Do You Hate What’s Happened to ‘News’ Today? The Late Walter Winchell Was a Superspreader.
Walter Winchell was considered the second most famous man in America in the 1930s, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
We still remember FDR today. Winchell? Well, his influence has outlasted his name.
PBS explains both the man and the influence in a new American Masters, titled Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip and airing Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET.
Winchell took what could loosely be called a newspaper gossip column and parlayed it into a powerful socio-political platform — including newspapers, radio and eventually TV — built largely on the unspoken premise that celebrity may matter more than substance.
That is, being famous gets more attention and therefore may generate more power and influence than actually doing something. It’s a concept that resonates more than slightly in today’s social media age.
This American Masters, put together by Ben Loeterman, marches through Winchell’s life in somewhat the same staccato style as his radio broadcasts, which Winchell famously addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea.”
Within Winchell’s career itself, this production lingers on three specific dramas: Winchell’s stark warnings about Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, his feud with Josephine Baker in the early 1950s and his support of Sen. Joe McCarthy during McCarthy’s anti-communist campaign over the next couple of years.
The three are connected.
As Winchell gained power and influence in the 1930s, through his reporting on the lives and doings of celebrities in popular culture, he expanded that mission to also echo Roosevelt’s warnings that Hitler’s ambitions were not limited to conquering a few countries in Europe. He wanted to spread his poison around the globe, and America had a duty to help stop him.
With isolationist sentiments running high in the 1930s, that was not always a popular position. After Pearl Harbor, Winchell was suddenly on the right side.
After the war, however, with no Hitler to warn against and Roosevelt dead, Winchell became a man without a core cause.
His feud with Baker began one night in 1951 when Baker and her party went into New York’s Stork Club, Winchell’s home base, and were declined service because they were black. Baker criticized Winchell, who had always portrayed himself as a foe of discrimination, for not standing up for her when his own favorite institution was involved.
Winchell fought back, as was his habit, by making it personal. Among other things, he accused Baker of having consorted with communists in the 1930s.
Like many other targets of the anti-communists, Baker suffered serious career damage, eventually moving back to France.
Winchell, meanwhile, saw that the communist accusations worked and hitched his star to McCarthy, the face of the campaign to root all the commies out.
After McCarthy was disgraced, Winchell began to crumble as well. Winchell’s newspaper went out of business in the early 1960s, he lost his TV and radio programs, and by the time he died in 1972, he was already almost forgotten.
But the key to his popularity, the idea that discussion of serious issues could be packaged the same way as discussion of popular entertainment, is put forward here as the foundational premise for current media personalities from Rachel Maddow to Sean Hannity.
Not to mention President Donald Trump.
Winchell himself, the son of impoverished and plucky immigrants, quit school to join a vaudeville troupe at the age of 15. He stayed for a decade and his first writings were an informal in-house newsletter for people he knew in the business, detailing harmless back-fence chat like who was taking vacations where, or who had auditioned for new gigs. He was Facebook 80 years before Facebook.
He noticed that people really liked to read that stuff, and expanded the idea to a column in the Evening Graphic, a sensationalist New York tabloid of the 1920s. Others did something similar, but no one worked it like Winchell. He worked seven days a week, tirelessly making the rounds and getting to know the players and the stars, who benefited from making him their friend.
His personal life, as that schedule might suggest, was less successful. It also was grounded in tragedy. He and his wife June lost an adopted daughter to a heart defect when she was nine years old and American Masters says Winchell never fully got over her death.
Winchell and June had two other children, both of whom he neglected and both of whose lives took unhappy paths. June eventually moved to Arizona without him.
Like many of today’s media personalities, Winchell made himself famous by chronicling and often editorializing on the fame of others. While it doesn’t sound like he had a terribly satisfying life beyond that, it also sounds like maybe he understood the tradeoff and signed on willingly.
How broad was Winchell’s reach in the 1930s? Well, when Al Dubin wrote the immortal “Shuffle Off To Buffalo” for the musical 42nd Street, one verse went like this: “Some day I hope we’ll be elected / To buy a lot of baby clothes / We don’t know when to expect it / But it’s a cinch that Winchell knows.”
Walter Winchell didn’t influence history quite as much as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But as we’re reminded every day, he was definitely onto something.