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Walter Winchell

June 2024
23min read

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

“WHY WALTER WINCHELL?” I have been asked repeatedly during the years I have been working on a biography of him. Why someone so passé or someone so beneath contempt as also to be beneath biography? There are, I believe, two sets of reasons a biographer chooses a subject: the ones he knows at the outset and the subliminal ones he only discovers along the way, although the latter often prove to have been the more powerful lure and to say more about the subject as well.

I am not of a generation that knew very much about the gossip columnist and radio commentator Walter Winchell or that experienced him when he was in full flush of his power in the thirties, forties, and early fifties. I remember him from my childhood primarily as the clipped narrator of “The Untouchables” and less distinctly as a relic from a paleolithic era of American culture when men wore snap-brim gray fedoras (Winchell helped popularize the hat) and tight suits with expansive lapels, not as one of the emblematic figures of the century.

So the initial appeal of Walter Winchell as a biographical subject was to the cultural historian in me, who recognized the extent of his impudent power and its implications. I knew that Winchell was “the country’s best-known and most widely read journalist as well as among its most influential,” as The New York Times eulogized him when he died in 1972, long after his power had ebbed, but I also knew that even this characterization failed to convey his real might. In ways that would be impossible for any contemporary journalist, Walter Winchell spread rumors, set styles, forged national opinion, built careers and ruined others, popularized books, plays, and movies, changed the language, waged feuds, excoriated some politicians and promoted the programs of others, articulated the public mood, and, perhaps above all, helped inaugurate the culture of celebrity in which we now perforce all live.

By one estimate, fifty million Americans (out of an adult population of roughly seventy-five million) either listened to his weekly radio program or read his daily column, which at its height was syndicated in more than two thousand newspapers—according to one observer, the “largest continuous audience ever possessed by a man who was neither politician nor divine.” One report attributed nearly half the readership of the Hearst newspaper chain to WinchelPs column. Presidents courted him, and government officials of America’s foreign enemies castigated him by name. For a time you could walk down any street on a warm Sunday night at nine o’clock and hear his disembodied voice wafting from open windows, giving ghostly validation to his own slogan: “Winchell . . . HE SEES ALL ... HE KNOWS ALL .”


ERNEST HEMINGWAY CALEED him the “only reporter who could last three rounds with the Zeitgeist"; indeed, Winchell often seemed to be the Zeitgeist . A five-foot-seven-inch bantam, fasttalking and fast-moving, he managed to make himself a protagonist in many of the events he covered: from the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, where potential jurors were queried about whether they had heard Winchell’s broadcasts already convicting Hauptmann; to the capture of the gangster Louis ("Lepke") Buchalter, who remanded himself into Winchell’s custody after a two-year manhunt; to World War II, when the Roosevelt administration deployed Winchell to lead the call for interventionism; to the ArmyMcCarthy hearings, when he became one of McCarthy’s most vocal supporters; to the Columbia University student sit-in in 1968, where he was clubbed by a young policeman who didn’t recognize the now anachronistic reporter with the press card stuck in his hatband.

He wrote, “I didn’t want to be hungry, homeless or anonymous.” Especially anonymous.

In his prime he had the power of an avenging angel. Over the years he was responsible for discovering or boosting the careers of Arthur Godfrey, Jackie Gleason, Buddy Ebsen, Frank Sinatra, Rowan & Martin, and scores of others for whom an “orchid” from Winchell in the column or on the broadcast would mean months of bookings. He single-handedly made Hellzapoppin a Broadway hit by praising it when every critic lambasted it. But he would also, through his relentless campaigns, be responsible for helping destroy the careers of many others: Josephine Baker, Rep. Martin Dies, the radio interviewer Barry Gray, and the theater producer Earl Carroll. One target of his wrath, Ethel Barrymore, said, “It is a sad comment on American manhood that Walter Winchell is allowed to exist.”

This man who became the center of national attention was himself a product of neglect, anger, and resentment. He had been born Walter Winschel on April 7, 1897, in the Harlem section of Manhattan. His grandfather Chaim Weinschel was a cantor who had emigrated from Russia hoping to win regard in America as a poet and man of letters, and though he failed to gain literary recognition, he passed his curse of expectation on to his children, each of whom craved gentility. Chaim’s eldest son and Walter’s father, Jacob, wore spats, carried a cane, and even redubbed himself “Jack de Winchel,” but he barely eked out a living selling silk for women’s underwear, and he was an embarrassment to the rest of the Winchel clan, reminding them how close they all stood to failure.

