- 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
Now, by exploiting the populist component of his column, Winchell was able to survive the end of the Roaring Twenties, with which he had been so closely identified, while so many other emblems of the age—Texas Guinan, Al Capone, Jimmy Walker —perished. By the early thirties, when Depression America was venting its own anger against economic royalists, Winchell was not only revealing the transgressions of the elites but needling industrialists and exposing bureaucratic cruelties, so much so that he became, in the words of one paper, a “people’s champion” who “picks out the happenings of the world, selfish, heartless, moronic and so on, which arouses our spleen, and then proceeds to lash them with savage oratory.”
Winchell’s certainly wasn’t a doctrinaire populism. It was primitive, often not much more than gibes and anecdotes, but there was at least one observer who understood the potential program, especially now that Winchell was reaching an ever larger audience through a new weekly fifteen-minute radio program of gossip and commentary. As Winchell later told it, Franklin Roosevelt invited him to the White House shortly after his first inauguration just to make the columnist’s acquaintance and chat. Winchell repaid the courtesy by instantly becoming one of Roosevelt’s loudest boosters, even organizing a President’s Day the last Sunday in April.
With the political mantle thus bestowed upon him, Winchell had achieved a credibility that few other celebrities had and a celebrity that no political commentator had ever had. On the one hand, Twentieth Century-Fox enticed him to star in two films, both of them box-office successes: Wake Up and Live and Love and Hisses . On the other hand, the columnist Drew Pearson was calling him “one of the most powerful liberal forces in the country.” In July 1938 a Time cover story said the ubiquitous Winchell “had never before been so fully seen, heard, read or paid.”
In some ways, though, the best or at least the most admirable was yet to come. As early as February 1933 Winchell, by his own definition an “intuitive Jew,” was attacking the new German chancellor for his anti-Semitism and assailing him with daily taunts, most of them questioning Hitler’s masculinity. ("I believe that a man’s private life and preferences are his own,” he concluded one column in 1933, “but Hitler is so dangerous and such a faker, that any weapon can be used with justification.") Within a year he had focused his sights on domestic fascists too, applying for a commission in the naval reserve so that he would have some official imprimatur for fighting them. He had also begun funneling information on pro-Nazi activities to the Federal Bureau of Investigation chief J. Edgar Hoover, thus forging one of the most important of his professional relationships.
With the administration’s encouragement, Winchell launched a campaign against isolationists like Sen. Burton Wheeler of Montana, who fought against American involvement before Pearl Harbor and against Roosevelt after it. The right-wingers reviled FDR and feared him, but destroying Roosevelt was beyond their power. They fastened much of the enmity instead on his obstreperous cheerleader.
Why was a rapscallion like Winchell allowed to be a member of the naval reserve? they wanted to know. And why hadn’t he been called to active duty? Winchell in fact was eager to go on active duty. He kept pressing the Navy and even the President. Roosevelt told him he was too important in his role as broadcaster, but eventually, in December 1942, FDR succumbed and enlisted Winchell to conduct a fact-finding mission in Brazil. The assignment only intensified Winchell’s enemies’ fire—and his own. He returned from Brazil criticizing not only the members of Congress who “guessed so wrong about Pearl Harbor” but “all those damned fools who re-elected them.” That led Rep. Clare Huffman of Michigan to demand Winchell’s court-martial. Meanwhile, Martin Dies, the chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, was threatening to subpoena Winchell’s scripts to prove that he was part of a “Smear Bund” out to destroy any opposition to Roosevelt.