- Historic Sites
The most powerful columnist who ever lived single-handedly made our current culture of celebrity— and then was destroyed by the tools he had used to build it
November 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 7
“WHY WALTER WINCHELL?” I have been asked repeatedly during the years I have been working on a biography of him. Why someone so passé or someone so beneath contempt as also to be beneath biography? There are, I believe, two sets of reasons a biographer chooses a subject: the ones he knows at the outset and the subliminal ones he only discovers along the way, although the latter often prove to have been the more powerful lure and to say more about the subject as well.
I am not of a generation that knew very much about the gossip columnist and radio commentator Walter Winchell or that experienced him when he was in full flush of his power in the thirties, forties, and early fifties. I remember him from my childhood primarily as the clipped narrator of “The Untouchables” and less distinctly as a relic from a paleolithic era of American culture when men wore snap-brim gray fedoras (Winchell helped popularize the hat) and tight suits with expansive lapels, not as one of the emblematic figures of the century.
So the initial appeal of Walter Winchell as a biographical subject was to the cultural historian in me, who recognized the extent of his impudent power and its implications. I knew that Winchell was “the country’s best-known and most widely read journalist as well as among its most influential,” as The New York Times eulogized him when he died in 1972, long after his power had ebbed, but I also knew that even this characterization failed to convey his real might. In ways that would be impossible for any contemporary journalist, Walter Winchell spread rumors, set styles, forged national opinion, built careers and ruined others, popularized books, plays, and movies, changed the language, waged feuds, excoriated some politicians and promoted the programs of others, articulated the public mood, and, perhaps above all, helped inaugurate the culture of celebrity in which we now perforce all live.
By one estimate, fifty million Americans (out of an adult population of roughly seventy-five million) either listened to his weekly radio program or read his daily column, which at its height was syndicated in more than two thousand newspapers—according to one observer, the “largest continuous audience ever possessed by a man who was neither politician nor divine.” One report attributed nearly half the readership of the Hearst newspaper chain to WinchelPs column. Presidents courted him, and government officials of America’s foreign enemies castigated him by name. For a time you could walk down any street on a warm Sunday night at nine o’clock and hear his disembodied voice wafting from open windows, giving ghostly validation to his own slogan: “Winchell . . . HE SEES ALL ... HE KNOWS ALL .”
He wrote, “I didn’t want to be hungry, homeless or anonymous.” Especially anonymous.
In his prime he had the power of an avenging angel. Over the years he was responsible for discovering or boosting the careers of Arthur Godfrey, Jackie Gleason, Buddy Ebsen, Frank Sinatra, Rowan & Martin, and scores of others for whom an “orchid” from Winchell in the column or on the broadcast would mean months of bookings. He single-handedly made Hellzapoppin a Broadway hit by praising it when every critic lambasted it. But he would also, through his relentless campaigns, be responsible for helping destroy the careers of many others: Josephine Baker, Rep. Martin Dies, the radio interviewer Barry Gray, and the theater producer Earl Carroll. One target of his wrath, Ethel Barrymore, said, “It is a sad comment on American manhood that Walter Winchell is allowed to exist.”