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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
This man who became the center of national attention was himself a product of neglect, anger, and resentment. He had been born Walter Winschel on April 7, 1897, in the Harlem section of Manhattan. His grandfather Chaim Weinschel was a cantor who had emigrated from Russia hoping to win regard in America as a poet and man of letters, and though he failed to gain literary recognition, he passed his curse of expectation on to his children, each of whom craved gentility. Chaim’s eldest son and Walter’s father, Jacob, wore spats, carried a cane, and even redubbed himself “Jack de Winchel,” but he barely eked out a living selling silk for women’s underwear, and he was an embarrassment to the rest of the Winchel clan, reminding them how close they all stood to failure.
To the humiliations of his poverty were added the further disruptions of Jacob’s infidelity; Walter and his younger brother, Algernon, were frequently shuttled off to relatives as domestic storms brewed and then passed. Neglected at home and an indifferent student at school, where he was absent nearly as often as he was present, Walter won some of the attention he needed by appearing at a theater across the street from his apartment on 116th Street, singing songs between the movies with two other neighborhood boys, one of whom was George Jessel. The Imperial Trio, as they called themselves, promptly folded, but not before being spotted by a talent scout who invited them to audition for a new vaudeville show mounted by the songwriter Gus Edwards. It was “Gus Edwards’ 1910 Song Revue” that provided Walter Winchell passage from the deprivations of Harlem. “A lot of people are going to psychiatrists today to find out what they want,” he would say years later, recalling his decision at thirteen to leave his family for vaudeville. “I knew what I didn’t want. ... I didn’t want to be hungry, homeless or anonymous.” Especially anonymous.
He spent his adolescence on the road, traversing the country in the company of some twenty other children. By 1917 Walter had grown too old for Gus Edwards’s kid shows, and a pretty, spunky young fellow performer was imploring him to form a double act with her. Walter finally succumbed, partly because there were no other offers and partly because he had fallen in love with her.
Over the following two years Walter Winchell, as he now called himself, and Rita Greene played the small-time Eastern vaudeville circuits, singing, dancing, and telling jokes, largely in the American backwaters. After a brief stint in the Navy as a clerk in the waning months of World War I, Winchell decided to work his way to Chicago to see if Winchell & Greene could land a long-term booking from the Western agents, who were less imperious than the Eastern ones. If that failed, he decided to look for another line of work.
It was during this Western tour in the spring of 1920 that Winchell, as a lark, began composing a little newsletter for his vaudeville company. Filled with gossip, puns, and jokes, it tickled the troupe, and its author was soon sending items to Billboard and a new vaudeville trade paper called The Vaudeville News , which inaugurated a column of WinchelPs contributions under the banner “Merciless Truths.”
As the season wore on, Rita became tired, homesick, and depressed and begged Winchell to ask for a release from their contract. He did, and that November Winchell Sc Greene returned to New York with a nest egg of fifteen hundred dollars but only the vaguest plan of what to do with it. Winchell anxiously began petitioning the editor of The Vaudeville News for a job—he hadn’t been paid for any of his contributions—and got one only after agreeing to settle for twenty-five dollars a week, far less than he and Greene had been earning on the stage.
He was leaving vaudeville after a decade, but as the columnist Heywood Broun would later write, “the years he spent as a small-time hoofer constituted a period of preparation.” Vaudeville had made Walter Winchell into an entertainer. It had taught him how to grab an audience’s attention and keep it, and he would carry this knowledge with him into journalism, becoming, in effect, a journalistic showman and a model for generations of future journalists who would also regard themselves as entertainers.
Equally important, vaudeville had honed his resentments. He would always remember the half-filled houses, the mediocre orchestras, the indifferent agents, the difficult managers, the dank dressing rooms, the daily anxieties of making good. Most of all, he would remember the audiences that “gaped up at you—mouths wide open and eyes colder than a headliner’s stare” with their "'go ahead and make me like your act!’ attitude.” And just as he carried his instinct for entertainment with him, so would he carry his hostility. WinchelPs thirst for revenge would always lurk just below the surface.