Walters, Barbara (1929—)

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Walters, Barbara (1929—)

Award-winning television journalist, particularly known for her celebrity interviews and news specials, who was the first woman to co-host a major network news program . Born on September 25, 1929, in Boston, Massachusetts; daughter of Lou Walters (a show-business entrepreneur) and Dena (Seletsky) Walters; educated in private schools in Florida and New York before graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1951 with a degree in English; married Bob Katz (a businessman), in 1955 (divorced 1958); married Lee Gruber (a producer), in 1963 (divorced 1976); married Merv Adelman (a movie studio executive), in 1986 (divorced 1992); children: one adopted daughter, Jacqueline Gruber.

Had first job in broadcasting with WNBC in New York City writing press releases; hired as a writer for "Today" (1961) and eventually given on-screen reporting segments on topics the network deemed of interest to women; improved journalistic fortunes when she became part of the press corps traveling to Egypt with Jacqueline Kennedy (1962); became co-host for "Today" (1974); became the industry's first news anchor to earn a salary of $1 million when she moved to ABC to co-anchor its evening newscast (1976); in the years since, has interviewed everyone from Fidel Castro to Ronald Reagan, co-hosted ABC's long-running news magazine show "20/20" as well as a string of Barbara Walters Specials and "The View," and has been presented with seven Emmy awards for her work.

Barbara Walters has always considered the worst moment in her long career of talking to the world's famous and infamous to be her 1977 interview with Katharine Hepburn , when she asked the now-legendary question, "If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?" (Undaunted, Hepburn promptly replied that she would like to be an oak.) But it was typical of Walters that she was more than willing to share the moment with millions of viewers in a 1996 television special looking back over more than 30 years of questioning major world figures and covering the world's most important events. Her formula for a successful interview has remained unchanged. "I want to know what everyone wants to know," she says.

Walters had been used to being around famous people even before she was old enough to frame a question. Her father Lou Walters was a show-business entrepreneur successful enough to afford the 18-room house in Newton, Massachusetts, in which Barbara, the second of his two daughters, was born on September 25, 1929. Lou had married Dena Seletsky (Walters) in 1920 just as he opened his first booking agency. The couple's first daughter, Jacqueline Walters , had been diagnosed with moderate mental retardation shortly after her birth in 1926, but the Walters Booking Agency's prosperous early years assured good care for Jacqueline and a comfortable home for Barbara. Even the stock market crash of 1929 couldn't keep Lou Walters down, for he soon parlayed a job managing a Boston restaurant into enough investment capital to open the first of his legendary Latin Quarter nightclubs. Stars from Maurice Chevalier to Jimmy Durante dandled young Barbara on their knees during visits to the Walters' new home in affluent Brookline, Massachusetts. Admitting years later that her father's business embarrassed her when she entered Lawrence Elementary School, Barbara kept to herself and conscientiously did her homework backstage at the Latin Quarter at night. Still, she later credited Lou Walters with her success. "He was sensitive, amusing, utterly cultivated, charming, never without a book," she said shortly after her father's death in 1977. "If I have any writing ability, I get it from him."

The mercurial fortunes of her father's business interests only added to Barbara's early sense of isolation. After he moved his family to Palm Island, Florida, to open a second Latin Quarter in 1940, she spent several years in what was then a rural suburb of Miami with few other children, driven to a private school by a chauffeur each morning; two years later, she was living in New York City, where Lou Walters opened a third Latin Quarter, and attending an exclusive girls' school. By the time she was ready for tenth grade, Walters was whisked back to Miami as her father planned the expansion of that city's Latin Quarter, only to return to New York in a matter of months when her father's gambling debts and mismanaged finances forced the closing of the Boston and Florida clubs. Still, there was enough money to enroll Barbara in Manhattan's prestigious Birch Walthen School for Girls, where her academic performance was to such a high standard that she was accepted on graduation to Sarah Lawrence College, then a revolutionary experiment in education in which exceptionally gifted students designed their own curricula and study plans under the guidance of a faculty adviser. Although Walters studied theater during her years at Sarah Lawrence and appeared without much success in a school production of Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, her talents seemed more suited to the printed page. She served as the drama critic for her school's newspaper, attracting attention for perceptive reviews of both Broadway and Off-Broadway productions. There was a lively social life at Sarah Lawrence, too, Walters emerging from her shell to host parties at her parents' New York apartment and theater evenings with friends. But it wasn't the theater or a newspaper that provided her first paying job on her graduation in 1951 with a degree in English. It was the relatively new medium of television.

