“Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. North America and all the ships at sea. Let’s go to press.”
With that, columnist Walter Winchell began his weekly broadcast of celebrity news and gossip, delivered at a distinctive staccato pace and peppered with idiosyncratic, racy slang and euphemism. He accompanied all this with a random tapping of telegraph keys to give a sense of urgency. Winchell did the broadcast for 28 years, reporting to an audience of some 20 million Americans who tuned in to hear him every Sunday night from the 1930s through the 1950s. In an age when mass media was just beginning to develop and take hold, the United States’ culture of celebrity—our ongoing love affair with celebrities and their peccadilloes—got a jump start with Walter Winchell, who built a career out of digging up the behind-the-scenes news on movie stars, politicians, socialites, and other public personalities of the mid-20th century.
With Winchell reporting, news became entertainment. He is said to have invented the gossip column when he was working for the New York Evening Graphic in the 1920s, printing things that up to then no other newspaper would touch. He called breasts “janerussells” and included items about who was “that way” with a crush on someone, who might be getting married (“handcuffed”) or divorcing (“Reno-vating”), or who was having a “blessed event.” He just barely skirted the libelous, and sometimes did not (but Winchell bragged that no one had ever won a judgment against him). This was the 1930s and 1940s, when propriety, even among newspersons, dictated that some things were not mentioned in print. But Winchell mentioned them and the public loved it. He started writing a syndicated column six days a week when he went to work for the Hearst paper The New York Daily Mirror in 1929. The column was eventually carried by some 2,000 newspapers.
Walter Winchell had arrived on the scene at the right time, when a more urban population and an expanding mass media were helping to spawn a distinctive American pop culture. In the last decades of the 19th century and into the 20th, the invention of the telephone, the telegraph, the movies, and the phonograph; the mass production of the automobile; the transcontinental expansion of the railroad; the growth of corporations and mass merchandising; and a burgeoning press of daily newspapers created an entirely different kind of national culture, one that splintered and transformed older rural communities and urban areas as well. The mass media brought new affluence and allowed for “a new culture of leisure and materialism” as Robert Putnam tracks it in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, with sports events, the invention of all kinds of cheap amusements like vaudeville shows and carnivals, and the sensationalism of a tabloid press, with gossip columns like Walter Winchell’s as well as his radio broadcasts.
The new mobility of the population, the new communications media, and the influx of foreign immigrants and emancipated blacks into cities meant huge social change, happening faster than ever before and breaking the old social bonds. By the time World War I began in 1914, American popular culture was a tangible if trivialized element of life. And, despite Prohibition, it thrived in the 1920s, with the invention of the technology of the radio that homogenized popular culture as television would do later.
Winchell himself had started out in vaudeville, never intending to be a journalist. Nonetheless, going on stage and performing, initially at 13 with a song and dance trio which included George Jessel, gave him a flair for showmanship, which served him well in his career on the radio and in his column. Winchell loved the spotlight himself and he was shrewd enough to cultivate a memorable image as a newsperson, sophisticated, insouciant, cynical, always with his gray snap-brim fedora and ever-present cigarette.
He had been born poor on the East Side of Manhattan, back when the family name was changed to Winchel (later a second “l” was added) from the original Weinschel, and he never got over memories of childhood deprivation or the condescension he felt from those above him on the social scale. If throughout his life he always aspired to a better one of fame and fortune, he achieved it partly by writing about those who already had it. Walter Winchell had so much power at the height of his career in the late 1940s that he could create a celebrity overnight and make a hit out of a Broadway show or a politician. He hung out at nightclubs and restaurants like the Stork Club and Lindy’s on Broadway where he cultivated his own cadre of sources among bartenders, insiders, press agents, and local wags. One of his good friends was journalist Damon Runyon, whose depictions in his short stories of Prohibition-era Broadway characters like Nathan Detroit and Harry the Horse became famous in a 1950s’ musical, “Guys and Dolls” (after Runyon’s death from cancer in 1946, Winchell established the Damon Runyon Memorial Cancer Fund and solicited donations from his radio listeners). Even the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, was befriended by Winchell who supplied him with tips about the Manhattan underworld. Hoover was cautious enough to stay out of Winchell’s columns by giving him the occasional scoop and doing him favors.
Indeed, Walter Winchell had friends at all levels of society, from mobsters to moguls. During Prohibition, he had connections with gang leader Owney Madden and even predicted the shooting of another gangster, “Mad Dog” Victor Coll. After that, there were predictions that Winchell himself would be shot, and he left town for California. Returning two years later, he became a big supporter of law enforcement. Winchell was such an insider and knew so many people’s secrets that newly inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt called him to the White House in 1933 to find out if he had any information the president should know. Winchell did not, but ever after was an enthusiastic fan of FDR.
Not so of Adolf Hitler, whom Winchell instinctively disliked and labeled an enemy, long before Hitler began to wage war. Walter Winchell was Jewish and never cared to be known otherwise, though he was not religious. He attacked Hitler by accusing him of homosexuality, calling him a fairy. He began a campaign against American Nazis that brought him the attention and good wishes of J. Edgar Hoover, who began providing him with FBI agents for protection. Winchell and Hoover became good friends—as his biographer Neal Gabler said, “No two men so believed in secrets”—and Winchell often hosted Hoover as a guest at the Stork Club. While he was covering the kidnapping and killer of Charles Lindbergh’s baby son in 1934, Winchell tried to help by publicizing the FBI effort to capture the murderer.
