Penthouse Retrospective

by Studs Terkel Originally Published: October, 1980

The American Dream | 40 Years Ago This Month

I’m pessimistic as to my vision of the American Dream. It can’t be fulfilled as long as the few have the power to over-whelm the many.

The ones who run this country are the multinationals, the banks, the Fo’rtune Five Hundred. It also comes together at a point. There’s a commonality of interest. They don’t need a conspiracy. How many banks need to sit down and discuss how much they have to charge for interest rates? How many oil companies need to sit down and discuss how to distribute oil and how much to charge? No need.

If the American people really knew the facts, they could make a fair judgment. You gotta trust ’em. But newspapers and the radio present issues superficially at best. In television you hardly get a story longer than two or three minutes. How the hell can you present an issue in that time?

The buzzer sounds. He must go to the floor in 15 minutes. He sighs.

I’d like to see an America where so much power was not in the hands of the few. Where everybody’d get a fair shake. The establishment wants uneven odds. It’s marking the cards. Even though you’re a better poker player than somebody else, you mark the cards to make damn sure you don’t lose.

Maybe the Indians knew it all along. They smelled it way back. Know what they say? Custer had it coming. (Laughs)

Jill Robinson

She is the daughter of a former Hollywood film producer.

Growing up in Hollywood was the only reality I knew. To me, a studio head was a man who controlled everyone’s lives. It was like being the principal. It was someone you were scared of, someone who knew everything, knew what you were thinking, knew where you were going, knew when you were driving on the studio lot at 80 miles an hour, knew that you had not been on the set in time. The scoldings the stars got! There was a paternalism. It was feudal. It was an archaic system designed to keep us playing let’s pretend, make believe.

They had doctors at the studios: “Oh, you’re just fine, honey. Take this and you’ll be just fine.” These stars, who influenced our dreams, had no more to do with their own lives than fairies had or elves.

My mother was of upper-class Jewish immigrants. They lost everything in the depression. My father tried to do everything he could to revive my mother’s idea of what life had been like for her father in the court of the czar. Whether her father was ever actually in the court is irrelevant. My father tried to make it classy for her. It never was good enough, never could be. She couldn’t be a Boston Brahmin.

Russian-Jewish immigrants came from the shtetls and ghettos out to Hollywood: this combination jungle-tropical paradise crossed with a nomadic desert. In this magical place that had no relationship to any reality they had ever seen before in their lives, or that anyone else had ever seen, they decided to create their idea of an Eastern aristocracy. I’m talking about the kind of homes they would never be invited to. It was, of course, over-done. It was also the baronial mansions or the dukes’ homes that their parents could never have gotten into. Goldwyn, Selznick, Zukor, Lasky, Warner. Hollywood — the American Dream — is a Jewish idea.

In a sense it’s a Jewish revenge on America. It combines the Puritan ethic — there’s no sex, no ultimate satisfaction — with baroque magnificence. The happy ending was the invention of Russian Jews designed to drive Americans crazy.

It was a marvelous idea. What could make them crazy but to throw back at them their small towns? Look how happy it is here. Compare the real small towns with the small town on the MGM back lot.

There’s no resemblance.

The street is Elm Street. It’s so green, so bright, of lawns and trees. It’s a town somewhere in the center of America. It’s got the white fence and the big porch around the house. And it’s got three and four generations. They’re turn-of-the-century people before they learned how to yell at each other. It’s everybody sitting down to dinner and looking at each other, and everyone looks just wonderful. No one is sick. No one’s mad at anyone else. It’s all so simple. It’s all exactly what I say it is.

The daughter is Judy Garland when she believed in Aunt Em. The boy is Robert Walker before he realized he was gonna drink himself to death. And love and marriage would be innocence and tenderness. And no sex.

The dream to me was to be blonde, tall, and able to disappear. I loved movies about boys running away to sea. I wanted to be the laconic, cool, tall, Aryan male. Precisely the opposite of the angry, anxious, sort of mottle-haired Jewish girl.

I wanted to be this guy who could walk away from any situation that got a little rough. Who could walk away from responsibility. The American Dream, the idea of the happy ending, is an avoidance of responsibility and commitment. If something ends happily, you don’t have to worry about it tomorrow.

Either the American Dream has changed a lot since we first learned about it, or some people have some truly crazy dreams these days.

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