`FLASH! Let's go to press!"
Walter Winchell was big, often bad and beneath contempt, but
always fascinating. The above line is from his famous opening radio
spiel - "Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. North America, and all the
ships at sea."
What followed was the trademark Winchell machine-gun delivery -
a fast-paced mixture of gossip, political commentary and some news,
often entertainment scoops, or even stock tips.
In some ways it was a style very much like what you see and
hear today on certain high-energy television and radio shows.
Winchell was a trail-blazer in celebrity journalism, says Neal
Gabler, the 44-year-old author of the highly acclaimed biography
"Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity (Knopf, $30).
"He was the father of the gossip, the father of infotainment."
In his time, Winchell was the biggest and most influential
media personality in the history of the country, Gabler said.
"Walter Winchell understood better than anyone how the culture
of celebrity worked. For him, every relationship was a transaction
- `What I can do for you, and what you can do for me.' He saw fame
as a mountain without a peak, and you had to climb it constantly.
To stop was to slip into oblivion, which eventually happened to him.
"He lost his column, his fame, and slipped into oblivion. For
him, that was worse than death." Winchell, the son of impoverished
Russian-Jewish immigrants and the great-grandson of a rabbi named
Baruch Weinschel, died in obscurity in Phoenix in 1972. He was 75
and had been out of the limelight for more than two decades.
But Winchell's odyssey was nothing short of incredible - from
vaudevillian to confidant of presidents. In the recent issue of
American Heritage magazine, Gabler wrote: "Ernest Hemingway called
him the `only reporter who could last three rounds with the
Zeitgeist'; indeed, Winchell often seemed to be the Zeitgeist.
"A five-foot-seven-inch bantam, fast-talking and fast-moving,
he managed to make himself a protagonist in many of the events he
covered: from the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnapping of
the Lindbergh baby, where jurors were queried about whether they
had heard Winchell's broadcasts already convictng Hauptmann; to the
capture of the gangster Louis (`Lepke') Buchalter, who remanded
himself into Winchell's custody after a two-year manhunt; to World
War II, when the Roosevelt administration deployed Winchell to lead
the call to inventionism; to Army-McCarthy hearings, when he became
one of McCarthy's most vocal supporters; to the Columbia University
student sit-in in 1968, where he was clubbed by a young policeman
who didn't recognize the now-anachronistic reporter with the press
card stuck in his hatband. …