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Barbara Walters.

Barbara Walters

Jerry Oppenheimer. St. Martin's Press. According to Jerry Oppenheimer, Barbara Walters is a fascinating, influential woman. A relentless, self-promoting perfectionist, obsessed with work and fame. She is also insecure, moody, and secretive. A sexy ice maiden, who pursued powerful men for a story rather than a romance; and who, after an uninspired start, gathered enough confidence and chutzpah to pierce the male chauvinism of broadcasting and land on top.

Oppenheimer claims that he has interviewed EVERYONE on Walters's life--more than 400 friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and enemies--but if you want to dish the dirt it's not all here. Example: In writing about Walter's affairs he omits one of her most prominent and well publicized suitors, Senator John Warner, who got so carried away that he proposed marriage (Walters said no).

What Oppenheimer does disclose is an early marriage in the 1950s that Walters would rather forget--her first of three, to a wealthy New York businessman, Robert Henry Katz. It was Katz who inadvertently launched her toward stardom when he suggested she go to work to combat persistent depression. Apparently the zeal with which she followed his suggestion led to the end of their union. The marriage was not annulled after less than a year (the usual story) but lasted for three years and ended in a somewhat amicable divorce. Mr. Katz has remained silent on the subject, but this has not stopped Oppenheimer from theorizing that "Barbara had allowed her job to take precedence over everything else. Without realizing it at the time, she was establishing a pattern that would prevail throughout her life, helping to destroy two marriages and sound the death knell to other relationships with men."

Oppenheimer also explains Walter's puzzling lifetime devotion to Roy Cohn. They had dated seriously when Walters was a junior at Sarah Lawrence and Cohn a rising young assistant district attorney. Over the years they contemplated tying the knot. But what cemented the relationship was Cohn's help when Walters wanted to adopt an infant daughter during her second marriage to producer Lee Guber. Had it not been for Cohn's assistance, notes Oppenheimer, Walters could have remained childless.

Another vignette involves Walter's best-selling book, How to Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything. Since Walters lacked the time to actually write the work, Doubleday, the publisher, provided her with a well-known ghost, June Callwood. Callwood credits Walters with "enormous determination," and labels her "a shaky woman in a lot of ways, emotionally very vulnerable."

Despite the book's success, Callwood's contribution to the project remained hidden. She was not even included in the customary thank you's in the front of the book. Walters boasted it had taken only two years to create, the hardest part being the table of contents. When People magazine published that Callwood was the actual writer, Walters quickly asked her for a denial. Callwood acquiesced and finally received a thank-you note.

What is most interesting here is Oppenheimer's presentation of the inside gossip of the early years of television--the behind-the-scenes intrigues, friendships, squabbles, and struggles of the poor little rich girl striving for success.

After a stint as a booker at CBS and as a PR rep for the legendary Tex McCrary, Walters joined NBC's "Today Show" as a writer-assistant to The Face, Anita Colby, in 1961. Colby quickly ascertained Walter's insatiable appetite for the limelight and helped her to get on camera, by assigning her to cover fashion shows and feature stories. Her first big break came when she accompanied Jackie Kennedy on her trip to India. Alternating between threatening, whining, and cajoling--tactics she would employ throughout her career--Walters managed an exclusive interview with the First Lady. Never one to miss an opportunity, she also forged a useful bond with first friend, Joan Braden, who would later provide an invaluable service: introductions to the movers and shakers of Washington.

After covering the Kennedy assassination, Walters fought tooth and nail for the highly visible role of the Today Girl, with no success. Finally, when NBC had no one else to turn to, and with the help of the host, Hugh Downs, she made it on the air in 1964. No dummy, she put together a crack management and publicity team. By clever manipulation of male power-brokers she worked her way up to queen of the airwaves. Oppenheimer depicts Walter's constant lobbying to expand her domain, her supposed feud with Sally Quinn (when Quinn joined rival CBS) and the contempt of male journalists, who considered Walters a major embarrassment.

One of her fiercest opponents was the late NBC newsman, Frank McGhee. Between 7 and 9 each morning he supposedly made her life a "living hell."

McGhee would not speak to her offcamera, disparaged her interviews, and refused to allow her to report on certain subjects. To put it bluntly, he despised her. So did Harry Reasoner.

Nevertheless, middle America loved Barb; and her access to celebrities, which led to "The Barbara Walters Specials," turned her into an icon of sorts.

Hopefully, Barbara Walters will decide to write her own biography. Hopefully, she will do it soon and tell us ALL.

Now blonder, smoother of cheek and jowl, more streamlined than ever at the age of sixty (Walters admits to 58), and earning more than a million annually, she seems firmly ensconced in the video firmament. The ultimate survivor, who despite her frequent coy, cloying questions and pronounced lisp, can corner the latest celebrity and get him or her to talk.
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Author:McElwaine, Sandra
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1990
Words:910
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