Winchell, voice of American celebrity

November 06, 1994|By Neil A. Grauer

In the publicity materials for Neal Gabler's masterful biography of once-famous but now forgotten gossip guru Walter Winchell can be found these magic words: "Optioned by Martin Scorsese for a major motion picture."

Winchell would be ecstatic. As much a megalomaniac as a journalistic phenomenon, Winchell always feared no one would remember him -- and in the 22 years since his death, obscurity largely has been his fate. Now Winchell once again will be the center of attention, a figure of controversy.

The daunting problem facing Mr. Scorsese will be in the challenge of capturing the spectacular scope of Winchell's life and career within relatively short cinematic confines. Mr. Gabler provides a sweeping overview of the first six decades of this century and the development of modern journalism as filtered through the prism of Winchell's extraordinary work as the prototypical practitioner of gossip-as-news.

Mr. Gabler contends, a bit grandly but forcefully, that it is possible "to explain the 20th century . . . [by] understanding Winchell." He unquestionably proves that Winchell, an ex-vaudeville hoofer, "suddenly and single-handedly expanded the purview of American journalism forever" by inventing the modern gossip column in the 1920s, thereby inaugurating "a new mass culture of celebrity -- centered in New York, Hollywood and Washington."

Mr. Gabler's superbly balanced, compelling study is steeped in irony. The outraged huffing and puffing of Winchell's contemporaries over his power and influence eerily foreshadow today's teeth-gnashing over the tabloidization of America. (It was Winchell, after all, who observed in the 1930s: "Social position is now more a matter of press than prestige.")

In his heyday, Winchell was a combination of Liz Smith, Jack Anderson, Oprah, Geraldo, Larry King and Rush Limbaugh -- with his widely distributed newspaper column; his weekly radio program (with his arresting introduction: "Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea: Let's go to press!"); his public appearances; movies; and, later, his TV show.

Winchell consorted with gangsters; conferred with Franklin D. Roosevelt; served as a tub-thumper and mouthpiece for J. Edgar Hoover's FBI; issued early calls for racial equality, as well as prescient warnings about Hitler; then later participated with appalling relish in Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's irresponsible, red-baiting witch hunts of the 1950s. At the height of his power in the 1930s and 1940s, he became "the model of how journalists looked and acted," praised by no less than Ernest Hemingway as "the greatest newspaperman that ever lived."

He was also an insecure, unpleasant and unfulfilled man with a horrific family life. Said Dorothy Schiff, one-time publisher of the New York Post: "[T]here was something so pitiful about this man -- fabulously successful in a wordly sense, abysmally unsuccessful as a human being."

Mr. Gabler splendidly recaptures the tempo and feel of Winchell's columns, radio broadcasts and escapades; and he successfully evokes a now-vanished era and its equally vanished landmarks. Reborn in these pages are the speakeasies that became elegant nightspots, such as the Stork Club (Winchell's personal fiefdom); and the colorful cast of characters who all were in Winchell's orbit -- and clutches: the secretaries, ghostwriters, hapless press agents, rival columnists (such as Ed Sullivan, whom Winchell helped launch), prominent politicians, celebrities, socialities, girlfriends, and his long-suffering family.

Mr. Gabler even manages to make Winchell's decline poignant, evoking sympathy for this often unsympathetic but occasionally courageous man.

As early as 1929, when he was on the cusp of celebrity, Winchell foresaw his own downfall. A perceptive interviewer noted that Winchell "was constantly betraying a nervous, horrible fear of losing his punch, of being discarded as a vogue." It was a fear that would be fulfilled in time. "The thread of celebrity, as he knew better than anyone, was thin," Mr. Gabler writes. "Eventually it would snap, and he would fall."

It did, and he did. Winchell ended his career as "a relic," the urgent-sounding narrator of the old TV show "The Untouchables," who in between such gigs begged newspapers and TV producers for a job. He died a lingering death from cancer -- ironically, the disease he had sought to combat by founding the Damon Runyon Fund (now the Walter Winchell-Damon Runyon Fund).

"He had gone," writes Mr. Gabler, "from a man who demonstrated the inspiring power of the press to one who demonstrated its terrifying dangers. No one could argue away that politically, at least, he had done good and evil in almost equal measure."

Like the incessant tapping of the telegraph key that punctured ++ Winchell's radio program, Mr. Gabler's biography grabs your attention and holds onto it tenaciously. In Mr. Gabler, Winchell has a better biographer than he may deserve. This is an immensely praiseworthy effort, exhaustively researched and judiciously written.

Mr. Grauer is the author of "Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber," to be published in November by the University of Nebraska Press.

Title: "Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity"

Author: Neal Gabler

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 731 pages, $30

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