To the humiliations of his poverty were added the further disruptions of Jacob’s infidelity; Walter and his younger brother, Algernon, were frequently shuttled off to relatives as domestic storms brewed and then passed. Neglected at home and an indifferent student at school, where he was absent nearly as often as he was present, Walter won some of the attention he needed by appearing at a theater across the street from his apartment on 116th Street, singing songs between the movies with two other neighborhood boys, one of whom was George Jessel. The Imperial Trio, as they called themselves, promptly folded, but not before being spotted by a talent scout who invited them to audition for a new vaudeville show mounted by the songwriter Gus Edwards. It was “Gus Edwards’ 1910 Song Revue” that provided Walter Winchell passage from the deprivations of Harlem. “A lot of people are going to psychiatrists today to find out what they want,” he would say years later, recalling his decision at thirteen to leave his family for vaudeville. “I knew what I didn’t want. ... I didn’t want to be hungry, homeless or anonymous.” Especially anonymous.

He spent his adolescence on the road, traversing the country in the company of some twenty other children. By 1917 Walter had grown too old for Gus Edwards’s kid shows, and a pretty, spunky young fellow performer was imploring him to form a double act with her. Walter finally succumbed, partly because there were no other offers and partly because he had fallen in love with her.

Over the following two years Walter Winchell, as he now called himself, and Rita Greene played the small-time Eastern vaudeville circuits, singing, dancing, and telling jokes, largely in the American backwaters. After a brief stint in the Navy as a clerk in the waning months of World War I, Winchell decided to work his way to Chicago to see if Winchell & Greene could land a long-term booking from the Western agents, who were less imperious than the Eastern ones. If that failed, he decided to look for another line of work.

AS IT TURNED OUT, WlNCHELL & Greene were a surprising success in Chicago’s McVickers Theatre that first week in August 1919; after the first performance booking agents clogged the alley. With a two-year contract in hand, Winchell proposed to Rita, and Rita, finally feeling secure, accepted, provided that he promise they would save their money for the time when they would leave show business.

It was during this Western tour in the spring of 1920 that Winchell, as a lark, began composing a little newsletter for his vaudeville company. Filled with gossip, puns, and jokes, it tickled the troupe, and its author was soon sending items to Billboard and a new vaudeville trade paper called The Vaudeville News , which inaugurated a column of WinchelPs contributions under the banner “Merciless Truths.”

As the season wore on, Rita became tired, homesick, and depressed and begged Winchell to ask for a release from their contract. He did, and that November Winchell Sc Greene returned to New York with a nest egg of fifteen hundred dollars but only the vaguest plan of what to do with it. Winchell anxiously began petitioning the editor of The Vaudeville News for a job—he hadn’t been paid for any of his contributions—and got one only after agreeing to settle for twenty-five dollars a week, far less than he and Greene had been earning on the stage.

He was leaving vaudeville after a decade, but as the columnist Heywood Broun would later write, “the years he spent as a small-time hoofer constituted a period of preparation.” Vaudeville had made Walter Winchell into an entertainer. It had taught him how to grab an audience’s attention and keep it, and he would carry this knowledge with him into journalism, becoming, in effect, a journalistic showman and a model for generations of future journalists who would also regard themselves as entertainers.

Equally important, vaudeville had honed his resentments. He would always remember the half-filled houses, the mediocre orchestras, the indifferent agents, the difficult managers, the dank dressing rooms, the daily anxieties of making good. Most of all, he would remember the audiences that “gaped up at you—mouths wide open and eyes colder than a headliner’s stare” with their "'go ahead and make me like your act!’ attitude.” And just as he carried his instinct for entertainment with him, so would he carry his hostility. WinchelPs thirst for revenge would always lurk just below the surface.

But there was little time for hostility in those first months at The Vaudeville News . The twenty-three-year-old Walter Winchell was columnist, office boy, deputy editor, part-time photographer, salesman, and general factotum. And he loved it, throwing himself into the job with desperate energy. Days he spent racing down Broadway, mingling, glad-handing, joking, collecting items for the column, making himself known. Nights he spent at the National Vaudeville Association Club on Forty-sixth Street, working the grillroom, campaigning for himself as a Broadway figure. “I go the pace that kills,” he wrote in a poem for the News .

One early casualty was his marriage. In his autobiography Winchell described the end succinctly: “There was a minor quarrel, and one day Rita left a bundle for me at the NVA Club.” Rita would describe it differently. She remembered a violent, unprovoked row one night at the NVA in which Winchell slapped her and demanded she accompany him home. She did, then left. A few days later he asked that his clothes be sent to the NVA.

