Walter Winchell

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IN DISMISSING THEM, HOWEVER, he failed to gauge the depth of their opposition to him, especially as his fame grew and his threat intensified. To cultural conservatives everywhere, Walter Winchell wasn’t just a passing phenomenon; he was the advance guard of a dangerous new social order in which elites that had governed the culture for nearly a century were being forced to give way to newly enfranchised urbanités, immigrants, minorities, blue-collar workers, and others who began flexing their cultural muscles in the twenties. “If people like to read the slang you write and the junk you prepare and publishers pay you for that stuff, what is going to happen to art, literature and intelligence?” the theater producer Morris Gest asked Winchell when the columnist was first achieving national recognition. That indeed was the question.

But still primarily for the conservatives. When Winchell expanded his range in the early thirties from gossip to political news and commentary, most of the liberal intellectual community continued to embrace him because he was promoting liberal causes, though by the late thirties cracks were beginning to appear even among this group. The danger, as his onetime supporter The New Yorker expressed it in a scathing six-part profile, was that Winchell was not one of them. He was not part of any elite. As his readers and listeners knew, Winchell was a true democrat, a general of the ascendant mass culture. In his emotionalism and the passions it inflamed, in his gossipmongering, in his strident populism, in his disdain for the polite and intellectual, above all, in his power , Winchell was the personification of Walter Lippmann’s nightmare of the uninformed, uneducated, unreasonable mass.

Which is why Walter Winchell had to be brought to heel, a task that became both easier to accomplish and more urgent when his Red-baiting politics in the postwar period offended his long-time liberal allies. All his foes needed was opportunity; they got it on October 16, 1951, at Winchell’s headquarters, the Cub Room of the tony Stork Club.

At eleven-fifteen that evening the black singer Josephine Baker, then appearing at the Roxy, entered the Stork with a small party and ordered a meal. According to Baker, they waited an hour for the food, only to be told that neither of the two items Miss Baker had requested was available. Suspecting that she was being snubbed because of her race, Baker phoned the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to complain.

By the next morning the snub, revealing the discriminatory practices of the Stork and its owner, Sherman BiIlingsley, had become a cause célébre. Winchell had been in the Cub Room at the time, but he claimed he hadn’t seen the offense and had left for a movie screening shortly after Baker made her phone call. Still, the NAACP’s executive secretary, Walter White, asked Winchell to decry the Stork’s discrimination on his broadcast, and Winchell agreed to do so if White provided a letter exculpating him from any charges of racism. White happily complied, knowing that Winchell had been a fervent advocate of civil rights both publicly and privately.

As it turned out, Winchell read White’s telegram, which lauded him for past efforts, on the air but then issued only a general denunciation of racism rather than the specific criticism of his old friend Billingsley and the Stork for which White had asked. White demanded time from Winchell’s network, ABC, and Baker appeared on Barry Gray’s radio interview show to accuse Winchell of not having come to her aid. On the defensive Winchell promptly took the offensive, branding Baker a Nazi sympathizer, a Communist, and an anti-Semite.

In deploying his usual vicious tactics in this highly sensitive matter, Winchell opened a salient to his opponents on the left. As an alleged racist he was suddenly fair game not only for his old enemies on the right but also for those who had once been his allies and had now come to distrust and fear him.

They used WinchelPs own reckless methods to unseat him. Ed Sullivan, then a gossip columnist at the New York Daily News and a longtime Winchell foe, spent two nights on the Barry Gray program assailing him. LyIe Stuart, then publishing a monthly newspaper called Exposé , devoted a cover story to the “truth about Walter Winchell,” which turned out to be a long list of misdeeds. Most seriously, in January 1952 the New York Post launched a twenty-four-part series, delving into the deep recesses of his life and concluding that Walter Winchell was a public menace.