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Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity.

In the 1930s and 1940s, it was said, about two-thirds of all Americans either read Walter Winchell's columns or listened to him on radio on Sunday nights. But ask a young person today if he recognizes the name Walter Winchell, as I did, and you get a blank stare.

In his heyday, at the peak of his power as one of America's most influential journalists, Winchell could make or break reputations, create celebrities or tear them down and even influence presidents, as he did with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower.

But when he died 22 years ago, there was only one mourner at his funeral - his daughter, Wanda. But his influence carries on to this day.

He probably "invented" the gossip column - mixing tidbits about prominent figures, telling anecdotes of Broadway and the political world and selling his ideas in politics and world affairs. He had no particular qualifications for journalism but his imitators were legion, including in some respects St. Louis' Jerry Berger. And he convinced all editors that people wanted to read about people. So today we have all sorts of personal columns, gossip columns, special interest columns, magazines and features devoted to "People" and now "infomercials," mixtures of gossip and news which clutter the TV screen but give millions what they want to know. Winchell had only limited success in television but talk show hosts learned from him, and from his machine-gun delivery.

He came from an impoverished family in New York's Harlem. When he was still a young man, he broke into vaudeville as a song-and-dance performer. He dropped out of school in order to help support his family and because he found the stage far more attractive to a youth desperately seeking recognition.

Show business led to writing brief news items about vaudeville performers. That led to writing a gossip column for one of the earliest and worst of New York's tabloids, the Graphic. His next stop: the New York Daily Mirror, with a million readers. And from there he went on to national syndication. More than 2,000 newspapers bought his six-times-a-week column from Hearst's King Features Syndicate. Among his customers - the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which found the Winchell column so attractive to its readers that it insisted on getting the column by wire, rather than by mail. But by the 1950s, the column had lost so much of its value to the Post that it ran only bits and pieces of Winchell's daily output and finally, like most other papers, dropped it entirely.

Winchell knew little about grammar so he covered up his mistakes by inventing his own "slanguage." But he was masterful in rounding up thousands of items each week, mostly from press agents who were eager to get names and stories about their clients into the papers. Winchell used a table at the Stork Club, a New York night club, as his office. He was there every night to receive phone calls and visits from press agents and others seeking his ear. And after the club closed for the night, Winchell and a friend or two would cruise the streets of New York, looking for excitement and responding to police radio calls.

But Winchell went far beyond night club gossip. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Roosevelt and helped build sentiment in the U.S. to enter World War II to help our allies, the British and the French. Roosevelt responded to Winchell's support by helping him win a commission as a commander in the Navy. After a very brief tour of duty, about three weeks, Winchell returned to Broadway, Hollywood and Miami Beach. And over the years his political sentiments shifted from a fighting liberal to a red-baiting ally of Senator Joe McCarthy.

Winchell was known not only for the friends he made in the entertainment world and in politics and crime families but also for the sworn enemies he sought. Among his early friends and later enemies were Ed Sullivan and J. Edgar Hoover. With Hoover there was a mutual back-scratching - Hoover gave him damaging gossip about celebrities and Winchell helped build Hoover into one of the country's most admired figures, for a long time.

In his personal life, Winchell was a failure. Two marriages disintegrated. A son committed suicide, trying to live up to his father's prominence. And most of his friends drifted away.

Neal Gabler, author of this great study of celebrity in America, spent more than five years gathering his material. He focussed on Winchell but also went into great detail about dozens of others in journalism and the theater whose lives touched Winchell.

Winchell had a great impact on journalism, some good, some damaging. But there is no question that he influenced all the media by forcing more attention to be paid to news about people, rather than governments or events. He spent all his life attempting to achieve celebrity and wealth and in his lifetime he succeeded.

Today he is rarely remembered, except by those in their 70s or 80s. Celebrities are still being discovered or developed but few writers do it as well as Winchell did in his prime.

Selwyn Pepper is a retired St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor and reporter. For about 10 years he edited the Winchell column, which appeared in the Everyday Magazine.
COPYRIGHT 1995 SJR St. Louis Journalism Review
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Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Pepper, Selwyn
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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