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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
The war between Winchell and the old isolationists reached its climax when NBC, Walter’s radio network, agreed to grant Dies airtime to rebut Walter’s charges that HUAC was soft on Fascists. The “debate” occurred in Washington on March 26, 1944. Dies went first, calling Winchell the “Charlie McCarthy of the Smear Bund” (Roosevelt was, of course, the Edgar Bergen) and accusing him of promoting disunity and spreading propaganda. Winchell’s retort was uncharacteristically calm and reasoned: he reiterated his charges against HUAC but said that if there was any evidence of his own disloyalty, he should be taken into custody immediately. On the evidence of the reaction afterward, Winchell’s reasonableness had clearly won.
Had his career ended in 1944, he might have been remembered as a great, crusading journalist.
But Walter Winchell’s career didn’t end in 1944. It continued into the Cold War, when Winchell gradually shifted his fire from the vanished Nazi threat to the new threat of communism.
The postwar years were especially difficult ones for Winchell, though his radio popularity was, if anything, even greater than it had been. Winchell needed some clear political target at which to aim his anger; he needed Nazis to fight. When the clarity didn’t present itself, he imposed it, not only demonizing the Soviets, who could certainly be said to have deserved it, but also hurling wild charges at the Truman administration and irresponsibly exploiting national anxieties. Truman had sold out the country; war was imminent; America had to rearm. He told one reporter that America should drop the atomic bomb on Russia.
In this time of turbulence, as he sought to regain his political bearings, his personal life offered no solace. Consumed by the demands of the broadcast and the column, he had seen his wife, June, drift away to a twelve-acre estate in Westchester County while he spent most of his time in the city foraging for material. A daughter, Walda, was temperamental and rebellious. Strikingly beautiful with bright red hair, she had quit school, become an actress, married a soldier she had known for less than a day, separated from him that night, and two months later taken up with a would-be Broadway producer named Billy Cahn whom her parents so detested that they had her committed to a mental institution. (It was Winchell’s relentless campaign against Cahn that would inspire Sweet Smell of Success , the classic film about a megalomaniacal gossip columnist.) A son, Walt, Jr., was even less manageable. A gun fancier and Germanophile, he would later goose-step down the street in an obvious gesture to antagonize his father.
But what finally destroyed Walter Winchell had less to do with a lack of personal ballast or even with a perception of his political wrongheadedness than with what he had come to represent. What would finally destroy Walter Winchell were the forces he had roused over the years.
Not even the egomaniacal Winchell seemed to understand the extent to which he had become a symbol of cultural change. He had come along in the twenties, when the country had transformed itself from a rural nation to an urban one, from a homogeneous nation to a heterogeneous one, from a production-oriented society to a consumption-oriented one. It was a time of tremendous social dynamism, a time when American society was engaged in what one observer called a “revolt against dullness” and other analysts described as an abrupt shift of values from the Puritan to the modern.
Winchell seemed the very embodiment of the new, the scourge of the traditional. The so-called Smart Set of New York, which prided itself on its modernity, had immediately embraced him as an American original, a deliciously wicked phenomenon but essentially a harmless one. Journalistic traditionalists, of course, felt differently. They were appalled at the very things the sophisticates enjoyed—Winchell’s slang, his vivid prose, his impishness, his seeming unscrupulousness—but these people were, in Winchell’s words, “old-fashioned fogies” trying to impede the advance of the new, and Winchell didn’t take them very seriously.