bruce Springsteen. He has a new memoir, and we'll hear about that.

But first, we want to listen to some of the interviews that inspired a best-seller and a musical about work more than 40 years ago. In the early 1970s, author Studs Terkel went around the country interviewing people about their jobs, most of them not very glamorous.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STUDS TERKEL: How would you describe your work?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'm a processing clerk.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm a carpenter from South Carolina.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Boring, monotonous.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Your mouth gets tired, tired of talking.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I started working when I was about 12 years old.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I mean, you got to work. Nothing wrong with it - people have been doing it for years.

MARTIN: The result was a book called "Working." It became a best-seller and even inspired a Broadway musical. "Working" struck a chord for the same reason a project like the popular Humans Of New York blog does now. It revealed the dignity and even the poetry in the lives of people you see all around you. But almost none of the actual interviews conducted by Studs Terkel have ever been heard until now. For decades, the reel-to-reel tapes were packed away in Terkel's home office. Our partner, Radio Diaries, along with Project &, went through them for this series, Working Then and Now. Today, we hear Terkel's interview with Eddie Jaffe, a legendary New York press agent famous for publicity stunts on behalf of his clients.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERKEL: So how many years have you been a press agent, roughly?

EDDIE JAFFE: Well, you know, I started 32 years ago. And in the course of the years, I did everything from strippers to a thing called roller derby, Hell on Wheels, from gangsters to Billy Graham.

TERKEL: Really? Gangsters to Billy Graham?

JAFFE: Yeah.

TERKEL: You handled both?

JAFFE: Yeah. But don't forget, Studs, that I spent most of my life learning techniques that are of no value anymore.

TERKEL: What does that mean?

JAFFE: A client would come to me and say, I want to be a star. Get me attention. And I - maybe I'd get her in Life magazine. Today, she can go on the "Carson" show - if she can get on there - and get more attention that I could've gotten her in a year. And this has helped destroy press agentry as we knew it.

TERKEL: Well, in these 30 years of being quite an imaginative press agent, you feel you've done meaningful work?

JAFFE: Well, there was a physical kick out of seeing things you're responsible for in the papers. But being a publicity man is a confession of weakness, in a way. In other words, it's for people who don't have the guts to try to get attention for themselves. You spend your whole life telling the world how great somebody else is, and this is a frustrating thing.

TERKEL: Your imagination, you know, the ideas you had, do you feel it could've been used some other way?

JAFFE: Oh, sure. I mean, almost everybody, I think, looks back on their life and says, I wasted it. And being a press agent gives you a far greater opportunity to do this than almost any other occupation, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

JAFFE: I'll tell them five. I'll be out in five minutes.

TERKEL: Eddie, it's OK.

MARTIN: Eddie Jaffe interviewed by Studs Terkel. Jaffe died in 2003 at the age of 89. Terkel died in 2008 at the age of 96. Our thanks to Radio Diaries podcast and to the Studs Terkel Archive at WFMT. Tomorrow on Morning Edition, Lev (ph) and Al give Studs Terkel some tips and tricks about parking cars in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.