Before TMZ and Page Six, America Turned to Walter Winchell for Gossip
PBS documentary recounts life of America’s pioneer of tawdry fame coverage.
American Masters—Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip. PBS. Tuesday, October 20, 9 p.m.
Walter Winchell once compared himself to a man sitting at an upstairs window, watching life parade by, perhaps dropping a flower on those below, perhaps a flower pot. As far as it went, that was accurate. What he failed to mention was that he was usually being paid—with sex or information or influence, if not cash—to choose between the petals or the clay pots.
The broadcaster-columnist Winchell is little-remembered these days, but he was very much a man of our time. Gossip as news, news as entertainment, fake news, tabloid news—as PBS' American Masters episode Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip recounts, Winchell was present at the creation of it all. He had a radar fix on the lurid and the tawdry and an awesome disregard for anything that smacked of professionalism or integrity—"as if this or that newspaper gives a continental about ethics, as they are so amusingly called."
Decades ahead of political correctness as we know it today, he whored on behalf of whatever was politically trendy: for Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and against fascism in the 1930s; for Joe McCarthy and anti-communism in the 1950s. He was the first multi-media journalist, with an empire that ranged from a syndicated newspaper column to a national radio show to television, and when he opened his broadcasts with a booming "Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. North America and all the ships at sea!" it was no bluster—at his peak, by some estimates, Winchell was reaching two out of every three Americans per week.
The Power of Gossip tells Winchell's story in an appropriately punchy style, with considerable aid from Neal Gabler, author of the most comprehensive Winchell biography. It follows him from his days as a child vaudeville hoofer to the unveiling of his one-typed-page weekly gossip sheet on professional comings and goings in his troupe. What started as purely a hobby prompted by the gift of a typewriter from his wife—Winchell didn't have a high school diploma, much less a degree or any background in journalism—quickly elevated him into the entertainment industry press and then the New York tabloids. His Broadway gossip column debuted in 1924 in the New York Evening Graphic, better known as the Porno-Graphic for its daily collection of near-nekkid showgirl photos.
Contrary to what The Power of Gossip suggests, Winchell did not invent the gossip trade. Paul the Apostle was already complaining about chatterers in his epistle to the Romans, in which he bitched about the "whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasts, inventors of evil things," of whom there were many, right up through the nineteen-teens, when Hearst Newspapers' Louella Parsons went to work scuttling the movies of rivals of Marion Davies, illicit paramour of her chain's boss.
But Winchell enhanced the job into a weapon of mass dissemination. He practically devised a new language—slanguage, he called it—to load his poison pen. Couples slipping off to Nevada for a quickie divorce were "Reno-vating" their marriages. A promiscuous Hollywood maiden "has been on more laps than a napkin." And Winchell was leeringly whispering about makin' whoopee long before long before Eddie Cantor sang about it. He invented the three-dot-column, the stream-of-consciousness collection of brief items strung together by ellipses that beat Twitter to the punch by 75 years. (Often as not, those ellipses dripped down the decolletage of starlets with whom Winchell wanted to make whoopee.)
His other major innovation, as Gabler and The Power of Gossip note, was elevating gossip into a populist war club. Winchell often used his column to trash the swells, a popular pastime during the Depression. And after Roosevelt secretly invited him to the White House to ask for help in his war against the plutocracy, Winchell suddenly was boosting the New Deal as ardently as Sally Rand's bubble dances.
Delighted, Roosevelt asked the gossip back to the White House, this time publicly, to talk about foreign policy. Soon, Winchell was emitting a steady stream of anti-Hitler items. And, ever one for efficiency, Winchell managed to combine his new disdain for Nazis with his gleeful homophobia. Typical quip: "Hitler is a homo-sexua-list, or, as we vulgarians say, an outright fairy." It only made him more popular, a superstar. Hit records were sung about him.
Yet when World War II ended, with both Hitler and Roosevelt dead, Winchell drifted in search of a cause. He soon found it the anti-communist crusades of McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover ("the person gangsters fear more than anybody," Winchell liked to call him). It worked for a while. But the same progressive media that cheered on his idolatry of Roosevelt and his name-calling of Hitler weren't so keen when the political tables were turned. And Winchell's personal and political carelessness gave them an opening.
First he got into a vicious hair-pulling public feud with the popular black singer-dancer Josephine Baker, who accused him of failing to support her when she was refused service at the Stork Club where he held nightly court. Winchell sent letters to the FBI calling her a communist. She finally left America for European exile, but the stench of the squabble remained.
Then, the liberal New York Post blew the whistle on what had been an open but unreported secret in the media world: Almost the entirety of Winchell's newspaper column was authored by ghostwriters. Around the same time, Winchell's champion Joe McCarthy imploded during televised congressional hearings. Winchell's public brutishness was no more (and no less) harsh than ever, but anti-communism had dropped out of fashion.
First his TV show was canceled, then his radio broadcast, then his syndication deal. Gabler argues that Winchell's venture into television was what undid him. "When he was young, he was kind of puckish and funny," Gabler said. "But when television came along, there was a meanness to him that worked very much against him. … Walter Winchell was too mean for television." Tell that to Rachel Maddow or Tucker Carlson.
Whatever the exact cause, Winchell quickly fell from stardom to stupor. By 1959, he was known less for gossip or news or commentary than for his overwrought narration of the tough-guy cop show The Untouchables. When his newspaper folded following a strike in 1963, Winchell became a media unperson, as invisible as Sally Rand's garments. In desperation, he took out a pleading ad in the Hollywood trade journal Variety seeking a job—"even an extra janitor."
Nothing worked; his banishment was total, and final. It's easy, and mostly fair, to deplore Winchell as an ugly mixture of cruelty and humbug, the original media hype, a reminder that the golden age of journalism that we hear so much about today as journalists bitterly protest the withering-away of their profession was in reality more than a little tarnished. And for all Winchell's faults, he's also an illustration of the perplexing but often accurate cliché that about-to-be-unemployed reporters use to describe themselves: that they've got ink in their veins. A few years ago, when I was talking to talk-show host Larry King, he told me he idolized Winchell as the consummate gotta-tell-you-something guy. "You know what Winchell was doing at the end?" King asked wistfully. "Typing out mimeographed sheets with his column, handing them out on the corner."