Walters had the good fortune to enter the business just as America was beginning its love affair with TV, the bulky boxes inhabiting a corner of the living room in 90% of American homes by 1950. There were no women holding important positions in the industry at the time, and Walters' first job was a modest one writing press releases for NBC's New York affiliate. It would not be until 1964 that Marlene Sanders would become the first woman to host a nightly news program, and even then only for one appearance when the regular, male anchor had fallen ill. Despite the unfavorable atmosphere, Walters was offered the chance to produce a daily children's show for WNBC less than two years after joining the staff. "Ask the Camera" was a live, 15-minute program that was canceled after a year, but the experience paid off in 1955 when CBS hired Walters for the staff of its new "Morning Show," planned as a competitor to NBC's more established "Today." Although she had been hired as a researcher and talent coordinator, Walters made her network debut during a fashion segment she produced for the program, filling in for a model who failed to appear. "She always knew she wanted to be in front of the camera," one of her co-workers later said, and the "Morning Show"'s producers seemed to agree with Walters once they saw her on-screen. Further on-camera assignments dealing with "women's issues" followed. "I never minded doing the so-called female things—the fashion shows, cooking spots, whatever," Walters told a magazine reporter many years later. "But at the same time, it bothered me that I wasn't allowed to participate in a Washington interview." The same year she began work for the "Morning Show" on CBS, Walters married businessman Bob Katz after a short engagement.

Unfortunately, both the job and the marriage were short-lived. Ratings for the "Morning Show" never posed a serious challenge to its competitors, and the show was canceled in 1958, the same year that Walters' divorce from Katz was finalized. Her long days at the network, starting as early as four o'clock in the morning and lasting into the evening, left little time to build a stable marriage. Adding to the turmoil of that year was Lou Walters' bankruptcy after the failure of a new club he had opened in New York, followed by charges of tax evasion filed against him by the IRS. The government eventually confiscated the Walters' sumptuous Florida and New York homes. "I not only had to support myself, but my parents and my sister," Walters recalled in 1982. "I knew I'd have to work all my life so I'd never feel financial pressure." But her initial efforts to find another job in television were unsuccessful, and she was forced to take a job at $60 a week at a public relations firm representing clients to television and film producers. Walters would later characterize the years from 1958 to 1961 as the low point of her fortunes, but a reputation at the firm for probing, incisive interviews with potential clients led the producers of NBC's "Today" to accept her proposal for a 13-week trial period.

By 1961, "Today" was entering its ninth year as America's most popular morning television program, and the training ground for journalists such as John Chancellor, Frank Blair, Jane Pauley and Walters' eventual co-host for "20/20," Hugh Downs. Barbara's skill as a writer and her on-air presence proved NBC's gamble well worthwhile. Within a year, she was given her first major assignment as part of the press corps traveling to Egypt in 1962 with then-first lady Jacqueline Kennedy . Walters followed the tour with a well-received article for Good Housekeeping on Jackie Kennedy's sister Lee Radziwell and interviewed Jackie's official biographer, Joan Braden , on "Today." There quickly followed two developments that firmly established the name Barbara Walters in the public mind. The first was John Chancellor's replacement in 1962 as host on "Today" by Hugh Downs. Downs became Walters' staunchest ally in the internal politics of the show and soon convinced the show's producers to try Barbara out as a "'Today' girl," the attractive young lady who delivered weather reports and engaged in occasional banter with the host. The second development came on the day assigned for Walters' trial run for the job, November 22, 1963, when President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. As the "Today" staff scrambled to cover the tragedy, Walters found herself thrust into the spotlight, staying on the air and on-camera for five consecutive hours fielding reports from journalists in Dallas and in Washington and interviewing without preparation government officials and other important figures. Her cool professionalism in the midst of the country's grief and anger assured her future. By 1964, Walters was no longer a "'Today' girl" but a full-fledged reporter on America's most popular daytime network news show.

Her expertise in the art of the intimate interview quickly drew comparisons to Edward R. Murrow's esteemed "Person to Person" interviews of the late 1950s. Walters merely claimed that she asked her subjects the kinds of things everyone wanted to know, rather than engaging in a show of intellectual gamesmanship; and while she conversed easily with some of the world's most famous people, from Hollywood stars to international jetsetters, her choice of subject material also included stories on anti-Semitic housing practices in Michigan, conditions in a women's prison in Maryland, and the life of a cloistered nun. Most famously, she enrolled in Hugh Hefner's Playboy Bunny training program and reported on the working conditions in Hefner's vast empire of Playboy clubs. She fearlessly descended into a dark Welsh coal mine when the two male reporters traveling with her refused, and so completely won the trust of Dean Rusk, Lyndon Johnson's secretary of state during that administration's tortured Vietnam War experience, that the time he devoted to her interview was broadcast in a three-part series. "If any NBC vice-president gives you a hard time, show them this letter and tell them to leave you alone," Rusk wrote to her.

