Walter Winchell

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WINCHELL, OF COURSE, counterattacked, flaying Barry Gray and yelling that the Post editor James Wechsler had admitted to having been a member of the Young Communist League years ago. “A head for an eye,” Winchell brayed. But his malice only confirmed what his enemies were claiming: that Winchell was irresponsible, mean, megalomaniacal. And when he joined forces with Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who was then hunting Communists in the Truman administration with tactics no more responsible than WinchelPs, another subtext of the anti-Winchell campaign surfaced. In destroying Winchell and Winchellism, which is what his detractors had branded Winchell’s vitriol, they would also be helping destroy McCarthyism.

Still, the battle against Winchell was as much cultural as political. As the McCarthyites perceived it and as one of them, Whittaker Chambers, later articulated it, there was a “jagged fissure” in America “between the plain men and women of the nation and those who affected to act, think, and speak for them”—namely, a left-wing, Eastern, liberal elite. McCarthy had targeted that elite, and Winchell, not entirely without reason, had come to believe that it had targeted him. In a sense, then, it was the old battle between the cultural royalists and Winchell reconfigured now in political terms. Only this time Winchell would lose.

For Winchell, the worst of it was that his defeat took nearly two decades.

He would lose, in part, because he had picked the wrong allies. He would lose because his main instruments of power, the newspaper and the radio broadcast, were yielding to other media, particularly television, which Winchell found himself unable to navigate. He would lose because he had lost the support system that had sustained him in his heyday. And he would lose because his populism had transmogrified into something cruel and unmanageable, just as his detractors had charged. Once a lovable rogue, Walter Winchell had become detestable.

FOR WINCHELL, THE WORST OF IT was that the defeat took nearly two decades—two decades of small humiliations, little nicks in the armor that had been Walter Winchell. Eventually he lost a libel suit to Wechsler and the Post for having accused them of toeing the Communist line, lost his broadcast after comparing the Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson to the transsexual Christine Jorgensen, lost his flagship paper when the Daily Mirror folded in 1963 and his column a few years later, lost his wife to a retreat in the Arizona desert far from Broadway, lost his son to suicide and his daughter to her flightiness and his own willfulness, lost his reputation as a populist, lost everything. When he died of prostate cancer on February 20,1972, there was no vestige of the power he had once held, only the legacy of the media environment he had helped create and the culture of celebrity that had sprung up around his column and has flourished ever since.

 

He had also lost his place in history. After he had been thoroughly discredited, there was really no place for Walter Winchell there, except as an example of populism run amuck. To most historians Walter Winchell seemed an evil man and a trivial one when placed alongside journalistic Olympians like Walter Lippmann and Edward R. Murrow, although their influence was substantially smaller than his. He certainly wasn’t to be taken seriously. WinchelPs daughter, Walda, attempted to donate his papers to academic institutions, but there was always some hitch, and the papers lay unexamined for eighteen years until Walda’s daughter was forced to auction them piecemeal. Although no institution was willing to preserve the collection intact, taken together it provides invaluable documentation of the origins of the culture of celebrity.

And so we come to the reasons I didn’t know when I embarked on this project. I thought I had chosen Walter Winchell, as I said earlier, because he possessed power and exerted a lasting effect on our culture and because he was a serious force that had never been taken seriously. But I realized as I began to learn more about his life that Winchell appealed to the outsider in me as well as to the renegade historian. Even as I deplored his right-wing politics, I respected his disdain for the custodians of the social order and enjoyed his power vicariously as his readers and listeners must have because I lived outside the corridors of power and privilege as they did. Winchell had been powerful for them. He was certainly the first lowborn individual of his calling to bend the highborn to his will, which may be why even posthumously he seems so threatening a figure and why mainstream historians seem so intent on branding him a bad man, a deleterious influence, as if these were reasons to let him pass into oblivion.