- 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 IF SLANG BROUGHT WIN- chell notice, it was gossip that brought him to national prominence and that would constitute his most important contribution to journalism. So closely was Winchell identified with gossip in the late twenties and thirties that many readers thought it had sprung full-blown from his head. It hadn’t; when he began his column, there were already newspapers and magazines on the journalistic margins dedicated to rumor. But what Winchell did, according to one press historian, was “to gossip more intimately about the more personal concerns of private persons than any journalist had ever dared habitually to do before.”
The precise origins of his invention are unclear, and Winchell himself muddied the waters with several conflicting versions. One had him collecting bits of gossip but being thwarted by his editor from publishing them because the information wasn’t verified. “I was giving them hot news, and the dumb bastards were throwing them on the floor,” he groused. Finally, Winchell gathered a series of items one Monday and sneaked them past the editor.
The effect was revolutionary and, as it turned out, enduring. It was one thing for marginal publications like Town Topics and Broadway Brevities to print who was romancing whom, whose marriages were in jeopardy, which couples were about to have children, who was consorting with gangsters, who had welshed on a debt, who was seriously ill, and a hundred other secrets, peccadilloes, and imbroglios. It was entirely another matter for these items to be printed in a mainstream publication, even one as disreputable as the Graphic . “People could scarcely believe what they saw in print,” remembered one Broadwayite. “All the old secrets of personal sex relations—who was sleeping with whom—were exposed to the public gaze. . . . The buzz of comment and criticism and alarm spread from Broadway to Park Avenue.”
Winchell delighted in knocking down the wall that separated them from us, the world of celebrity from the quotidian world of his readers. (To one who protested, he explained, “I’m a shitheel.") He loved the image of himself as Peek’s Blab Boy or Little Boy Peep, the journalistic maverick who broke the taboo against reporting on private doings. And he reaped the reward. “One day he was a nobody,” recalled a Broadway ticket broker, “and the next time you looked, everybody was reading his column and around Broadway you had to decide whether to fear him or favor him.” By 1928 Winchell was, said the New Yorker’s Robert Benchley, “one of the phenomena of modern newspaper writing.” Syndication that autumn brought him to all corners of the country, and one paper editorialized that “to understand Winchell is a test of Americanism, no less than to be able to explain the Constitution.”
A typical Winchell column contained roughly fifty items, many of them not much more than a subject and predicate, all written in Winchell’s pungent, slangy prose and all separated by his famous “three dots.” “Arthur Brown and Grace Brinkley were sealed six weeks ago in Philly . . . Elaine Arden is another of the secret brides . . . Who is the prominent theater producer (Gentile) whose divorce case will be an international sensation next month? . . . Paul Bern is ‘that way’ over Helen Chandler—but who isn’t? . . . They say ‘My Life,’ Isadora Duncan’s tome, was done by her sec and her ‘accident’ is sotto voced as phoul play.” And so it went, column after column, day after day, year after year, celebrity after celebrity, romance after romance, divorce after divorce, scandal after scandal.
Winchell struck such a nerve with the American public that by the time he moved from the Graphic to Hearst’s tabloid Daily Mirror in 1929 and gained the much wider syndication of Hearst’s King Features, it was said that he brought two hundred thousand readers with him. Analysts were scrambling to explain what made him so popular. “It was his contribution,” the drama critic and raconteur Alexander Woollcott wrote approvingly, “to go on strike against the vast impersonality which, at the time of his advent, was deadening the American newspaper into a kind of daily Congressional Record.” Others attributed it to his having expanded the purview of American journalism to places heretofore hidden to the public, still others to his having captured the heedless spirit of the twenties.
There was truth in each of these analyses, but what contemporary observers caught up in the novelty of Walter Winchell overlooked was the appeal of the bitter subtext of the gossip he purveyed. Himself nursing deep resentments, Winchell understood that gossip was a weapon that empowered his readers. Invading the lives of the famous and revealing their secrets brought them to heel, humanized them, and in humanizing them demonstrated that they were no better than we and in many cases worse. Or as Winchell once put it to an associate, “Democracy is where everybody can kick everybody else’s ass,” adding, “but you can’t kick Winchell’s.”