The Gossip, Power of Walter Winchell Biography Hails the Father of Celebrity Journalism

Article excerpt

`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. …

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