The Magazine

The Yenta

Barbara Walters asks the questions celebrities want to answer.

Nov 30, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 11 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Where else would Sarah Palin, or for that matter any other politician, entertainer, or criminal copping a plea in public go for the ultimate publicity fix?

She thinks of herself as a journalist, and, true enough, she has worked for the news divisions of some of the major television networks in the United States. She has interviewed 12--perhaps by now it is 13--American presidents and endless numbers of leaders of foreign countries. For a time she worked as a television news anchor--a job held by Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, men who may be said to specialize in high seriousness--and was the first woman to do so. Her connections, her credentials, her bona fides, her impressively high television ratings, all are there, perfectly in order. Why, then, in spite of all this, and after a long and immensely successful career, money, and accolades flowing in, does she nonetheless seem like nothing so much as a yenta, a good Yiddish word meaning female blabbermouth and busybody?

She, of course, is Barbara Walters.

Barbara Walters was the daughter of Lou Walters, a nightclub impresario famous in his heyday, the 1930s through the '40s, for founding and running the nightclubs called the Latin Quarter. Lou Walters was a high roller, and like most such men, his fortunes, roller coaster-like, went up and down. The ride was not always easy on his womenfolk, Barbara's mother, her three-years-older retarded sister Jackie, and Barbara herself. Guilt and insecurity are the leitmotifs of the memoir Barbara published called Audition, a title meant to suggest that she is perpetually in the tenuous condition of trying out for the part. Barbara, as she recounts, was always worried about not doing enough for her family, especially her sister, and was no less worried about being knocked down from the greasy pole of her profession up which she so persistently and aggressively climbed.

Troubled, to put it gently, was Barbara's childhood: many moves owing to her father's rocky business, not seeing enough of her father who worked late hours, feeling the frightening reverberations from the tensions in her parents' marriage, having to drag along her retarded sister, of whom she was half-ashamed and fully guilty for the shame she felt. Fearful of rejection, she didn't run with the first circle of girls in school, but the second. Later she wanted to go to Wellesley--where she was put on the waiting list--but wound up at Sarah Lawrence, another second-circle place.

Yet Sarah Lawrence, in the late 1940s and early '50s, turned out to be the right school for Barbara. Progressive in its aims, it was more than progressive, it was wonderfully avant-coocoo in its methods. In those days Barbara wanted to be an actress, so she majored in something called Theater. Her classes, as she describes them, sound very soft--spongy, really. The one science course she took was The Psychology of Art. She wrote a term paper on Love. The classes were small: six to no more than a dozen students.

"What we did," she reports, "was talk. And discuss. And talk some more. I learned to ask questions and to listen." Sounds, the whole four years, rather like an extended Barbara Walters Special. "I learned never to be afraid of speaking up. Every student's point of view was taken seriously, and no one ever said, 'That's stupid' or 'That's irrelevant.'" Perhaps someone should have. Barbara Walters's career might have turned out very differently.

Of Sarah Lawrence she notes that "none of us [she and her fellow students at the all-female college] needed a psychiatrist because we lived in group therapy every day. There were no secrets among us, no privacy." Which only shows how perfect Sarah Lawrence was for Barbara, for her work would always have something of the aura of the warm glow of the therapeutic, of the bull session with the girls, and her entire career, after all, was devoted to eliminating secrets and, thereby, privacy.

She had had some success acting in college plays, but when she auditioned for parts, some of them set up for her through her father's Broadway connections, she found herself overwhelmed by fear of rejection. Instead she took various jobs in and around public relations. One of them was writing publicity for the local affiliate of NBC-TV, which gave her entrée into television. The spread of television, which wrote the end of her father's career as a nightclub impresario--with the rise of
televison people went out at night a great deal less, which killed the nightclub business--was, of course, the beginning of her own much grander one.

Like so many young women of her generation, she married in her twenties--a less-than-passionate marriage, in her account of it, to a man named Bob Katz, with whom she discovered she hadn't much to talk about. (Not a good candidate for a Barbara Walters Special, Mr. Katz.) This was to be the first of her three marriages. She also tells us that she had three miscarriages; and so, during her second marriage to a man named Lee Guber, she adopted a child.

Between marriages, Barbara was seen around New York with Roy Cohn, one of the most despised men in the country, owing to his work as a McCarthy axe man in his Communist-hunting campaign. She and Cohn were never romantically entangled; he was, as was later revealed, a homosexual (he died of AIDS in 1986). She says that he used her as a beard to cover his homosexuality, which she wasn't aware of at the time. He proposed marriage to her more than once; and at one point, when he had bought a townhouse on the East Side of New York in which he promised to install her sister and her now-down-on-their-luck
parents, she claims she was tempted. And oh yes--he, Roy Cohn, she also tells us, had a number of facelifts.

