Thursday, July 10, 2008

Walter Winchell

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Winchell was a voice the baby boom Kvers heard often, but he was past his prime then.
from a review of Neal Gabler's biography of Walter Winchell
Walter Winchell was born in Harlem on April 7, 1897. As an adult, Winchell recalled an unhappy childhood of poverty, deprivation and neglect, surrounded by people who insulted and reviled him because he was poor. Author Neal Gabler says Winchell's childhood made him antagonistic, suspicious and resentful throughout his life. As an adolescent, he found the attention he craved and the skills he would use later in his career on the vaudeville stage. From vaudeville, Gabler says Winchell learned the values of mass culture and how to appear to be incautiously independent, unselfconscious and liberated. In reality, he was none of these. Gabler maintains "vaudeville made Walter Winchell an entertainer for life and in life." When he was 12, Winchell taught himself to dance and was hired as a "song plugger" at a decrepit movie theater across from his apartment building. Song pluggers sang new tunes before the movie began, often leading the audience in group singing designed to sell them sheet music. When he was 13, Winchell won an audition with six other boys to fill parts in a show called the "Song Revue" that toured the country for a year on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Winchell performed with vaudeville companies and in a two-person act with his first wife, Rita Greene, until he was 23 when he escaped the stage to the poorly paid world of trade journalism as an assistant editor of "The Vaudeville News." Gabler says there is no evidence Winchell ever thought about becoming a reporter. He had little formal education and certainly no training in journalism. Nonetheless, he was driven to find a way to earn a living more secure than that of a vaudevillian. Attracted by the power of publicity that was indispensable to a vaudeville show, he leveraged his stage training, distinctive voice and theatrical personality into a character that looked like a traditional journalist. Rather than report, analyze and interpret legitimate news, however, Winchell became a big-name media gossip with enormous impact in a crucial period of 20th century American life. Winchell worked incredibly hard for his fame. By 1933, he was internationally famous for his Jergens Lotion-sponsored ABC radio program, his movie roles and newsreel narrations, personal appearances and his daily "The Column" in the New York Mirror, syndicated nationally by Hearst's King Features. Alexander Woolcott wrote, "I have never been able to get far enough into the North woods not to find some trapper there who would quote Winchell's latest observation." Winchell's power did not derive from his accuracy; he was often very wrong. He never admitted mistakes as his fault, never issued retractions. Gabler says "The Column" was so sacrosanct and café society's faith in publicity so devout that Winchell spoke and wrote with an oracular authority. "If Winchell says so, it's gotta be true," said Lucille Ball about a Winchell report she was expecting a child (she was). Journalist-turned-film-producer David Brown was shocked to read in Winchell one day that his wife was divorcing him, then heard from her lawyer the next morning.
Winchell built his huge radio and newspaper following with a quirky blend of serious news seasoned with trivial theatrical gossip, topped off with stinging personal comment. He wrapped it all in a pop entertainment package that imitated journalistic form. He would give the same urgency and drama to a story of 10,000 people killed in an Ethiopian earthquake as to one about a cross-eyed man whose eyes were uncrossed when he was hit by a truck. Winchell's loyalists patronized him for his vicious attacks on famous people and his implied promise to tell them what was going to happen before it actually occurred. His shtick irritated traditional journalism and disgusted intellectuals who stumbled into listening or reading him. Gabler says Winchell was successful in the 1930s because Americans in the Depression distrusted traditional authority. And he nails the main reason for Winchell's success: for most folks, Walter Winchell was fun.
His radio audience lived primarily in eastern states and in urban areas with populations over 50,000. New York Herald Tribune radio critic John Crosby explained Winchell as an anxiety-monger who brilliantly captured the national mood in times of uncertainty. He added, "There's a definite feeling of guilt connected with listening to Walter Winchell." Gabler reports Winchell was at the top of national radio ratings just after Pearl Harbor and for several months in 1947-48 as Americans faced the threat of another war, this time with the Soviet Union. At times, his radio audience was larger than those of Bob Hope and Jack Benny.
Walter Winchell enjoyed a deep insider relationship with Franklin Roosevelt's White House and considered FDR a father figure and his benefactor. Just like Winchell's back-scratching friendship with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, the Roosevelt-Winchell association was a quid pro quo arrangement. Roosevelt guided Winchell politically for years, elevating him from the mud of gossip to occasionally credible political commentary. In return, Winchell flacked for FDR - and for Hoover - delivering the President's spin to Walter's massive radio and newspaper audiences. Roosevelt was also Winchell's apologist, lending him the power of the Oval Office when Walter needed protection. FDR's death marked the beginning of the end of Winchell's career.
