Winchell, Walter (1897-1972)

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Winchell, Walter (1897-1972)

For almost 40 years during the mid-twentieth century, Walter Winchell was thought to be the most powerful man in America. A Jewish former vaudevillian, Winchell's power came not from money, family connections, or politics—Winchell was a gossip columnist. Indeed, it has even been said that Winchell invented gossip. Although this is clearly hyperbolic—gossip has always existed in some form—certainly Winchell was the first member of the modern media to both understand its power and know how to wield it. At the height of his influence, more than 50 million Americans, or two thirds of the adult population of the country, either read his daily column or listened to his weekly radio program. His grasp of the potent uses to which gossip could be put changed the face of American culture, and ultimately led to the overweening power held by the media at the turn of the millennium.

The future Walter Winchell was born Walter Winschel on April 7, 1897, in Harlem, New York City. His grandfather was a Russian émigré who had come to America hoping for literary fame. His son, Walter's father, was similarly a man of high expectations and low achievement—a silk salesman who devoted much of his time to his mistresses. Because Walter received little attention at home, he sought it across the street at a local movie theater where he and two other boys, one of whom was George Jessel, sang songs between movies for money. When they were spotted by a vaudeville talent scout, 13-year-old Walter left home to join the troupe, saying, "I knew what I didn't want … I didn't want to be hungry, homeless, or anonymous."

Walter spent his teenage years in vaudeville and when he outgrew the boys act, he joined forces with another young vaudevillian, Rita Greene, with whom he had fallen in love. Winchell (as he now called himself) and Greene continued to travel the country, performing their vaudeville act to surprising success. Booked to a two-year contract, in his free time Walter Winchell began producing a vaudeville newsletter and sending in articles to Billboard. But after marrying Rita Greene, Winchell realized that his wife wanted to get out of show business, and so the couple moved back to New York City, where Winchell landed a job writing for The Vaudeville News. As Neal Gabler writes, "The twenty-three-year-old 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 grill-room, campaigning for himself as a Broadway figure."

Although Winchell's breakneck pace ultimately led to the dissolution of his marriage, it earned him a reputation as Broadway's man-about-town. And so, in 1924, when the young columnist heard that a new tabloid newspaper was being launched, he easily won the position of Broadway columnist and drama critic on the New York Evening Graphic.

Winchell's column in the Evening Graphic was composed of Broadway news, jokes, and puns, and it was written in a catchy slang of Winchell's own invention. His unique linguistic twists captured the public's attention, but it was his brazen use of rumor, gossip, and innuendo in his column that made him famous. He saw himself as a maverick, who had broken the cardinal rule of journalism by using unverified sources. He looked behind closed doors and reported what he saw—affairs, abortions, children out of wedlock; nothing was taboo to Winchell.

The public loved it, sensing that the formerly impenetrable walls between the powerful and the common man were being torn down by one of their own. Walter Winchell, born into a lower-middle class Jewish family, was daring to put the private lives of the rich and famous in print. And the rich and famous were duly shocked and alarmed. As Gabler has observed, "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."

By 1928, Walter Winchell's column was syndicated throughout the country and the 31-year-old was already one of the most influential public figures in America. By the early 1930s, when he began his weekly radio broadcast, he wielded as much power with his pen as most politicians and public figures did with money and political clout. As Winchell himself put it, "Democracy is where everybody can kick everybody else's ass, but you can't kick Winchell's."

Throughout the 1930s, Winchell's power continued to grow, extending beyond show business to politics and big business. Gabler writes, "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 that he became, in the words of one paper, a 'people's champion'." Recognizing the extent of Winchell's influence, President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited the columnist to the White House not long after his first inauguration, thus initiating a relationship that would prove mutually beneficial to both men.

As Adolf Hitler's power grew in Germany during the mid-1930s, Winchell turned his attention to the international front, becoming one of the Führer's most ardent and outspoken foes in America. In this task he had the full support of the Roosevelt administration, which grew to rely on Winchell's influence in encouraging the United States to enter the war. For Winchell, this foray into international politics was intoxicating. The former vaudevillian became a dedicated patriot, and once the United States entered the war, he devoted himself to supporting Roosevelt's wartime policies and keeping up the spirits of our boys overseas.

Winchell was at the height of his power. As Gabler writes, "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 freedom." Following the war, however, Winchell's infatuation with politics led him to become involved in the McCarthy witch hunt, as Communism became the new target of his ire. The intellectual elites, who had tolerated Winchell as long as he was espousing liberal causes, were enraged and they sought to bring him down. When the columnist became involved in a scandal involving African American singer Josephine Baker, who was not served at Winchell's favorite watering hole—the Stork Club—while the famed columnist was in attendance, the left turned on Winchell, accusing him of racism.

In the ensuing battle between the liberal media and the now right-wing Winchell, the gossipmonger ultimately lost. Over the course of the next two decades, Walter Winchell would fall from his position as one of the most powerful men on the planet and become a relic of a distant era. As television became the main conduit for media, the man whom Winchell had once helped find a job, Ed Sullivan, would become an icon, while Walter Winchell would fade into obscurity, eventually dying in Arizona in 1972.

Although it is perhaps now difficult to imagine the power once wielded by this man who gave rise to contemporary celebrity culture, Walter Winchell was indeed once among the most influential men on the planet. But although his authority ultimately languished, he left the world a vastly changed place. By legitimizing the use of gossip in the mainstream media, Winchell both paved the way for the extreme power now held by the media at the millennium, as well as laid the foundation for contemporary celebrity society.

—Victoria Price

Further Reading:

Brodkey, Harold. "The Last Word on Winchell." The New Yorker. Vol. 70, No. 47, January 30, 1995, 71-81.

Gabler, Neal. "Walter Winchell." American Heritage. Vol. 45, No.7, November 1994, 96-105.

——. Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Klurfeld, Herman. Winchell: His Life and Times. New York, Praeger, 1976.

Weinraub, Bernard. "He Turned Gossip Into Power." The New York Times. November 18, 1998, E1.