- 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
But there was little time for hostility in those first months at The Vaudeville News . The twenty-three-year-old Walter Winchell was columnist, office boy, deputy editor, part-time photographer, salesman, and general factotum. And he loved it, throwing himself into the job with desperate energy. Days he spent racing down Broadway, mingling, glad-handing, joking, collecting items for the column, making himself known. Nights he spent at the National Vaudeville Association Club on Forty-sixth Street, working the grillroom, campaigning for himself as a Broadway figure. “I go the pace that kills,” he wrote in a poem for the News .
One early casualty was his marriage. In his autobiography Winchell described the end succinctly: “There was a minor quarrel, and one day Rita left a bundle for me at the NVA Club.” Rita would describe it differently. She remembered a violent, unprovoked row one night at the NVA in which Winchell slapped her and demanded she accompany him home. She did, then left. A few days later he asked that his clothes be sent to the NVA.
A little more than a year later, separated from Winchell but reluctant to divorce him, Rita was walking down Broadway when she caught him with another woman. As it turned out, the woman was a beautiful nineteen-yearold high-kick dancer named June Aster whom Rita remembered as having flirted with Winchell at the NVA Club. In fact, that spring at the NVA Winchell had attempted to interview Miss Aster for the News after hearing that she had taken in the child of a destitute fellow vaudevillian. As he would later tell it, Winchell was smitten by her voice, began a fervid pursuit, and wore down her resistance and convinced her to marry him. The date he always gave was May 11,1923. There was only one problem: He was still married to Rita.
Now Winchell entered the notorious world of tabloidia of which there may have been no more sordid example than Macfadden’s bizarre concoction. Issued on pink newsprint, the Graphic was a mélange of health tips, fulminations against doctors, photos of half-naked women, lovelorn advice, and sensationalism. The headlines the first day read: SHE GAVE UP ART FOR A BARONET and I KNOW WHO KILLED MY BROTHER .
Winchell started at the Graphic with equal measures of uncertainty and ; energy. Like his work on the News , his Graphic column, which he called “Your Broadway and Mine,” was a compendium of jokes, puns, showbusiness news, and slang. It was the last of these that made the biggest immediate impression on his readers and gave him his first cachet.
Winchell broke down the wall that separated the world of celebrity and his readers.
In the twenties slang not only had the force of novelty but was another form of self-identification for the consumers of the new mass culture that embraced tabloids, movies, picture magazines, and dozens of other new media. Like the linguistic inventions of hip-hop and rap today, slang aerated English to create a new language, a kind of subversive tongue that was especially attractive to young urban Americans. Slang was a nosethumbing, a fashion, an entertainment, a way of showing one was in the know when being in the know was an important differentiation, and Walter Winchell rapidly became, in the word of one speech professor, slang’s “dictator.”
Couples didn’t get married in Winchell’s column; they were “welded,” “lohengrinned,” “Adam-and-Eveing it.” They didn’t have fun; they made “whoopee!” They didn’t have babies; they had “blessed events.” And when they got divorced, they were “Renovated” or “phffft!” Movies were “moom pitchers,” and movie lovers “cinemaddicts.” Legs were “shafts.” Passion was “pash.” Debutantes were “debutramps.” Jews were “Joosh.”