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.