Walter Winchell: Inventing Info-tainment
Walter Winchell’s broadcasting career was very political, an ally first for President Roosevelt and later for Senator McCarthy on the radio. However, he rose to prominence digging up dirt on celebrities and various socialites. Like H.V. Kaltenborn, Fulton Lewis, Jr. and Boake Carter, Winchell began his media career as a newspaperman, but in a profoundly different way. He was the first gossip columnist, then radio gossip commentator. He revolutionized the news media, became an unparalleled star across multiple platforms and added many previously non-existing words to the English language along the way.
“Rush Limbaugh flows from Walter Winchell. Walter Winchell was the first heated, irrational, political commentator,” liberal media commentator Neal Gabler, a Winchell biographer, said in a 1994 interview with National Public Radio. “In some respects, Howard Stern flows from Walter Winchell, because Walter Winchell was a confessional journalist and really one of the first who talked about his family, talked about his affairs, talked about his relationship to his wife, and did it in the column to a wide public. Entertainment Tonight flows from Walter Winchell. Info-tainment—the whole notion of info-tainment—is really an invention of Walter Winchell’s, so, in some ways, when we look at, for better or worse, this media environment in which we live, one can trace its roots to Walter Winchell.”
About 50 million Americans out of an adult population of million listened to his radio broadcast, and almost as many read his six-day per week newspaper column syndicated in 2,000 newspapers nationally. He was so much a part of the culture of his day that Burt Lancaster played a Winchell-like character, a ruthless gossip columnist, under the name J.J. Hunesecker, in the 1957 film “Sweet Smell of Success.” His image and phrase “O.K.—America!” were posted on 45,000 billboards across the country to advertising the popular Lucky Strike cigarette brand.152 In his prime he made $300,000 to $500,000 per year, which would put in on a par with network news anchors when adjusted for inflation.
While Fulton Lewis and Boake Carter can be compared to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, Winchell most closely resembles Internet mogul Matt Drudge—who would become a media evolutionary in the 1990s. Drudge even wears a fedora to emulate his hero Winchell. Just as much of the establishment press scoffs at Drudge today—though pine to have their story linked on his site—most of the establishment press scorned Winchell in those days, even though he had an unparalleled audience for a newsman of any kind.
He was born in 1897 in East Harlem in New York, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. Winchell dropped out of school after the sixth grade.154 He got a job sending news tidbits to The Vaudeville News, then by 1924 secured a gossip column for the sensationalistic tabloid New York Evening Graphic called “Your Broadway and Mine.” Within 10 years he hit the big leagues getting a job at the New York Daily Mirror, a newspaper owned by industry giant William Randolph Hearst. When one of his editors told him, “You have neither ethics, scruples, decency nor conscience,” Winchell responded, “I’ve got the readers.”
His widely read column paved the way for his radio debut in 1930 on CBS’s Saks on Broadway, which was a 15-minute feature about show business news. Then in 1932 NBC’s “Blue Network,” later ABC, hired him to host The Jergens Journal, sponsored by the Jergens lotion, also a 15-minute show about entertainment.
Winchell also began talking about national affairs. As we’ve seen, opinionated radio was nothing new. What was new was Winchell’s colorful, fast-paced, staccato style with a telegraph typing in the background. He frequently would say, “I’ll be back in a flash with a flash”; “Attention, Commissioner Valentine, please phone—I have an alleged clue;” “Dots and Dashes and Lots of Flashes from Border to Border and Coast to Coast.” He still managed to write six columns per week for the Mirror. In gossip, he came up with the phrase “main stem” for Broadway, a “keptive” was a mistress and newlyweds were either “lohengrinned” or “welded.
A pregnant woman was “infanticipating” and if a famous couple broke up they were “sharing separate tepees.”
He would open his shows generally saying, “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. North and South America and all the ships at sea. Let’s go to press.”
He would generally end the show saying, “And that, ladies and gentlemen, winds up another Jergen’s Journal until next Sunday night at the very same time. Until then and with lotions of love, I remain your New York correspondent, Walter Winchell.”
After the 1932 presidential race, Roosevelt invited Winchell to the White House and thanked him for his support, even telling him to call whenever he wanted.