Not everyone shared Rusk's enthusiasm, for there were frequent complaints from within the network and from reporters for other networks—most of them male—of Walters' ruthless pursuit of a story and the demands she placed on the assistants and technicians who worked with her. The trust placed in her by the notoriously press-hostile Richard Nixon, and her inclusion as one of only three reporters allowed to travel with him during Nixon's ground-breaking visit to China in 1972, only increased the animosity of some of her peers. Walters never apologized for her determination to get her story or denied that she demanded only the best from her coworkers; and there were an equal number of stories about her motherly treatment of the growing retinue that traveled with her—of the best doctors sought to treat crew members who fell ill on the road, of the small gifts given in appreciation of hard work, of the praise for a job well done passed on to network executives.

The 1960s brought changes in Walters' personal life, too. In 1961, she had met through mutual friends theater producer Lee Gruber. She and Gruber married two years later and, after three attempts to have a child ended in miscarriages, adopted a baby girl they named after Barbara's sister Jacqueline in 1968. "I wanted a child very, very badly," Walters told McCall's a year after the adoption. "You have to want a child very badly if you're in this business. Jacqueline has been the home. She is what makes it a home." But Walters made it plain that she had no intention of sacrificing her career to child-rearing. She resumed her normal schedule at the network soon after the adoption, relying on nannies and cooks for support while she once again made the nation sit up and take notice with her frank discussion of birth control on an NBC special in 1969, "From Here to the Seventies," and by publishing the bestselling book How to Talk to Practically Anybody about Practically Anything in 1970. The following year, Walters added to her "Today" schedule by taking over hosting duties on "For Women Only," a morning chat show on the network's New York affiliate, WNBC-TV, taping a week's worth of shows in one night before a live audience while reporting to work on "Today" before dawn each morning. Walters pointedly renamed the show "Not For Women Only" and expanded its content to include discussions of such then-controversial issues as marijuana use and the growing feminist movement. The show's ratings tripled within six months as The New York Times called it "one of the most improved and provocative shows in the entire early morning

schedule." Walters stayed with "Not For Women Only" for four years, then left the show for the biggest promotion of her career to date.

It was well known that Walters' relations with "Today"'s host Frank McGee were as icy as her relationship with Hugh Downs had been warm. McGee's resentment of Walters' skills made itself apparent whenever the two of them conducted an interview together on the show. Walters was allowed to ask a question only after McGee had asked the first three, and McGee flatly refused to allow her access to any interviews with political figures. Barbara retaliated by threatening to leave the show unless the network agreed to a contract clause that gave her the co-host slot should McGee leave the show. Given her popularity and ratings, NBC had no choice; and when McGee died of bone cancer in 1974, the network dutifully made Walters the first female co-host of a major network news program in television history. She was joined by Jim Hartz, with whom she established a cordial relationship both on and off camera, while NBC made sure to point out to an audience in the throes of a vocal feminist movement that "Today" was the only show on television with a female co-host. Walters' ascendancy was confirmed a year after she assumed her new role when she was awarded her first Emmy as Outstanding Host in a Talk, Service or Variety Series, was named Broadcaster of the Year by the International Radio and Television Society, and was included among Time's 100 most influential Americans of 1975.

You're a marvelous girl, but stay out of television.

—ABC producer Don Hewitt to Barbara Walters, 1957

Walters' heightened celebrity did not come without a price. Her ten-year marriage to Lee Gruber came to an end when the couple separated in 1973 and formally divorced five years later; and the network's high expectations for her were dashed when, despite her popularity, "Today"'s ratings began a precipitous slide during 1975. Although she and Hartz worked well together, there seemed little personal dynamism between them on-camera and audiences found the pair rather boring. Further troubles ensued when Walters convinced the network to produce a lavish afternoon special for the soap opera audience called "Barbara Walters Visits the Royal Lovers," an outgrowth of a "Today" segment she had done on the marriage of Britain's Princess Anne . Although it was the first of what would become a distinguished line of "Barbara Walters Specials," the show was a ratings and review disaster. Given all these factors, NBC balked at Walters' conditions for her contract renewal in 1976, which included a substantial salary increase and complete autonomy from network control over the content and topics of her stories. While the contract dispute was the talk of the industry, no one was prepared for what happened next.