A little more than a year later, separated from Winchell but reluctant to divorce him, Rita was walking down Broadway when she caught him with another woman. As it turned out, the woman was a beautiful nineteen-yearold high-kick dancer named June Aster whom Rita remembered as having flirted with Winchell at the NVA Club. In fact, that spring at the NVA Winchell had attempted to interview Miss Aster for the News after hearing that she had taken in the child of a destitute fellow vaudevillian. As he would later tell it, Winchell was smitten by her voice, began a fervid pursuit, and wore down her resistance and convinced her to marry him. The date he always gave was May 11,1923. There was only one problem: He was still married to Rita.

THE CHAOS OF HIS DOMESTIC situation, however, did not deflect his professional energy. In the summer of 1924, hearing that Bernarr Macfadden, the eccentric millionaire publisher of Physical Culture and True Confessions magazines, was launching a tabloid, Winchell coerced a friend into arranging an interview with one of Macfadden’s executives. “From my talks with him I soon realized that he knew more about the goings-on and goings-off of Broadway than anyone I had ever met,” the executive, Fulton Oursler, later wrote. He offered Winchell the position of Broadway columnist and drama critic on the New York Evening Graphic .

Now Winchell entered the notorious world of tabloidia of which there may have been no more sordid example than Macfadden’s bizarre concoction. Issued on pink newsprint, the Graphic was a mélange of health tips, fulminations against doctors, photos of half-naked women, lovelorn advice, and sensationalism. The headlines the first day read: SHE GAVE UP ART FOR A BARONET and I KNOW WHO KILLED MY BROTHER .

Winchell started at the Graphic with equal measures of uncertainty and ; energy. Like his work on the News , his Graphic column, which he called “Your Broadway and Mine,” was a compendium of jokes, puns, showbusiness news, and slang. It was the last of these that made the biggest immediate impression on his readers and gave him his first cachet.

Winchell broke down the wall that separated the world of celebrity and his readers.

In the twenties slang not only had the force of novelty but was another form of self-identification for the consumers of the new mass culture that embraced tabloids, movies, picture magazines, and dozens of other new media. Like the linguistic inventions of hip-hop and rap today, slang aerated English to create a new language, a kind of subversive tongue that was especially attractive to young urban Americans. Slang was a nosethumbing, a fashion, an entertainment, a way of showing one was in the know when being in the know was an important differentiation, and Walter Winchell rapidly became, in the word of one speech professor, slang’s “dictator.”

Couples didn’t get married in Winchell’s column; they were “welded,” “lohengrinned,” “Adam-and-Eveing it.” They didn’t have fun; they made “whoopee!” They didn’t have babies; they had “blessed events.” And when they got divorced, they were “Renovated” or “phffft!” Movies were “moom pitchers,” and movie lovers “cinemaddicts.” Legs were “shafts.” Passion was “pash.” Debutantes were “debutramps.” Jews were “Joosh.”

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.”

DURING THE LATE TWENTIES Winchell’s slang and gossip had made him the Bard of Broadway—Broadway being a mythical city, like Hollywood, that made a strong claim on the national imagination. The Broadway of the Jazz Age was a place where the pace never slackened, the lights never dimmed, the crowds never thinned, the revelry never stopped—a place where all the energy of the era could roar.

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.

AS WAR CLOUDS GATHERED IN Europe, Winchell became an oracle, predicting international events as he predicted the breakup of Hollywood marriages. But more than predicting events, he was also actively shaping them, pushing first for a massive program of rearmament and then, after Hitler had invaded Poland, nudging the country toward intervention. In this he was acting in concert with the Roosevelt administration, one of whose officials called Winchell its “principal daily conduit to the people.”

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.

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.

IF WINCHELL’S CAREER HAD ENDED then, he might have been regarded as the greatest journalistic phenomenon of the age: a colossus who straddled newspapers and radio, show business and politics. He almost certainly would have been remembered as a prime force in the public relations battle to boost America’s home-front morale during World War II and as a defender of press freedoms. He probably would have been the subject of a serious full-scale biography long before mine. He might have had the status that Edward R. Murrow enjoys. He might even have wound up on a postage stamp.

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.

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.

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.

But Winchell’s fans knew. Visiting Winchell’s winter radio broadcast in Miami in 1947, Alistair Cooke, writing for the British magazine Listener , observed the thrall in which Winchell held his audience. “He was the promise of American freedom and uninhibited bounce,” wrote Cooke, “he was Americanism symbolized in a nosethumbing at the portentousness of the great.” And seeing his appeal, Cooke believed that in years hence he would pass “into American folklore, and his memory will mushroom its own legends as easily as Paul Bunyan or John Henry or Johnny Appleseed, who also were actual men, ridiculously smaller or duller than the creatures they struck off from the imagination of the American people.”

Winchell hasn’t achieved mythic status, but to restore him now to his rightful place in the history of our popular culture would constitute a small victory in his war against the cultural royalists.

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