BROOKE GLADSTONE: The gossip journalist must also walk a fine line, teetering between what is urgent, what is merely irresistibly juicy, what is legally dubious and what is all of the above. And perhaps no one knew it better than the infamous gossip columnist, turned political commentator, Walter Winchell who began his career in 1920 covering vaudeville and wound up reaching tens of millions of people on air and in print, at his peak, spouting politics and pulverizing personal foes.
WALTER WINCHELL: Attention Miami Herald: Van Johnson, a moving picture star, after a two-day visit to New Orleans, will arrive in Miami, Florida Tuesday next. An actress named Jacqueline Dalya is flying from New York City to visit the star in Florida. She is due there tomorrow. One and one make three.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Winchell served up gossip at a breathtaking pace, a ruthless force of nature so notorious that Hollywood started taking inspiration from him in such films as 1957's The Sweet Smell of Success.
TONY CURTIS as SIDNEY FALCO: The columnists can't do without us, except our good and great friend J.J. forgets to mention that. You see, we furnish him with items.
BURT LANSCASTER as J.J. HUNSECKER: What, some cheap, gruesome gags?
SIDNEY FALCO: You print ‘em, don’t you?
J.J. HUNSECKER: Yes, with your clients’ names attached. That’s the only reason the poor slobs pay you, to see their names in my column all over the world. Now I make it out you’re doing me a favor?
SIDNEY FALCO: I didn’t say that.
J.J. HUNSECKER: The day I can’t get along without a press agent’s handouts, I’ll close up shop and move to Alaska, lock, stock and barrel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I spoke to journalist Neal Gabler, author of Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity, back in 2006. He said that while Winchell fed his audience unrelenting dish, he did so with a unique sense of principle, unlike some practitioners in his field.
NEAL GABLER: Back in 1925, a fellow by the name of Stephen Clow ran a newspaper he called Broadway Brevities. He operated on the principle that if you paid him or took out an advertisement, he would not write derogatory information about you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
NEAL GABLER: Now, that went on for several years, until finally someone blew the whistle on him, someone who was tired of being extorted in this fashion. And Clow and three associates were actually brought to trial, and Clow was sentenced to six years in federal prison. He wasn't sentenced for blackmail because none of the people about whom he had talked wanted to go into court and have to fend off the charges. In that way they'd almost be giving credence to the charges. So instead of doing that, they tried him for conspiracy to defraud people through the mail.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, this was a pretty high-profile arrest and conviction but you say that it didn't slow down the march of gossip at all.
NEAL GABLER: Oh, no. If anything, it seemed to accelerate it. Let's face it, there’s an enormous taste for gossip. Walter Winchell was really the first to institutionalize that in the gossip column back in the 1920s, roughly at the same time that Broadway Brevities was being published.
Gossip happened to fit a national temper and a national mood. The 1920s were full of arguments over democracy and what democracy meant. And if you look at gossip and if you really examine the subtext of gossip, gossip is about democratization. It’s about egalitarianism. It’s a form of empowerment for the outsiders. Walter Winchell identified himself very, very closely with his readers. He did not identify himself with the people about whom he gossiped. And, in fact, the readers felt that Winchell was kind of their tribune. He was their scourge against the powerful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he’s responsible for pushing gossip, which was once the province of specialty magazines, into the mainstream media.
NEAL GABLER: Yes, he did because he understood what gossip was about. Now, a lot of people don't realize that Walter Winchell gained an enormous amount of popularity in the 1930s by allying himself with Franklin Roosevelt and essentially becoming a political commentator, so that if you read Winchell’s column or if you listened to Winchell’s radio broadcast – which was, by the way, the number one-rated informational broadcast on radio – you would hear him gossip about somebody’s divorce or romance or whatever with one item, and the very next item would be about Franklin Roosevelt or Adolf Hitler.
[TELETYPE MACHINE SOUNDS]
WALTER WINCHELL: Alexandria, it will denied, it always is, but the evidence is mounting that the Kremlin and the Moslem leaders are working out a grand alliance. If this is true, then it would mean that so far as Joe Stalin is concerned, so long, bye-bye and ta-ta to a free Palestine.
[TELETYPE MACHINE SOUNDS]
Byline, Arabia. Arabian oil production is expected to reach an all-time high. And in power politics, an oilfield is what a waterhole is in a jungle or a desert. Look for plenty of trouble then east of Suez and west of Bombay and tell Mr. Molotov that he can't stop Winchell from reporting in advance what some diplomats are trying to scoop me on, a third world war!
[TELETYPE MACHINE IN BACKGROUND]
NEAL GABLER: Now, Winchell thought of himself as a journalist, but readers didn't think of him as a journalist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did they not think of him as a journalist because he didn't actually practice journalism? I mean, did he employ the sorts of rules, the sourcing that we expect and trust in journalism?
NEAL GABLER: There was some reporting. I mean, he did things that most gossip columnists today did not do. For example, he covered the war and got inside information from the Roosevelt administration about war planning. He was very close to J. Edgar Hoover so he got a lot of items from the FBI, although, truth be told, he gave more items to the FBI than he got from the FBI. But because there was this kind of transaction between Winchell and, and government, there was a certain degree of sourcing that even so-called “reputable reporters” didn't have access to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because he had changed the balance of power among the famous. He was more powerful than they were. He needed them but they needed him even more.
NEAL GABLER: What you've described was unquestionably true. But that balance of power has changed over the last, I would say, you know, 30 years or so. Where the media once held the power and you needed the media, now the celebrity has the power. That changes the relationship of the gossip columnist to his subject and, frankly, it changes the relationship of the reader to the gossip column. And, and it’s one of the reasons, among many others, that the gossip column doesn't have the same kind of clout, because people reading the gossip column now are seeing the gossip columnist as a tribune from the powerful to them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what, ultimately, brought Winchell’s career to an end, when he became less the FDR Democrat and more the McCarthyite acolyte?
NEAL GABLER: Well, that happened, although he saw it as another seamless transition because, as he saw it, he was against the elites. FDR was and so was Joseph McCarthy. If there was any incident, it was when the singer Josephine Baker, black singer, felt she was being stiffed at the Stork Club, which was Winchell’s hangout, and Winchell ultimately came to the defense of the Stork Club, not to the defense of Josephine Baker. And since Winchell had always been identified with minorities, with the disenfranchised, with the poor, this began a salient for opponents of Walter Winchell to attack him. And indeed, the New York Post ran a long series of articles attacking Walter Winchell, and that certainly hurt him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We stopped liking him. We can stop forgiving him for entertaining us so well.
NEAL GABLER: That’s absolutely true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right, Neal, thank you very much.
NEAL GABLER: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Neal Gabler is a journalist, historian and film critic. We spoke to him in 2006.
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova—Burgess, Jesse Brenneman, Micah Loewinger and Leah Feder. We had more help from Monique Laborde. And our show was edited -- by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Terence Bernardo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s vice-president for news. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios.
One last note about garbled gossip before we go. Two weeks back, on the passing of Hugh Hefner, I said that Marilyn Monroe was already dead when he used her as Playboy’s first cover girl in 1963. But that happened in ’53, not ’63. Hence, she was very much alive. Hefner bought the nude photos she’d taken when she was broke and desperate from the man who shot them, but over time, reportedly, she and Hef became chums.