Walter Winchell (April 7, 1897 – February 20, 1972) was an American newspaper and radio commentator. He invented the "gossip column" while at the New York Evening Graphic. He ignored the journalistic taboo against exposing the private lives of public figures, permanently altering journalism. He was a major gossip reporter, whose newspaper column and radio program could often define the reputation of a celebrity.
Born in New York City as Walter Winschel, Winchell started performing in vaudeville troupes while still a teenager. His journalism began when he started posting gossipy notes about his acting troupe on backstage bulletin boards. He became a professional journalist during the 1920s.
Winchell's publications were extremely popular and influential for decades, notoriously aiding or harming the careers of many entertainers. Although he concentrated on gossiping about entertainment figures, Winchell frequently expressed opinions about public affairs.
By the 1930s, he was "an intimate friend of Owney Madden, New York's No. 1 gang leader of the prohibition era," but "in 1932 Winchell's intimacy with criminals caused him to fear he would be "rubbed out" for "knowing too much." He fled to California, "[and] returned weeks later with a new enthusiasm for law, G-men, Uncle Sam, [and] Old Glory." His coverage of the Lindbergh kidnapping and subsequent trial was famous. Then he became in the space of two years, the friend of J. Edgar Hoover, the No. 2 G-man of the repeal era. He was responsible for turning Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, of Murder, Inc., over to Hoover.
His newspaper column was syndicated in over 2,000 newspapers worldwide, and he was read by about 50 million people a day from the 1920s until the early 1960s. His Sunday night radio broadcast was heard by another 20 million people from 1930 to the late 1950s.
Winchell, who was Jewish, was one of the first commentators in America to attack Adolf Hitler and American pro-fascist and pro-National socialist organizations such as the German-American Bund. He generally had a left-of-center political view through the 1930s and World War II, when he was stridently pro-Roosevelt, pro-labor, and pro–Democratic Party. After WW II Winchell began to perceive Communism as the main threat facing America. A signal of Winchell's changed perspective was his wartime attack on the National Maritime Union, the labor organization for the civilian United States Merchant Marine, which he believed was run by Communists. This evolution in Winchell's perspective continued after the war. During the late 1940s, he became allied with the right wing of American politics. In this new role, Winchell frequently attacked politicians he did not like by implying in his commentaries that they were Communist sympathizers. In 1948 and 1949 he and the influential leftist columnist Drew Pearson "inaccurately and maliciously assaulted Secretary of Defense James Forrestal in columns and radio broadcasts." Forrestal was, if anything, even more anti-Communist than Winchell, but he was also the strongest opponent in the Truman administration of recognition of the new state of Israel.
During the 1950s Winchell favored Senator Joseph McCarthy, and as McCarthy's Red Scare tactics became more extreme and unbelievable, Winchell lost credibility along with McCarthy. He also had a weekly radio broadcast which was simulcast on ABC television until he ended that employment because of a dispute with ABC executives during 1955.
An attempt to revive his commentary program five years later proved to be a fiasco: Winchell was canceled after only six broadcasts.
During this time, NBC had given him the opportunity to host a variety show, which lasted only 13 weeks. His readership gradually dropped, and when his home paper, the New York Daily Mirror, for which he worked for 34 years, closed during 1963, he faded from the public eye. He did, however, receive $25,000 an episode to narrate The Untouchables on the ABC television network for five seasons beginning in 1959.
Winchell's success was not due entirely to the salaciousness of the celebrity secrets he revealed: many other columnists, such as Ed Sullivan in New York and Louella Parsons in Los Angeles, began to write gossip soon after Winchell's initial success. But Winchell had a style that others found impossible to mimic. He disdained the ornate style that had characterized newspaper columns in the past and instead wrote in a kind of telegraphic style filled with slang and incomplete sentences. Creating his own shorthand language, Winchell was responsible for introducing into the American vernacular such now-familiar words and phrases as "scram," "pushover," and "belly laughs." (Winchell's casual manner of writing famously earned him the ire of mobster Dutch Schultz, who confronted Winchell at New York's Cotton Club and publicly lambasted him for using the phrase "pushover" to describe Schultz's penchant for blonde women). He wrote many quips such as "Nothing recedes like success," and "I usually get my stuff from people who promised somebody else that they would keep it a secret."
Winchell began his radio broadcasts by pressing randomly on a telegraph key, a sound which created a sense of urgency and importance. He then opened with the catch phrase "Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea. Let's go to press." He would then read each of his stories with a staccato delivery at an average rate of 197 words per minute, noticeably faster than the typical pace of American speech.
Winchell became a celebrity himself, often appearing as himself in movies. He frequented Sherman Billingsley's Stork Club during the 1940s, and always sat at table 50 in the Cub Room. There was a Winchellburger on the menu.
A less endearing aspect of Winchell's style were his attempts, especially after World War II, to destroy the careers of personal or political enemies: an example is the feud he had with New York radio host Barry Gray, whom he described as "Borey Pink" and a "disk jerk." When Winchell heard that Marlen Edwin Pew of the trade journal Editor & Publisher had criticized him as a bad influence on the American press, he thereafter referred to him as "Marlen Pee-you."