ABC's "Evening News" was, at the time, running a distant third in the ratings behind its two older competitors—so distant that ABC executives made the bold decision to make Barbara Walters not only the industry's first woman to co-anchor a nightly newscast but the first network on-camera professional, male or female, to be paid an annual salary of $1 million. Walters' decision to accept ABC's offer to join Harry Reasoner for such an unprecedented amount of money on its nightly newscast stunned the broadcasting industry. Walters received her own office staff, wardrobe and makeup artists, as well as first-class tickets and luxury accommodations while traveling. For her part, Barbara would not only co-anchor the evening news with Reasoner five nights a week, but would appear on a dozen programs of ABC's weekly current-events series "Issues and Answers" and host four "Barbara Walters Specials" each year. Even more shocking to the industry's old guard was the fact that Walters' huge salary would be split between the network's news and entertainment divisions, an uncomfortable blurring of the line between the two. CBS' Walter Cronkite complained of a "sickening sensation that we are all going under, that all of our efforts to hold television news aloof from show business have failed." Even the solid support given to her by The New York Times began to slip when the newspaper published a feature article titled "Is Barbara Walters Worth a Million?" Barbara was further stung by Harry Reasoner's disapproval of the network's decision to hire her, a decision Reasoner regarded as nothing more than "a stunt" to boost ratings and which he worried would reduce the quality of the "hard news" content at the expense of Walters' emphasis on human interest stories. Others complained of reverse sexism, pointing out that Reasoner was paid a fifth of the salary given to Walters (although ABC raised the amount to $500,000 when Barbara was hired). As if to taunt her even further, NBC's comedy show "Saturday Night Live" regularly began to feature Gilda Radner 's "Baba Wawa," lampooning Barbara's trademark Boston accent and lisp. Walters' supporters amid the furor ranged from John Wayne ("Don't let the bastards get you down," he wrote to her) to then-President Gerald Ford's economic adviser Allen Greenspan, to the millions of fans who wrote to her offering encouragement.

Walters debuted on the "ABC Evening News" on October 4, 1976, and at first it seemed as if the network's gamble had paid off; ratings after the first week rose by an impressive 2%. But after two months, they had fallen back to their pre-Walters levels and ABC once again found its evening newscast in third place, as it struggled to smooth the increasingly tense relations between its new star and Harry Reasoner. The dislike grew so strong that the two refused to sit near each other during public appearances and sat so far apart on the "Evening News" set that the network was obliged to use separate cameras to cover them individually and never showed them together in the same frame. "Harry Reasoner … seems as comfortable on camera with Barbara Walters as a governor under indictment," New Republic reported, while Walters herself later described her time on the "Evening News" as "the worst period in my professional life." Even her first ABC Special in 1976 drew professional ridicule for her questions to successful presidential candidate Jimmy Carter (especially Walters' curiosity about the Carters' sleeping arrangements and whether they would take one bed or two from their Georgia home to the White House) and her melodramatic conclusion to the interview as she pleaded with Carter to "be wise with us … be good to us" as president. In a trend that has marked the rest of her career, the program was criticized by her journalistic peers while at the same time scoring high ratings with her audience.

There were moments, however, when Walters' news instincts seemed to triumph over her interest in her subjects' love lives and domestic arrangements. Interviewing Fidel Castro while the two of them bumped through the Cuban countryside in a Jeep, Walters suddenly interrupted her questions about his marriages and his cigar-smoking to ask pointed questions about the Cuban military's presence in strife-torn Angola; and her hard-edged questions to Egypt's president Anwar Sadat earlier that same year later led to Sadat's acceptance of Walters' invitation to be jointly interviewed with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin during Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977. But even Barbara's high-profile interviews couldn't save ABC's evening news program from the animosity between her and Reasoner, forcing the network to hire a new production team headed by Roone Arledge in January 1978. Arledge's tactic of giving Walters more out-of-studio assignments to keep her away from Reasoner failed to solve the problem, which Reasoner himself solved by resigning later that same year to go to work for CBS. Arledge took advantage of the break to re-style the program as "World News Tonight," with three male co-anchors in New York, Chicago and Washington (Peter Jennings, the New York co-anchor, would later assume solo duties in 1983), while Walters was assigned to a "Special Coverage Desk" in New York. Although it was seen as a demotion by some, Walters claimed the change suited her perfectly. "From the day I was hired, I asked them not to put me on the air just to read," she said, and it was true that her new position left her more time for the personal interviews that were her strong point.

