Winchell was an entertainer, and primarily uninteresting. During the 1920s he came up in the newspaper world (columnist) and made most of his money and notoriety (not fame) in radio. Winchell never had the substance, education and discipline of an Edward R. Murrow or a William L. Shirer.
What Winchell had was gossip, “making smart chat,” initially about persons involved in Broadway plays and shows extending to Hollywood, New York City, crime, and into politics. A fact is found this biography telling about Winchell’s wife, June:
“She read novels, saw movies, listened to records and radio
programs for Walter and delivered her opinions, which then
became his opinions.” (p. 357)
Apparently Winchell great observer, critic and commentator did none of those things. He collected and organized gossip, having a string of runners whom he usually did not pay. Much of the slang he developed and used then does not live today.
Winchell had no background for what he was doing. He was an empty suit. At the end of his life he wrote an overlong autobiography (in manuscript) pulling no punches, punching down, kicking shins and elsewhere else. It is hinted, though, that therein Winchell told the truth.
The author quotes a member of the Smart Set: “If all the Armenians were to be killed tomorrow” that would help establish the decade’s tenor, “and if half of Russia were to starve to death the day after, it would not matter in the least. What concerns me alone is myself and the interest of a few close friends. For all I care the rest of the world may go to hell at today’s sunset.”(p. 47) This book tells the relationships and activities of Walter Winchell and a few close associates and colleagues who lived in New York City and Washington D.C.
At the end of life Winchell was defeated and bitter. His family’s life had collapsed: A daughter had died when young; his wife (somewhat estranged) saw him a week or two a year; she died before him. A daughter with grandkids was unhappy and not productive. A son had committed suicide. For the final fifteen (15) years of life (60-75 years) his health was no good. All the while his professional career of gossip was disappearing. His was a name many knew, but he was from a profession and a time that no longer existed. He was a hanger-on, has-been, once-was.
From gossip around New York City in the 1920s, Winchell moved toward circles in Washington D.C. New York City might tolerate the fluff, insults and revelations. Almost everyone would not hold grudges. However, Winchell held grudges for years or decades to the point of being vile and evil. I had to rethink Ed. Sullivan who adamantly opposed Winchell for a quarter century. Sullivan was not intimidated. Unlike the person most Americans remember, Sullivan was very athletic when young. Winchell did not want to tangle with him.
The Washington D.C. world pegged Winchell, and held him to his words. He was initially anti-Nazi and against racial discrimination. He was on “the New Deal” team and opposed to conservative forces in the Democratic Party. He was B.F. F. with J. Eager Hoover – died two months apart in 1972.
Those persons and organizations presented forces and influences on Winchell that he could not handle and did not have the ability to dismiss. Personally, he was a raving lunatic when it came to his column; He mostly had the blessings of his sponsors of his radio broadcasters, but not his employers. Everyone liked the expanse of exposure and advertising Winchell provided, but there were no controls, no discipline, no education and no restraints on Walter Winchell. He was a master and manipulator of his world, gossip.
His failure to recognize and abide by limits, to observe times were achanging, and to be introspective brought failure. Josephine Baker entertained in New York City and dined at the Stork Club, owned by a good Oklahoma friend of Winchell. The unstated policy at the Club was no riffraff and no minorities; the place was for white snobs only. In the early 1950s Winchell was in the restaurant when Baker and her guests were served drinks but left for a movie premiere. Baker later was not served the dinner she ordered. Everyone wondered what Winchell thought. He did not explain the facts as he knew them and next say he was awaiting the results of the Civil Rights investigation. Instead, Winchell treated the incident like it was part of his column, an item of gossip where he did not have to take responsibility for missing or added facts. He tried to protect the Oklahoma friend and the Stork Club, although he disagreed with the policy. As the sides hardened, Winchell attacked Baker for several years. It is wrong to say Winchell was a racist, but it is right to say he was an idiot bordering on imbecility.
Winchell was anti-Communist, and once again he got caught up on the extremes of Washington D.C. and a national issue. Winchell backed Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn (whom he introduced to the Senator). The grand finale which Winchell did not perceive coming or realized while it happened on television, was followed by Winchell trying to protect McCarthy and slamming organizations and individuals as communist-oriented, leaning left and pink. In the 1960s Winchell still called John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy communists.
Would anyone ever believe Walter Winchell could be so uneducated, ignorant and thick? He never understood, When the horse is dead, get off. He had to opportunity (like Ed Sullivan) to make the transition to Television, but did not fully understand the medium. [This thinking came from a guy who was in vaudeville for a dozen years and never forgot stage work.] Apparently, his life was so perfect – none of it was – that he was incapable of change. A New York celebrity dined with Winchell at the Stork Club, and opined in his diary, “Winchell was a bore, a vanity of all vanities.”(p. 257) Late in life he got a press pass and observed the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention street riots. Like most reporters Winchell did not and could not know the full story, but he chose anyway.
The strength of this biography tells the life and times of the man, how he fit in and his methods of surviving. The surprising fact is that Winchell did not change. In the end he sought television exposure, a further failure of business opportunities accompanying bad health and a disintegrating family. The times of Walter Winchell are not as complete as they can be because primary sources are likely not yet opened or available.
If the biography has problems they are absence by inference. Winchell’s shortcomings. It is a New York City behavior revisited on the American people every week now. He was usually nonsensical and unmeritorious on the attack, always blundering through trivia; the points made were off-point, scattered and offensive. That was Winchell’s doing in his column and on the radio. And now Americans have to hear that sort of tripe, petty, crybaby stuff everyday.
Winchell was not a celebrity. He received no respect and no love during his lifetime and afterward. He did not deserve it. Winchell preyed upon people’s fears until the last decades of life when opponents began beating Winchell up with their words. Winchell was notorious, an outlaw to entertainment and to society, one of the sorts of figures today who get arrested before a concert tour as part of a publicity campaign.
A final point: The Burt Lancaster movie, Sweet Smell of Success, (1957) was representative of Winchell’s career and life. Winchell was the target. It is an ugly, dark movie and a classic. But His Girl Friday is also about Winchell. Gary Grant, editor, plays Winchell. The character and the target share a first name, Walter.