Gabler compares Winchell to FDR's successor, Harry Truman and in the process, helps readers understand the real Winchell. He says Truman was the "quintessence of nineteenth century rural Midwestern America, Walter of twentieth-century eastern urban America. Truman was self-effacing, Walter self-aggrandizing. Truman was dispassionate, Walter the very model of hot unreason. Truman was a moderator by instinct, Walter a crusader. Truman was a private man thrust into a public role, Walter was a man without any private life at all, a man always on stage."
After bowing at Roosevelt's throne, Winchell found no majesty in Truman. He lacked the theatricality Roosevelt had in abundance that was so important to Winchell. What's more, Truman would never court Winchell as Roosevelt had and Walter resented it.
One of Winchell's sharpest critics was Time magazine. The magazine infuriated Winchell with steel fisted jabs wrapped in velvet gloves, asking him to show "a greater sense of responsibility in deciding what is legitimate public news and what is mere trouble-making gossip." Winchell was always happy to return the disrespect. As he became a strident, scare-mongering critic of Russian communism, he lashed out at Time. "Whittaker Chambers, Russian spy, started as top editor at Time mag in 1939 and not long after that (sic) mag could find nothing good about anything this American reporter wrote or said."
Because he'd been on the air, in print and in the national public eye so long, Winchell's audience had come to know what it could expect and developed a familiar, simple trust in him. Roosevelt's insider tips and interpretation of nuance had been extraordinarily important to Winchell in this regard. However after FDR's death, Winchell's naiveté and questionable judgment appeared with increasing frequency and America's trust in him declined. Two examples are telling. Shortly after Churchill's 1946 anti-Russian "Iron Curtain" speech at Westminster College in Missouri, Winchell wrote a piece praising Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, commending his "stern realism." Even though Winchell had always detested communism, it was hard for him to muster the same antagonism toward it as he had against Nazi fascism. Despite evolving into a staunch anti-Soviet, scaring America by calling for preparation for war against Russia, the Stalin piece weakened the Winchell mystique.
He pushed his own popularity over a cliff with strong support for Senator Joseph McCarthy. In fact, he was McCarthy's loudest cheerleader during the Army-McCarthy hearings. Winchell was later subpoenaed by the Watkins bipartisan congressional committee investigating McCarthy's communist witch hunt, interrogating him about sources for his "reporting." Winchell never revealed them, but word on the street made him a stooge for McCarthy and his committee's counsel, Roy Conn. While McCarthy faded from public consciousness, Winchell continued to defend him. As he did, Gabler says people came to see Winchell as a "crazy reactionary who destroyed careers, exacted revenge, baited alleged Reds, flung lies and half-truths and generally engaged in the worst excesses of this shameful period. And it was all true ... he had become a right-wing fanatic himself."
Toward the end of his career, Winchell confessed the fear that drove him constantly to self-promotion. "Who else will write about me?" he asked. Perhaps more revealing was Winchell's reaction to criticism that he'd talked too fast on one of his broadcasts. "If I slowed up," he said, "listeners would understand what I'm saying. Then they'd realize how unimportant it is and turn me off." Gabler says Winchell was always sensitive to the thin thread of celebrity, fearing it eventually would snap and banish him to the unknown. Rather than snap, though, Winchell's celebrity simply stretched into irrelevancy. Lonely and far removed from the center of public attention at the end of his frenetic professional and turbulent personal life, he died in California on February 20, 1972, a few months before his 75th birthday.
Walter Winchell entertained millions of Americans for decades by appealing to base human instincts. He was a far cry from a critical thinking, reflective journalist. On the contrary, he was a simplistic, opportunistic gossip who knew how to grab the public's attention. As a journalist, he lurked in the intellectual shadows of contemporaries Walter Lippmann, H.L. Mencken, Dorothy Thompson, Boake Carter and David Lawrence, each of whom overpowered Winchell with their insight.
Gabler's excellent book encourages a reflection on Winchell's legacy. He is the only American columnist / commentator ever to hold simultaneous top national broadcast ratings and print circulations in unrelated media properties and he did it for almost 20 years. His generation-long dominance of the American media-consuming audience of the day makes Walter Winchell arguably the most powerful individual voice in American journalistic history. In addition, he was one of the major characters who helped build U.S. radio. He was one of the first practitioners of tabloid journalism. Some would consider him the father of today's chatty, siren-chasing television content that masquerades as news.
There is no question Walter Winchell left an extraordinarily large footprint on 20th century America from the Great Depression through the years immediately after World War II. Tens of millions of Americans formed opinions reading and listening to him gossip, speculate and ridicule famous people. This legacy is why Winchell by Neal Gabler is important: the book helps us understand how a great deal of American public opinion was formed in a crucial time of U.S. history. Much of that opinion came from the typewriter and voice of Walter Winchell.

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