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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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?"