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BOOKS: Ex-Hoofer Colyumnist Gets Big Biog

5 minute read
Walter Shapiro

The crime revolved around an American emblem, an epic hero whose exploits were revered by millions. As soon as jury selection began, more than 300 reporters vied for seats on the hard benches in the New Jersey courtroom; witnesses who testified were instantly transformed into national celebrities; columnists and broadcast personalities freely opined to a rapt public on everything from prosecution tactics to the guilt of the accused. The trial, writes Neal Gabler, “was a milestone in the culture. Thereafter, the media would be as much participants in an event as reporters of it, shaping and sensationalizing on a new scale and turning events into occasions, national festivals.”

At the center of the mad maelstrom, seated just 7 ft. from the defendant, was the nation’s newsboy, wearing his trademark gray suit and gray fedora, sporting dark glasses, the better to bask in the limelight. The 1935 trial of Bruno Hauptmann, arrested for the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son, featured Walter Winchell at his most vainglorious. How Winchell preened as each prospective juror was asked if he read Winchell’s daily column (syndicated to 2,000 newspapers) or listened to his top-rated weekly radio broadcast! Winchell modestly told his loyal readers that he was at the trial primarily “to check off confirmations of advance tips printed here — to column ((sic)) about them for those who sniffed at them.” When the jury found Hauptmann guilty, Winchell reportedly leaped to his feet and shouted to the press pack: “I predicted he’d be guilty! Oh, that’s another big one for me! Come on, fellas, put it in your stories. I was the first to call it!”

What an apt moment this is for the publication of Gabler’s sweeping biography, Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity (Knopf; 681 pages; $30). Once again breast beaters are lamenting the vulgarity of popular taste, the tabloidization of politics and the shallowness of public discourse. Yet the democratic conflict between MacNeil/Lehrer and Hard Copy, between the New York Times and the New York Post, was presaged more than 60 years ago, when critic Alexander Woollcott proclaimed that the 1930s would be remembered as “the Age of the Two Walters, Lippmann and Winchell.”

In contrast to the elitist Lippmann, Winchell was the staccato voice of urban and ethnic America. The arc of his life is an American fable: a seventh- grade dropout; a third-rate vaudeville hoofer; the first columnist to chronicle the Broadway demimonde; the scourge of press agents; the pre-eminent radio commentator; F.D.R.’s and J. Edgar Hoover’s biggest booster; the postwar Red baiter and McCarthyite; and the lonely and bilious has-been clinging to the shabby remnants of his column until his little-lamented death in 1972.

Gabler, author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, has written a benchmark biography that fuses meticulous research with a deft grasp of the cultural nuances of an era when virtually everyone who mattered paid homage to Winchell at his table at Manhattan’s celebrity hangout, the Stork Club. Gabler captures everything except the essence of Winchell’s breathless dot-dot-dot tabloid style. Never does the author parse an entire column or broadcast to make Winchell accessible to a generation that only dimly recalls him as the narrator of the 1960s TV series The Untouchables. A few days before the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Winchell wrote that the “most fateful hour of the most fateful week of history is at hand.” Only a careful reader of the chapter notes will learn that the very next item in his column that day began, “Maxine Moore, one of the prettiest chorus girls in Lew Brown’s big hit, Yokel Boy, is now in Chicago to apply for a divorce.”

These bizarre juxtapositions, commingling the solemn and the sordid, helped forge the legend of Big Brother as newspaper columnist. In the words of a 1933 ad slogan, WINCHELL HE SEES ALL HE KNOWS ALL. With its rightful emphasis on the power-mad side of Winchell’s persona, Gabler’s biography validates Burt Lancaster’s chilling portrayal of gossipmonger J.J. