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The Age of Winchell
By Ralph D. Gardner
Walter Winchell in his glory days, 1931.
His virulent support of Senator Joseph McCarthy, above, brought down the all-powerful Walter Winchell.
By Ralph D. Gardner
Since retiring I occasionally lecture as a visiting professor of journalism. At Baylor University in Waco, Texas, a few years ago, I mentioned Walter Winchell and was astonished that no student in that class had ever heard his name.
When I said I knew Winchell someone asked: "Winchell who?"
But from the 1920ís through the 50ís, virtually everyone in America knew his name. Not only was he the flamboyant superstar of a unique sideshow in this countryís journalistic development, but it was an act he created.
During that time Winchell had imitators, but no equals. And although his years of glory are not that long past, he is today largely forgotten, except by an aged circle of what, in his day, was called "Broadway press agents," by readers who once adored him and by a now diminished handful of old newspapermen.
Born in New York to impoverished immigrants in 1897, he left school at thirteen to join Gus Edwardsí School Days, a song and dance act that toured the vaudeville circuit. Ten years later Winchell became a reporter for the New York Graphic, inventing the gossip column and soon moving on to William Randolph Hearstís Mirror.
Starting during the Jazz Age, he wrote six fast-paced columns each week (printed in nearly 2,000 newspapers), and in the 30ís added Sunday radio broadcasts. Combined, they reached 50 million homes.
Feeding the publicís craving for scandal and gossip, he became the most powerful -- and feared -- journalist of his time. His articles were loaded with snappy, acerbic banter. Broadcasts were slangy, narrated with machine-gun rapidity, a telegraph key clicking in the background. "Mr. and Mrs. North and South America and all ships at sea," his programs began, "Letís go to press!
The columns, written in his own style, were composed of short sentences connected by three dots. Fed by press agents, tipsters, legmen and ghost writers, he possessed the extraordinary ability to make a Broadway show a hit, create overnight celebrities; enhance or destroy a political career. J. Edgar Hoover supplied scoops and favors in return for Winchellís support.
The workaholic Winchell was first to announce big-name marriages and divorces, Hollywood romances, exploits of socialites, international playboys, debutantes, mobsters and chorus girls, plus latest reports of café society antics.
He would also give timely plugs to show-biz unknowns or has-beens who were sorely in need of a helping hand. At the same time he savaged any whom he perceived to be his enemies.
Throughout the Depression he was a defender of the downtrodden. He backed President Roosevelt during those hard times and throughout World War II. He became a cheerleader for our armed forces. His slashing attacks upon Americaís foes, his wisecracks, optimistic predictions and "exclusives" provided relief from cruel realities.
Former speakeasy owner Sherman Billingsleyís Stork Club became Winchellís base of operations. There, at table 50 of the exclusionary Cub Room, he held court, receiving film stars, politicians and others whose names often were known because Winchell ignited and sustained their fame.
He was besiged by press agents whose ability to get a name into his column was worth pure gold. It secured new clients. Some were hired primarily for their access to Winchell.
In return for a blurb, most of them regularly contributed repartee and quips that contained no mention of their own employers. Some were said to compose for him entire columns in Winchellís jargon.
I cannot remember when I began reading Winchell, but it was while I was very young. During World War II, when I spent some months at the Armyís Halloran Hospital on Staten Island, an uncle who often visited me always brought a packet of Winchellís columns. They were as welcome as news from home, and were ultimately passed on to other soldiers in the ward.
However, it was at Lindyís, close to Times Square, that I first met Walter Winchell.
Lindyís, for decades a Broadway mecca and the setting for many of Damon Runyonís fables of mostly softhearted tough guys and their flashy dolls, was filled day and night. Customers lined up for overstuffed sandwiches (for which loaves of rye bread were sliced lengthwise) and gargantuan wedges of strawberry-topped cheesecake.
It was during 1947 or í48, when I was 24 or 25, a couple of years out of the Army and working several blocks south at the New York Times.
First editions came up from the basement presses at 11:00 p.m. After we made corrections, additions or changes and got a "good night" -- usually about midnight -- several of us walked over to Lindyís for a couple of carefree hours of good food, tall tales and laughs.
Owner Leo Linderman -- Lindy -- always had a table for us in the section that, well into early morning, was occupied by newspeople, press agents, racetrack types and assorted Runyonesque characters who eventually disappeared (as did the original Lindyís) when that neighborhood ceased to be The Great White Way, where the action was, all day and -- especially -- all night.
Often Winchell appeared, accompanied by a celebrity and one or two big fellows who I was told were bodyguards. Winchellís eyes darted all over the restaurant and frequently he paused to talk with those he knew.
On the evening Iím now trying to recall, I was seated with a press agent and two Times colleagues. One moonlighted for Variety as a reviewer of nightclub acts.The other was Sam Zolotow, the Timesí legendary theater news reporter who, with an inch of cigar clenched between his teeth, looked and spoke like someone out of a Runyon yarn. Years earlier Sam had earned enormous respect and a place in show business llore as the only person who ever persuaded Florenz Ziegfeld to repay to him borrowed cash. Sam never revealed how he did this.
The room suddenly became hushed and heads turned toward the entrance to see Winchell. He was leading his entourage to our table for a few words with Zolotow who introduced me to him as a fellow Times man.
As I appeared younger than my age, Winchell looked at me, puzzled, and asked if I was a copy boy. "No," Sam told him, "heís an editor. Winchell (I always called him Mr. Winchell) seemed surprised and although he probably didnít catch my name, thereafter greeted me either as Kid or The Boy Editor. But at that moment folks wondered if I was someone important.
A few weeks later he arrived with Bobby Ramsen, the Copacabanaís stand-up comic. They joined Jack OíBrian, Winchellís pal and fellow Hearst columnist, who said he had just seen a musical in which Ray Bolger did his trademark soft-shoe dance.
"Hell!" Winchell exclaimed, "Thatís what I did years ago in vaudeville," and he proceeded to entertain diners with an agile routine that drew appreciative applause.
After that period I rarely saw Walter Winchell because in 1949 I was assigned to the Times bureau in Paris and later, Frankfurt. But years later, when I left the newspaper to start my own advertising agency, I sent a note to Winchell, asking if he would consider giving my new venture a line in his column.
He gave my item a whole paragraph. It was unusual for anyone to leave the warm, one-big-family atmosphere of the Times of those days (Editor & Publisher reported my departure in an article with a headline that stretched across the top of a page). Winchellís mention helped me land two of my first accounts. And for his kindness I owed him everlasting thanks.
In the 1950ís Winchellís direction took an odd turn that was distressing to millions of readers. He became a supporter of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, filling his pages and broadcasts with vindicative, denunciatory tirades and mean-spirited accusations that resulted in lawsuits and loss of media outlets.
He had climbed to the top and tumbled.
For more than three decades his name was a household word. But like many of those he boosted to fame, he faded into oblivion. Nervous breakdowns followed, as did eventual isolation. Movie audiences recognized as Winchell the destructive gossip monger portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the 1957 film, "The Sweet Smell of Success."
Upon his death in 1972, a front-page obituary in the New York Times eulogized Walter Winchell as "the countryís best-known, widely read journalist as well as its most influential."
Neal Gabler, in his definitive, sometimes searing biography, (Knopf, 1994) wrote that one of the saddest aspects of Winchellís reign was his belief that it would never end. "Celebrities, like other commodities, have a built-in obsolescence. They take the national stage, do their act and leave."
What was so unfortunate, a longtime friend of Winchellís noted, was that he stayed around too long.
Ralph D. Gardner is a former New York Times editor and host of a talk show on books.