Throughout her memoir Barbara provides lots of such gossipy tidbits. She reports that Maureen O'Sullivan was "on a steady diet of prescription pills," which made her brief time on The Today Show less than successful. A figure around Washington named Joan Braden used the lure of sex to secure interviews and scoops as a journalist: She was, Barbara tells us, Bobby McNamara's "so-called traveling campanion, after his wife's death" and supposedly "had a fling with Robert Kennedy." A colleague named Pat Fontaine had a drinking problem. The actor George Sanders's meanness wasn't just in the roles he played; he was a genuine lout. She drags in the old chestnut about John F. Kennedy bonking Angie Dickinson, informs us of Princess Grace's unhappiness in Monaco, gives us the lowdown on John Wayne's diddling his young female assistant, and oh, so much more. But then she also tells us that she herself had a lengthy love affair with Sen. Edward Brooke. A journalist's work is never done.

Apart from being the subject of thunderous scandal, there are really only three ways to continuing fame in contemporary America: Be president of the United States, a highly promoted movie actor, or appear regularly on television. Barbara Walters has appeared regularly on television perhaps more than anyone now alive, which is why she is also among the most famous of living Americans. She achieved celebrity by interviewing celebrity. She was famous enough to be mocked on Saturday Night Live by Gilda Radner as Baba Wawa. Celebrity, carefully orchestrated--and Barbara Walters is a Toscanini of her own celebrity--builds on itself. Soon she became the first female anchor, sharing the job with Harry Reasoner, though her salary, to his great chagrin, was larger than his.

Such was Barbara's fame that heads of state, the largest movie stars, people caught up in serious crimes, wished to be interviewed by her. She refers to landing a big interview as a "get," but she was herself a big "get" on her own. When in power, Richard Nixon helped set up interviews for her. He had his motives, she hers.

"We used each other," she writes, "and that's the way it has worked out with so many guests I've talked to over the years. People come on TV because they want the exposure and a forum to advance whatever it is they want to advance. And I want something, too-- the interview." One dirty hand washes the other, though neither really comes quite clean.

In television, high ratings are of an importance equal to oxygen for human life: Without either, death quickly follows. High ratings were never Barbara's problem; she understood how to get them. In 1974, Newsweek put her on its cover, claiming that her interview questions are "dumdum bullets swaddled in angora." Dumb-dumb might have been a little more like it: No one listens to Barbara Walters to learn about the delicate balance of power in Europe, the fate of the economy, or the rise of Islamofascism. They watch her in the hope that she will ask the not-necessarily-outrageous, but the pointedly vulgar, question. And she does not let her viewers down. She asks Fidel Castro if he is secretly married, Prince Philip if his wife Queen Elizabeth would soon be likely to leave the throne so that her son could become king, queries Mrs. George H.W. Bush on her depression, asks Boris Yeltsin if he drinks too much, Vladimir Putin if he has ever killed anyone, Moammar Qaddafi if he is insane, and Martha Stewart "why do so many people hate you?"

She asks Hillary Clinton, after her husband's intern hanky-panky is revealed, "How could you stay in this marriage?" Then she turns the dial a strong notch further and asks: "What if he does it again?" She reports that "I knew it would be hard for her to answer, but I had to ask."

"I had to ask .  .  ." is a not uncommon formulation of hers. She regrets never having interviewed a pope. If a pope agreed to an interview with Barbara, before it was over she would doubtless get around to asking, "Holy Father, have you no regrets about never having had children?" Camilla Parker Bowles refused to do an interview with Barbara, who no doubt would have asked what's it like to have the Prince of Wales tell you that he wishes he were a tampon inside you? She would, you see, have had to have asked.

Somewhere, not very deep down, Barbara Walters knows that this vulgar streak, asking the low questions that are on the mass mind, is her bread and caviar. She also knows not to step out of her intellectual league, which isn't, let us note lightly and move on, the majors. An interview with Elizabeth Taylor is going to top one with any world leader any day. How does Barbara know? Simple enough; the ratings tell her so. All very well to interview Henry Kissinger (a friend, it turns out, but then very few famous people aren't her friends); but Maria Callas on being deserted by Aristotle Onassis for Jackie (soon to be O) Kennedy rings the ratings gong more resoundingly. Late in her memoir she complains, rather sniffily, that "since the Britney Spearses of the world and sensational crime stories became the big ratings draws, international political leaders .  .  . have come to be considered dull fare."

Barbara also has a nice taste for vengeance. Two anchors who never cottoned to her, Frank McGee at NBC, and Harry Reasoner at ABC, thinking her insufficiently intelligent and thus lowering the tone of their profession, get her stilleto through belated (posthumous, actually) gossip. She reports that McGee, thought to be a happily married man, toward the end of his life "plunged into a flagrant love affair with a young black production assistant named Mamye, and had left his wife to live with her," adding that she was not "particularly pretty." Reasoner is hung out to dry for his pettiness and backbiting. In her memoir, Barbara front-bites him.

