†††††††††† The Age of
By Ralph D. Gardner
Winchell in his glory days, 1931.
His virulent support of
Senator Joseph McCarthy, above, brought down the all-powerful Walter
By Ralph D. Gardner
Since retiring I occasionally lecture as
a visiting professor of journalism. At
When I said I knew Winchell someone
asked: "Winchell who?"
But from the 1920ís through the 50ís,
virtually everyone in
During that time Winchell had imitators,
but no equals. And although his years of glory are not that long past, he is
today largely forgotten, except by an aged circle of what, in his day, was
called "Broadway press agents," by readers who once adored him and
by a now diminished handful of old newspapermen.
Starting during the Jazz Age, he wrote
six fast-paced columns each week (printed in nearly 2,000 newspapers), and in
the 30ís added Sunday radio broadcasts. Combined, they reached 50 million
Feeding the publicís craving for scandal
and gossip, he became the most powerful -- and feared -- journalist of his
time. His articles were loaded with snappy, acerbic banter. Broadcasts were
slangy, narrated with machine-gun rapidity, a telegraph key clicking in the
background. "Mr. and Mrs. North and
The columns, written in his own style,
were composed of short sentences connected by three dots. Fed by press
agents, tipsters, legmen and ghost writers, he possessed the extraordinary
ability to make a Broadway show a hit, create overnight celebrities; enhance
or destroy a political career. J. Edgar Hoover supplied scoops and favors in
return for Winchellís support.
The workaholic Winchell was first to
announce big-name marriages and divorces, Hollywood romances, exploits of
socialites, international playboys, debutantes, mobsters and chorus girls,
plus latest reports of cafť society antics.
He would also give timely plugs to
show-biz unknowns or has-beens who were sorely in need of a helping hand. At
the same time he savaged any whom he perceived to be his enemies.
Throughout the Depression he was a
defender of the downtrodden. He backed President Roosevelt during those hard times
and throughout World War II. He became a cheerleader for our armed forces.
His slashing attacks upon
Former speakeasy owner Sherman Billingsleyís
Stork Club became Winchellís base of operations. There, at table 50 of the
exclusionary Cub Room, he held court, receiving film stars, politicians and
others whose names often were known because Winchell ignited and sustained
He was besiged by press agents whose
ability to get a name into his column was worth pure gold. It secured new
clients. Some were hired primarily for their access to Winchell.
In return for a blurb, most of them
regularly contributed repartee and quips that contained no mention of their
own employers. Some were said to compose for him entire columns in Winchellís
I cannot remember when I began reading
Winchell, but it was while I was very young. During World War II, when I
spent some months at the Armyís
However, it was at Lindyís, close to
Lindyís, for decades a Broadway mecca
and the setting for many of Damon Runyonís fables of mostly softhearted tough
guys and their flashy dolls, was filled day and night. Customers lined up for
overstuffed sandwiches (for which loaves of rye bread were sliced lengthwise)
and gargantuan wedges of strawberry-topped cheesecake.
It was during 1947 or í48, when I was 24
or 25, a couple of years out of the Army and working several blocks south at
the New York Times.
First editions came up from the basement
Owner Leo Linderman -- Lindy -- always
had a table for us in the section that, well into early morning, was occupied
by newspeople, press agents, racetrack types and assorted Runyonesque
characters who eventually disappeared (as did the original Lindyís) when that
neighborhood ceased to be The Great White Way, where the action was, all day
and -- especially -- all night.
Often Winchell appeared, accompanied by
a celebrity and one or two big fellows who I was told were bodyguards.
Winchellís eyes darted all over the restaurant and frequently he paused to
talk with those he knew.
On the evening Iím now trying to recall,
I was seated with a press agent and two Times colleagues. One
moonlighted for Variety as a reviewer of nightclub acts.The other was
Sam Zolotow, the Timesí legendary theater news reporter who, with an
inch of cigar clenched between his teeth, looked and spoke like someone out
of a Runyon yarn. Years earlier Sam had earned enormous respect and a place
in show business llore as the only person who ever persuaded Florenz Ziegfeld
to repay to him borrowed cash. Sam never revealed how he did this.
The room suddenly became hushed and
heads turned toward the entrance to see Winchell. He was leading his
entourage to our table for a few words with Zolotow who introduced me to him
as a fellow Times man.
As I appeared younger than my age,
Winchell looked at me, puzzled, and asked if I was a copy boy.
"No," Sam told him, "heís an editor. Winchell (I always called
him Mr. Winchell) seemed surprised and although he probably didnít
catch my name, thereafter greeted me either as Kid or The Boy Editor. But at
that moment folks wondered if I was someone important.
A few weeks later he arrived with Bobby
Ramsen, the Copacabanaís stand-up comic. They joined Jack OíBrian, Winchellís
pal and fellow Hearst columnist, who said he had just seen a musical in which
Ray Bolger did his trademark soft-shoe dance.
"Hell!" Winchell exclaimed,
"Thatís what I did years ago in vaudeville," and he proceeded to
entertain diners with an agile routine that drew appreciative applause.
After that period I rarely saw Walter
Winchell because in 1949 I was assigned to the Times bureau in
He gave my item a whole paragraph. It
was unusual for anyone to leave the warm, one-big-family atmosphere of the Times
of those days (Editor & Publisher reported my departure in an
article with a headline that stretched across the top of a page). Winchellís
mention helped me land two of my first accounts. And for his kindness I owed
him everlasting thanks.
In the 1950ís Winchellís direction took
an odd turn that was distressing to millions of readers. He became a
supporter of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, filling his pages and broadcasts with
vindicative, denunciatory tirades and mean-spirited accusations that resulted
in lawsuits and loss of media outlets.
He had climbed to the top and tumbled.
For more than three decades his name was
a household word. But like many of those he boosted to fame, he faded into
oblivion. Nervous breakdowns followed, as did eventual isolation. Movie
audiences recognized as Winchell the destructive gossip monger portrayed by
Burt Lancaster in the 1957 film, "The Sweet Smell of Success."
Upon his death in 1972, a front-page
obituary in the New York Times eulogized Walter Winchell as "the
countryís best-known, widely read journalist as well as its most
Neal Gabler, in his definitive,
sometimes searing biography, (Knopf, 1994) wrote that one of the saddest
aspects of Winchellís reign was his belief that it would never end.
"Celebrities, like other commodities, have a built-in obsolescence. They
take the national stage, do their act and leave."
What was so unfortunate, a longtime
friend of Winchellís noted, was that he stayed around too long.
Ralph D. Gardner is a former New York
Times editor and host of a talk show on books.