Winchell was both feared and respected for his vast network and connections with the rich and famous. He had the eyes and ears of two-thirds of the adult population in the United States—50 million people—at the height of his success on radio and in print during the 1930s and 1940s. Winchell became “a self-appointed arbiter of power and taste,” as New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani put it, and he reveled in it. Certainly he did help give the media its major place in American culture, long before television and the Internet, and he made it much more entertaining with his stories of celebrity high jinks and soap opera lives. By 1948, his radio broadcast was picked as the top-rated show, surpassing even those of popular comedians Fred Allen and Jack Benny.
In the 1950s, Winchell became a fervent anti-Communist and got involved in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s campaign to root out Communists in the media and in Hollywood. But as the American public became increasingly disenchanted with McCarthy, Winchell’s stature fell too. He had a tendency to hold on to grudges and now, in mid-life, he started to settle some scores, getting himself in wrangles with others in the public spotlight. He and columnist Drew Pearson assaulted the secretary of defense, James Forrestal, and tried to drive him from office, Winchell fuming at Forrestal’s anti-Israel policies. Earlier, Winchell had accused singer Josephine Baker of being a Communist and kept her from renewing her visa to visit the United States.
His biggest and most fateful tangle was with Jack Paar, the television star who hosted the Tonight show. At the time Parr began to make a name for himself on television, the new medium was rapidly taking over from radio and Walter Winchell had tried doing a TV show himself—The Walter Winchell File—although it lasted only five months. Souring on the media as his own gossip column and radio show lost ground to television, Winchell kept himself going with vendettas, which at least attracted attention. He had earlier reported that Jack Paar and his wife were on the outs and would not retract the item despite Paar’s repeatedly asking that he do so. Paar struck back on the Tonight show with nasty comments about Winchell, “a silly old man” whose columns were “written by a fly.” His voice, Paar said, was so high because he wears “too-tight underwear.”
Things escalated from there, but Paar was on top and Winchell’s day was really over. He managed to get a job for a time narrating The Untouchables, a TV show about Prohibition-day criminals and Eliot Ness. But, as biographer Neal Gabler observes, by then Winchell’s “was the voice of history,” not of the times. Increasingly isolated, he moved to Los Angeles where he continued to write his gossip column for the New York Mirror. That paper went under in 1963, but he continued to write the column for its sister paper, the New York Journal-American until 1967 when it too went out of business. The Stork Club had met its demise in 1965. Times had changed, but Winchell tried not to notice, staging a Las Vegas revue about his past Broadway days and trying to revive his reputation. It was hard to watch as he went job-hunting and, turned down one after another by media like Time magazine and Variety, was being regarded as a has-been.
His personal life was equally troubled. At one point, his daughter Walda disappeared in Arizona for several months, taking her 9-year-old daughter with her and hiding out in a rundown motel until she wound up in a hospital intensive care unit with pneumonia and a malnourished child. Her brother, Walt Jr., shot himself in 1968 at the age of 33. Winchell’s adopted daughter, Gloria, died when she was nine. Walda and Walt Jr. were the children of Winchell and his long-time companion June Magee, whom he never married though they kept up the pretense of being husband and wife. He had actually been married once when he was 22 to Rita Greene, but that union ended in divorce in 1928.
Walter Winchell was born on April 7, 1897, in New York City to Jacob Winchel, a shirtmaker, and Jennie Bakst Winchel, who were then living in East Harlem on East 112th Street. They had been married 11 months earlier by his father, Chaim Weinschel, a synagogue cantor who had immigrated to the United States with his family and four children from Russia. Little Walter was apparently an attractive, blue-eyed little boy, doted on by his mother who loved to dress him up. His baby brother, Algernon, nicknamed Algy, was born three years later.
The family, in constant financial straits, moved constantly, and at one point Jennie took both boys with her to live with her sister in Danville, Virginia, for more than a year. Apparently, Walter did not go to school while they were in Virginia and when they came back to New York, he had to repeat the fifth and sixth grades. He quit going to school after sixth grade, determined to make his way on the stage in vaudeville, which he had just discovered. He and his girlfriend, Rita Green, took their vaudeville act on the road and managed to find steady work. World War I was underway, however, and Walter then decided to enlist in the Naval Reserve Force. He served for only five months before the armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, and he and Rita were back on the vaudeville circuit.
The next year, they were married. Rita had bought him a typewriter and Walter started writing a column for Billboard and then the Vaudeville News, his first taste of journalism. He found out that he loved it. It was a way to get the attention he had always sought and to wield some power as well. He went on to build a 43-year career out of chronicling the lives of the rich, the famous, and the down-and-out, and probably did more than any other journalist to launch the media obsession with celebrity and gossip that still permeates American culture today. At Walter Winchell’s death in 1972 of prostate cancer, the New York Times printed his obituary on the front page, eulogizing him as “the country’s best-known and most widely read journalist as well as among its most influential.” His funeral two days later in Phoenix, Arizona, was attended only by his daughter, Walda.
Boorstin, Daniel J. The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
Gabler, Neal. Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Klurfeld, Herman. Winchell. New York: Praeger, 1976.
Mosedale, John. The Men Who Invented Broadway: Damon Runyon, Walter Winchell and Their World. New York: Richard C. Marek, 1981.
Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.