Walters was sufficiently comfortable with the new arrangement to renew her contract with ABC in 1981, expanding her presence on the air with more "Barbara Walters Specials" and by co-hosting the network's successful news magazine show, "20/20," with her old friend Hugh Downs. The two comfortably shared the camera on "20/20" until Downs' retirement in 2000. "If Hugh had not fought for my opportunity to appear regularly on 'Today,' I would not have happened in this business," she once said. With Downs' support, Walters chose to emphasize on "20/20" the stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, saving her celebrity interviews for her specials. Among her subjects on "20/20" have been Jean Harris , imprisoned for shooting to death her lover; tennis great Arthur Ashe, who publicly acknowledged to Walters his infection with AIDS in an interview in the mid-1980s; and Dr. Jack Kevorkian, whose advocacy and public practice of assisted suicide made him one of the most controversial figures of late-20th-century America.

Walters was herself embroiled in controversy over her unwitting involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal of 1986, in which the Reagan Administration was suspected of trading arms destined for anti-government rebels in Nicaragua for the release of American hostages held by Iranian revolutionaries. Walters had interviewed the two major figures in the story, Saudi Arabian business executive Adnan Khashoggi and an Iranian arms dealer named Manuchar Ghorbanifar. After her interview with Ghorbanifar, Walters rashly agreed to deliver to the White House what Ghorbanifar claimed were highly secret documents detailing payments made to Iranian arms suppliers. She later claimed she had made the decision in the belief that it might help free American hostages held in Teheran, but the news industry and the American public saw it differently. Walters was severely criticized for her personal involvement in what was supposed to be an unbiased news report and for abandoning her journalistic principles to act as a carrier of secret information for the government. ABC admitted she had "violated a literal interpretation of news policy" but refused to take disciplinary action against her. Indeed, it agreed to her contract renewal demands later that same year.

As "20/20"'s ratings climbed to make it one of network television's most popular programs, Walters turned more attention on her personal life. She had met film producer Merv Adelman in 1984 on a blind date arranged by friends; in May 1986, the two were married in a private ceremony in California with her daughter Jacqueline serving as maid of honor. Although neither of them was willing to give up their careers, with Barbara spending most of her time on the East Coast and Adelman remaining in Los Angeles, the marriage managed to survive for four years before the couple announced an amicable separation in 1990 and a divorce in 1992.

Walters' celebrity interviews continue to earn ABC some of its highest ratings of any time period, but Barbara herself began to grow tired of them and stipulated in a contract renewal of the early 1990s that she do fewer of them. Most of the stars, she complained, were only interested in promoting their latest book or movie; it was tremendously difficult to elicit anything of interest from them. "What I hate is the preparation of the questions," she has said. "People say 'Oh, isn't if fun?' It isn't fun! [The challenge is to] get them to say something interesting." But her talks with public figures have provided television with some of its most riveting and touching moments. One of her most moving interviews was in September 1995, when Walters talked to actor Christopher Reeve, left paralyzed in a wheelchair from spinal cord injuries after a riding accident, and his wife Dana . "She gave us room to express [the despair I once felt] and also to talk about how much joy, hopefulness, laughter and love remain in our life," Reeve later said. The interview raised public awareness and support for research into spinal cord injuries and so touched the nation that Walters was given the prestigious Peabody Award for journalistic excellence for the interview. Her sensitive questioning of former Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis followed in 1996, after Louganis had admitted knowing he was HIV-positive during his gold-medal performance at the 1992 Olympic games. Louganis' discussion of his homosexuality and his struggles with AIDS under Walters' gentle questioning won the appreciation of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation, which awarded her its first Excellence in Media Award. Equally impressive was Walters' interview with Los Angeles attorney Marcia Clark , who had been one of the lead prosecutors in California's murder case against O.J. Simpson. Barbara used the interview to explore sexual discrimination in the courtroom and made her audience see Clark's admission to a rehabilitation clinic after the trial was over as a symptom of that discrimination.

By the end of the century, Barbara Walters had become the highest-paid and longest-employed woman in broadcasting, had won seven Emmy Awards, and had become the first woman inducted into the American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Hall of Fame. "She is an institution now," ABC's Mike Wallace said of her late in 1999, but Walters has no intention of assuming such an exalted status by retiring from the job that has made her world famous. "With the grace of God and a good lighting director," Walters said in 1996, at the age of 67, "I look forward to doing it for a long time."


Oppenheimer, Jerry. Barbara Walters: An Unauthorized Biography. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1990.

Remstein, Henna. Barbara Walters. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House, 1999.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York

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Walters, Barbara (1929—)

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