Winchell often did not have credible sources for his accusations. He did not have any real incentive to be accurate, because for most of his career his contract with his newspaper and radio employers required them to reimburse him for any damages he had to pay, should he be sued for slander or libel. Whenever friends reproached him for betraying confidences, he responded, "I know—- I'm just a son of a bitch." By the mid-1950s he was widely believed to be arrogant, cruel, and ruthless. The changes in Winchell's public image over time can be seen by comparing the two fictional movie gossip columnists who were based on Winchell. In the 1932 film, Okay, America, the columnist, played by Lew Ayres, is a hero. In the 1957 film, Sweet Smell of Success, the columnist, played by Burt Lancaster, is obnoxious, mentally ill, and possessed of an unhealthy fondness for his sister. This is, in part, an allusion to an incident in which Winchell ended his daughter Walda's impending marriage.
On August 11, 1919, Winchell married Rita Green, one of his onstage partners. The couple separated a few years later, and he moved in with June Magee, who had already given birth to their first child, a daughter named Walda. Winchell and Green eventually divorced in 1928. Winchell and Magee would never marry, although the couple maintained the front of being married for the rest of their lives. Winchell feared that a marriage license would reveal the fact that Walda was illegitimate.
Winchell and Magee successfully kept the secret of their nonmarriage, but were struck by tragedy with all three of their children. Their adopted daughter Gloria died of pneumonia at age nine, and Walda spent time in mental institutions. Walter, Jr., the only son of the journalist, committed suicide in his family's garage on Christmas night, 1968. Having spent the previous two years on welfare, Winchell, Jr. had last been employed as a dishwasher in Santa Ana, California, but listed himself as a freelance writer.
Winchell announced his retirement on February 5, 1969, citing the tragedy of his son's suicide as a major reason, while also noting the delicate health of his wife. Exactly one year later, she died at a Phoenix hospital while undergoing treatment for a heart condition.
Winchell's final two years were spent as a recluse at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Larry King, who replaced Winchell at the Miami Herald, observed, "He was so sad. You know what Winchell was doing at the end? Typing out mimeographed sheets with his column, handing them out on the corner. That's how sad he got. When he died, only one person came to his funeral." (Several of Winchell's former co-workers expressed a willingness to go, but were turned back by his daughter Walda.)
Even during Winchell's lifetime, journalists were critical of his effect on the media. In 1940, Time Magazine said St. Clair McKelway, who had written a New Yorker Magazine series of articles on him, bemoaned, "the effect of Winchellism on the standards of the press. When Winchell began gossiping in 1924 for the late scatological tabloid Evening Graphic, no U.S. paper hawked rumors about the marital relations of public figures until they turned up in divorce courts. For 16 years, gossip columns spread until even the staid New York Times whispered that it heard from friends of a son of the President that he was going to be divorced. In its first year, The Graphic would have considered this news not fit to print." Laments McKelway, "Gossip-writing is at present like a spirochete in the body of journalism.... Newspapers... have never been held in less esteem by their readers or exercised less influence on the political and ethical thought of the times." Winchell responded to McKelway saying, "Oh stop! You talk like a high-school student of journalism."
Despite the controversy surrounding Winchell, his popularity allowed him to leverage support for causes that he valued. In 1946, following the death from cancer of his close friend and fellow writer Damon Runyon, Winchell appealed to his radio audience for contributions to fight cancer. The response led Winchell to establish the Damon Runyon Cancer Memorial Fund, since renamed the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. He led the charity - with the support of celebrities like Marlene Dietrich, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Marilyn Monroe, and Joe DiMaggio - until his own death from cancer in 1972.
- Winchell Gets A Taste Of His Own Medicine! (political attack by nationalists on Winchell, Constitutional Educational League, 1944)
- "GOSSIP: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF WALTER WINCHELL—St. Clair McKelway—Viking ($1.75)". TIME. September 23, 1940. http://jcgi.pathfinder.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,802020,00.html. Retrieved 2006-11-13.
- "Liberty Ships" 1995 Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) documentary
- CBS's Don Hollenbeck: An Honest Reporter in the Age of McCarthyism, Loren Ghiglione, 2008, Chapter 16
- Thomas, Bob (1971). Winchell. “His ranking among the most listened-to radio programs climbed higher and higher until in 1948 his audience was the biggest in radio.”
- Pioneers of Television: "Late Night" episode (2008 PBS mini-series) "Paar's feud with newspaper columnist Walter Winchell marked a major turning point in American media power. No one had ever dared criticize Winchell because a few lines in his column could destroy a career, but when Winchell disparaged Paar in print, Paar fought back and mocked Winchell repeatedly on the air. Paar's criticisms effectively ended Winchell's career. The tables had turned, now TV had the power."
- Sann, Paul. "Kill the Dutchman!"
- Neal Gabler, Winchell : Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity (Vintage: 1995), p. 3