Ghostwriter finally gets recognition

November 23, 1998|By James M. Klurfeld

IT WAS the big yellow billboard in the middle of New York's Times Square that finally brought home to me and my family what was actually happening. Just below the famous zipper that flashes the latest news is this humongous sign advertising "Winchell," a new HBO movie. And near the bottom of the sign, in letters you could read from far across the street, it says: "based on a book by Herman Klurfeld."

That's my father. He's 82 years old now and, we believe, retired. But for almost 30 years, from 1936 until 1965, he was Walter Winchell's ghostwriter. And now, so many years later, he is finally getting some credit for the work he did. And not just getting credit, but having it shouted from the throne that Winchell ruled for so many years, the heart of Broadway, Times Square.

Herman Klurfeld was a well-kept secret. So much so that even columnist Liz Smith, who used to contribute to Winchell's column as a press agent, admitted that she had not known about him.

Winchell wanted it that way.

Press attack

The only breach occurred back in January 1952, when the New York Post, in the midst of a 25-part diatribe against Winchell, put my father's picture on the front page with a big, bold headline: "Winchell's Number 1 Ghost."

As my father and I left our garden apartment, a Post photographer and reporter jumped out of the bushes and started to take pictures and shout questions. When you are 6 years old, you tend to remember that type of incident. I also found it odd that my father told the reporter that he didn't work for Winchell, but was a shoe salesman.

Winchell had more power than any journalist this century. His column ran in thousands of newspapers and his live broadcast was listened to by millions of people each Sunday night. In the 1930s and '40s, he had more than 25 million readers and listeners in a country with a population of about 150 million.

He didn't just write gossip; there were politics, international events, essays on New York. My father says his proudest recollections are of the early years when Winchell, at Franklin D. Roosevelt's urging, was among the first to campaign against Adolf Hitler and anti-Semitism in Europe.

Actor Stanley Tucci has captured not only Winchell's voice and clipped diction, but also his very monomaniacal being. "It's almost scary," said my father upon first seeing him on the set.

An exacting editor

And hearing Mr. Tucci's Winchell begin the broadcast, "Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea," brought me back to the Sunday evenings spent around a radio or, later, television, listening to Winchell rat-a-tat-tat out his broadcast and punctuate it with a zipping or zinging last line. Dad wrote a lot of those last lines, and he used to work on them right into the broadcast, with Winchell calling to say, "No, not that one, try another." He was, my father said, a very exacting editor.

You stayed away from my father on Sundays as he kept banging out the lines and phoning them in. The pressure was on until we heard whether Dad's last line was used. Many of those last lines are memorable: After Pearl Harbor: History will prove Dec. 7, 1941, as the day Japan committed hari-kari.

The day France fell to the Nazis: Every dictator should remember that the only territory he conquers permanently is the length of his coffin.

On success: There's nothing ex-er than an ex-big shot.

To our amazement, the movie has turned out to be as much about my father and his relationship to Winchell as it is about Winchell himself. My father didn't make himself the hero in his book, but I have the feeling that scriptwriter Scott Abbott identified with him. Hollywood scriptwriters are probably as close to ghostwriters today as anybody. In the movie, Herman Klurfeld is the decent family man compared with the mercurial, egomaniacal, philandering Winchell.

I've been to a number of screenings already, one sitting next to my father the first time he saw the movie. His reaction that night reminded me of baseball players who have just won the World Series: It's just too big for them to fathom what has happened. "It's like a dream," said my father, uncharacteristically at a loss for words. Almost as good was sitting with his grandchildren the next evening. They're all young adults but they gasped and giggled like little kids seeing their grandfather portrayed on screen.

We all were stunned when we saw how much Paul Giamatti, who plays Mr. Klurfeld, looks and walks and talks like the real version. Over the years, we would joke about who would play my father if they ever made his book into a movie. But the book came out 24 years ago and is now out of print, and I don't think we ever seriously thought it would happen.

It has. Now Herman Klurfeld will be a ghost no more.

James M. Klurfeld is editor of Newsday's editorial pages.

Pub Date: 11/23/98

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