Although some may have missed it, Barbara Walters has all along been living out a secret drama; in it she is a feminist pioneer, who breaks down all the masculine barriers and, at great personal cost, makes the way safe for Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, and all the other women in television. Why, after all, in a line of work specializing in high pretension, should only men be allowed to score big money as empty trenchcoats?

Barbara claims no one knows her politics, that when she is interviewing famous murderers, thugs, or thieves she holds back judgment, at least during the interview. She will, though, let us know that she feels deeply, very deeply. Of the parents of Ronald Goldman, the young man killed with O.J. Simpson's ex-wife, she tells us that she "ached for them." She goes in for what in the business isn't (but ought to be) called The Weepies: Interviewing the families of the victims of 9/11, she lets us know how wrenching it was for her. Repeatedly she reports that she has stayed in touch with men and women she has interviewed, to make sure we all know that she doesn't merely use these people as another "get," useful to score yet another ratings hit. She's very human, she wants us to know, and not in the least corrupted by the somewhat scurrilous job which has provided her such a good ride through life.

Some things Barbara will not do. The thought of her interviewing O.J. Simpson and helping him make money on a book sickens her. She finds Paris Hilton's family's request for money for an interview with their daughter "shoddy." Complicated negotiations were conducted over money for Barbara to interview Monica Lewinsky. "Of course I wanted to do the interview," she reports, "but I was not so ambitious that I didn't have a conscience." As part of her enticement pitch, she tells Monica, "I can give you the forum and the opportunity to present yourself with the greatest dignity." Monica goes for it, and the interview turns out to be "the most watched Special in television history" and "the biggest 'get' of my career." Monica Lewinsky's dignity, never really up for redemption, was not a keynote of the interview.

In the spirit of the times, Barbara gossips about herself. Well, not really about herself, but about members of her family. She talks about the complications of her parents' marriage, about the difficulties of her retarded sister, and finally, most lengthily, about her only (and adopted) daughter Jackie. (The perfect daughter for Barbara, a mischievous mind might say, would have been Monica Lewinsky, but ours is a world of sadly imperfect justice.) Raising Jackie is all sweetness and light, till one day the kid turns up missing lots of classes at the Dalton School, doing drugs, and bonking bad boys. At one point, she runs to ground, as they say in English detective novels about people who go into hiding.

But it is a story with a happy ending: The child is eventually found, detoxed, deprogrammed, and is now back in the game running a "small residential outdoor therapy program" in Maine for wayward girls. Barbara "supported her in every possible way .  .  . and our relationship became closer and closer."

Why keep the whole thing quiet? Why suppress an inspirational story? Why observe the thinnest desire for privacy? She pitched the story of her and her daughter's saga to NBC's Dateline, who bought it. As the punchline about the 84-year-old Jewish furrier who confesses to a priest about impregnating his 23-year-old secretary goes: She, Barbara, told NBC--she told everybody!

Her last big shot has been a daytime program called The View, in which four or five women not notable for their reticence nor concerned about their dignity talk about the "personal aspects of our lives." ABC, Barbara allows, would only go with the idea for the show if she agreed to appear regularly on it; modesty has its limits. On The View, guests of great celebrity, yearning to keep the flame of their fame alive, come on and are invited to do as the regular members do.

"Just plop yourself down on our couch," Barbara writes, "and discuss your film and your sex life." Fun! And another ratings winner for Barbara.

Pretty amazing, all of it. Why has this woman, who is relatively charmless, unless one counts cozening as charming, with lots of energy, boundless ambition but no obvious talent to accompany either--why has Barbara Walters become, with the possible exception of Oprah Winfrey, the most famous woman in America? From writing publicity releases to doing women's bits on morning television to becoming a correspondent-at-large to being the first female news (co-) anchor to running ratings-busting special interviews to being cohost of a television magazine show called 20/20 to being the central figure on a national coffeeklatch, she has gone, as the Victorians used to say--and no one, surely, could be less Victorian than Barbara--from strength to strength.

Now in her seventies, she admits to being a little tired of the game: "Cele-
brities with problems were becoming less appealing to me," she notes, and the competition for "gets" becoming tougher all the time with Diane Sawyer and Oprah now out on the hunt. But give Barbara her due: Week after week, year after year, she has created gossip through the simple agency of asking the most tasteless questions of famous people, who were foolish and tasteless enough to answer her.

Quite a feat. Not just anyone could have brought it off. Yet to her it all seems to have come so naturally.

Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His third collection of short stories, The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff, will be published in 2010.