January 18, 1929—Armed with a faster-than-the-speed-of-sound delivery, newspaper gossip columnist Walter Winchell made the leap from the printed page to the airwaves with a radio program that would make him a force to be reckoned with by Broadway producers and U.S. Presidents for more than a generation.
For a man who would become known on the Great White Way for breathtaking arrogance, it’s especially rich to know that Winchell’s show—which went out on a 42-station hookup on its premiere, sponsored by Gimbel’s Department Store—began life as “New York by a New York Representative.”
Far before Howard Stern got there, Winchell was the original “King of All Media.” Well, almost all.
His newspaper column was the bedrock of his kingdom, the same way that the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority served as the linchpin of New York “Power Broker” Robert Moses’ civic empire. And, like Moses, Winchell seemed for the longest time a law unto himself, an egotist who let nothing stand in his way.
But there were also realms the two men could not conquer: electoral politics in Moses’ case (he lost the race for New York governor by an embarrassing landslide and never sought office again), TV celebrity journalism and variety shows in the case of Winchell. (His stint as narrator of The Untouchables came when he was already being regarded as a something of a historical relic, lending all that much more seeming authenticity to the crime show.)
One other thing the two men had in common, besides longevity. Arrogance and an unconquered realm: Neither collapsed in a sudden fall. Instead, their influence slowly ebbed, like the half-life of uranium.
For a long time, it seemed that not just Winchell but the atmosphere of his time was gone for good. Print reporters and blow-dried journalists, trained in graduate schools of journalism, looked down their noses at the former starstruck city kid whose education ended with the sixth grade. And Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Daniel Bell were heralding “the vital center” and “the end of ideology” at the dawn of the Sixties, a distinct rebuke to a commentator who rode his political hobbyhorses as eagerly as he roared through city streets in a car featuring a radio receiver, a flashing red light and a siren.
Well, that was then. This is now.
Over the last decade, the atmosphere created by the Internet has come to resemble the go-go years of radio in the 1920s and early 1930s. The similarity lies not merely in the way both became the go-to sources for breaking news in their times, but in a kind of radical egalitarianism that would have sparked the Founding Fathers’ disapproval.
Winchell, as indicated previously, did not advance far in school. But in his time, education was hardly an insuperable barrier to getting on in the new medium. Everyone wanted to form his or her own radio station, and rather than being told how, for instance, a President’s voice sounded, listeners could decide for themselves.
Likewise, in the Internet era, everyone can become his or her own editor or publisher. Information is unmediated, with neither an editor nor necessarily even education necessary. Matt Drudge, for instance—who, with his hat and the word “developing” at the end of his scoops, styles himself explicitly after Winchell—admitted in his book Drudge Manifesto that he graduated 341st out of his high school class of 355.
Like Drudge, Winchell could hit or miss with the accuracy of his scoops. But in his time, he was far more a force to be reckoned with than Drudge. He was also a more complicated figure:
* Though known at the end of his career for allying with Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Winchell began as an outspoken supporter of Franklin Roosevelt. Unlike other American Jews such as Walter Lippmann and The New York Times’ Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who were so intent on assimilating into the U.S. that they downplayed the Holocaust while the news reports were circulating about it during the war, Winchell denounced Nazi terror early and often.
* Though hardly handsome, Winchell’s energy made him attractive to women, enabling him to conduct numerous affairs.
* His breezy style of reporting led Winchell to coin all kinds of terms that become known as “Winchellisms,” including the now-familiar “scram” and “pushover” and the more unusual “Reno-vating” (for divorcing), “infanticipating,” and “debutramps.”
* As the inventor of the gossip column at the New York Evening Graphic, he pioneered the practice of exposing the private lives of public figures, inspiring so much resentment that the actress Ethel Barrymore once remarked, “It is a mark against American manhood that Walter Winchell is allowed to live.” Yet he harbored an explosive secret of his own that he carried for more than four decades: the fact the he had never married June Magee, the woman whom he passed off as his second wife. He feared that had he done so, the marriage license would have forced him to reveal the illegitimate birth of their daughter Walda.
The career of Winchell inspired the classic 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success, with Burt Lancaster’s sinister columnist J.J. Hunsecker resembling him in a number of ways. That film resembled the takedown of another feared press lord, Orson Welles’ thinly veiled expose of William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane. Both films:
* featured scaldingly brilliant scripts that anatomized the will to power of a press lord.
* were written by men who had bitten the hands that fed them. Welles’ co-screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz, had been a guest at Hearst’s home San Simeon before he came up with the idea for the film. One of the two screenwriters of Sweet Smell, Ernest Lehman, had become familiar with Winchell’s tactics as a press agent before entering the film industry.
* included scandals that their subjects would prefer be quashed. Hearst’s longtime liaison with silent-film comedienne Marion Davies, hardly a secret in Tinseltown, was held up for savage ridicule by Welles and Mankiewicz. Just as J.J. Hunsecker sought to break up the romance of his younger sister, Winchell shattered a man named Billy Cahn who had secretly dated the columnist’s daughter over the latter’s vociferous objections.
* featured protagonists who, for all their power, ended up alone and psychologically maimed. Charles Foster Kane dies alone in his fabulous but forbidding mansion Xanadu; Hunsecker’s crushing of his sister’s affair leads her to break off all relations with him.
Sweet Smell’s forecast of the lonely end of Hunsecker proved to be an accurate foretelling of Winchell’s own fate. When his longtime paper, the Daily Mirror, died in 1963, Winchell had lost the longtime mainstay of his career. During the Columbia University demonstrations in 1968, he was astonished to find that he couldn’t persuade a young cop to let him past the barricades: “They don’t know me. They don’t know who I was.”
Four years later, after his wife had died, a son had committed suicide, and his daughter Walda no longer speaking to him, Walter Winchell died. Only one person attended his funeral