“It was in 1933, after the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt that he really became a political gossip and a commentator, as well just a gossip monger on Broadway and Hollywood and the entertainment circles,” said Gabler, author of Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity. “And that was because Franklin Roosevelt, shortly after that inauguration, invited Walter Winchell to Washington, obviously in the interest of promoting himself and the New Deal, and Winchell was easily courted, becoming really, perhaps, the most prominent cheerleader in all of the media, for FDR, because after 1935, most of the media in this country were arrayed against him. But there was Walter Winchell, a lone and loud voice, promoting the New Deal and FDR.”
After the first meeting in 1933, Winchell called FDR, “the nation’s new hero.”
He should be credited for being among the first pundits to denounce Adolph Hitler, though not always in the most substantive way. In 1933, he said of the German chancellor, “I cannot refrain from flaunting the fact that he is a homo-sexualist.” Winchell aggressively called for U.S. intervention into World War II, often ripping into the isolationist’s movement demanding the country stay neutral.
Next to Roosevelt, his favorite political figure was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. This was despite Winchell’s chumminess with organized crime figures. He interviewed Al Capone and was friendly with Frank Costello. In one unusual occurrence, Louis (Lepke) Buchalter—whom Hoover called “the most dangerous criminal in the United States” surrendered to Winchell in 1939.
In 1940, New Yorker writer St. Clair McKelway wrote a book scrutinizing Winchell’s work, titled “Gossip: The Life and Times of Walter Winchell,” and concluded that Winchell’s reporters were 41.2 percent completely inaccurate, 18.3 percent partially accurate and 40.5 percent completely accurate.166 It didn’t matter to most of the public. Far more people counted themselves among Winchell’s loyal listeners than read the book about him.
Winchell was very forward thinking on civil rights, going with heavyweight fighter Joe Louis to his favorite night spot, the Stork Club. In other cases, he would escort blacks into clubs to integrate them. More importantly, black soldiers would write him about abuses they suffered in the military and Winchell would send a note to President Roosevelt. Roosevelt valued his relationship with Winchell, and had his staff take action. He also escorted Sugar Ray Robinson into a segregated hotel in Miami.
FDR’s death was a blow to the country, but particularly one for Winchell.
“Winchell loved FDR and took his political bearings from FDR, so that when FDR dies, Winchell, like most of the country, in point of fact, lost his political bearings, and when one factors that in with the other side, that with the Nazi threat gone, Walter Winchell has no adversary,” Gabler said. “And Walter Winchell is a man who lives an adversarial life. Everything in Walter Winchell is predicated on the notion that he is sounding the alarm for Americans.”
So that alarm would be the communist threat. Roy Cohn, Sen. Joe McCarthy’s chief aid, befriended him and brought him into McCarthy’s circle. Like FDR, McCarthy knew how important finessing a giant media personality could be.
In one broadcast Winchell warned Americans, “And now to beat the hand around the clock. International News Service—January 10th is the date for a mass meeting of the communist leaders in Washington, D.C.—behind closed doors, of course. The real purpose, however, will be to protest the trial of the 12 leading commie chiefs in the United States.”
He went on to accuse Lucille Ball of being a communist. Her husband Desi Arnaz responded, “The only thing red about Lucy isher hair, and not even that is real.”
After McCarthy became disreputable in the public’s mind, so did many who aligned themselves with him. In the case of Winchell, it was McCarthy and a number of other factors that led to his decline.
When entertainer Josephine Baker claimed she was discriminated against at the Stork Club for being black, Winchell—who had a good on-air record for civil rights—scorned Baker for attacking his favorite night spot. The public spat made front page news.173 Also, Winchell—like so many other radio titans—couldn’t cut it on the TV age. The staccato-style so popular on the radio caused him to bob, weave and jerk, which was OK before it became visual. On TV it just seemed weird. Also, fedoras were out of fashion by the 1950s.
He found a successful TV gig though as the unseen narrator of the crime drama “The Untouchables” from 1959-1964, a fictionalized version of Elliot Ness’s book by the same name—not the news commentator he had been used to. The Daily Mirror folded in 1963, and Hearst dropped his column from The World Journal Tribune in 1967. That year, desperate for work, he took out an ad in Variety asking for someone to hire him, with no luck. Even worse, no publisher was interested in his autobiography.175
He also had an incredibly messy personal life. He was a notorious philanderer during his two marriages. Meanwhile, his son committed suicide, and one daughter died of pneumonia. The one-time huge star, Winchell died of cancer in 1972 in Los Angeles, only his daughter Walda attended his funeral.