WINCHELL

Neal Gabler

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.

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REVIEW: NEW YORK TIMES

Delivered to the house was the magazine WIRED (March 2017). I’ve perused it and have comments.

On the cover is a photograph of A.G. Sulzberger, editor/publisher/owner of the New York Times. He appears to be middle age, is bald, mediocre posture of an undead person, and wearing dark clothes he is ready to conduct funerals. It looks very Nineteenth Century – pose, distant vision, presentation of person, but that’s it. None of that works today, 2017.

Inside Sulzberger says that everyone appear and be normal human beings. Nothing about Sulzberger suggests he is a homo sapiens sapiens. He looks like an android sent from another planet to scout out prospects on earth. He is less threatening than Arnold Schwarzenegger, but looks built by the same machine-owned firm that put Arnold together for those movies. Trying to soften Sulzberger’s image, they have him wearing eye glasses, circa 1935 frames.

There are many problems with the New York Times, the most basic ones are not identified in the article. Indeed, one paragraph in the article presents New York Times’ major flaws:

Four books after the election, Times chief executive Mark Thompson
told an industry conference that subscriptions had surged at 10 times
their usual rate. To Thompson, the likeliest explanation wasn’t that
the times did a bang-up job covering the final days of the election –
like everyone else, they failed to anticipate Trump’s victory – that that
readers were looking to hedge against fake news. He suggests a simpler
reason: “I think the public anxiety to actually have professional,
consistent, properly funded newsrooms holding politicians to account
is probably bigger than all of the other factors put together.” In other
words, the president’s hostility to the press and the very notion of facts
themselves seems to have reminded people that nothing about The New
York Times – or the kind of journalism it publishes – is inevitable.

This passage, page 53, like most most journalistic writing is overwrought. 1) It can be cut: ELIMINATE “In other words” and everything after it. 2) Another explanation (third line) is most likely: Democrats and anti-Trump persons believed they missed something, which The New York Times picked up. They ended subscriptions to other newspapers and started up with the gorilla on the block. 3) The admitted failure of The Times and everyone else to predict a Trump victory suggests a grave issue. The Times was believing its own press, it’s own sources, all its fans, it’s own wave. 4) Journalists are supposed to talk to the other side, which many people, Left or Right, have difficulty doing. One wonders if The Times talks to people on the right, or if their reporters have shut their mouths now that new immigration policies are being put into effect. Polls suggest those are popular measures among Americans. [Remember, don’t conduct any penetrating political polling in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania before the election.]

Other than who is being talked to and reported, what are the facts – misstatements, misconceptions, pure truth. No knows what that is sitting in New York City wondering about an Internet site at the New York Times offices. [This segment is greatly shortened.] All journalism comes from excellent writing, and that is where the Internet and word processing becomes a hinderance. Everything is spelled correctly; words appear to be in the proper order. There are too many words – say eight words where two will do. The Internet has space to waste, not the usual newspaper adage. All those reporters who grew up and got an “A” in eighth grade English, have pyramided that excellence into a newspaper career. They’re still writing at middle-school levels, with the juvenile, horrifying reactions to the unusual, the absurd and the foreign.

Every immaterial, irrelevant reaction part of perceived fad-culture is presented in an article. That is not journalism. What may be journalism is the fact that people believe such temporary moments as important, where as in the long haul, they are not. Newspapers hire journalists for their perspective, but most journalists hooked onto the Internet truly believe in these cultural misunderstandings – it might be 5,000 people without tickets to a concert and they are disappointed. Time to riot. Let’s feel sorry for them? [Is the story about the 5,000 standing around outside waiting for the concert to end? What else is on their mind? Is this the best thing any of the 5,000 can do with time?]

Are journalists trained and do they understand everything? The easiest thing to do is hand them a straightforward story, and learn how many cliches are included in the proffered article. The more cliches, the less understanding.

Keep reporters away from the two-pager in Wired. How to grow your own pot. That will kill initiative, except to cultivate and smoke, and wither away brain cells the user never knew were present. It’s not called dope for nothing.

This final most significant point in the Wired New York Times article suggests doom for the newspaper. It’s not that the Ploughkeepsie Times is stealing advertising dollars. It is not competition from the ankle bitters like the Huffington Post take a few bucks. The big player in the room came in a few years ago, new to newspapers but forever familiar with the internet. Jeff Bezos of Amazon bought The Washington Post, lock, stock and barrel, and likely The Post does not have the Internet issues complicating life at the NY Times. Instead, Bezos must only work to cultivate writing and writers, the most important part of any newspaper. If the Internet is presenting a new way at looking at the world (needs color, illustrations, pictures, cartoons), do it! Recognize newspapers are competing against the Super Bowl, World Series, the Best Voice, Great Dancer shows, Wiccan Conventions and every musician to touch a fiddle.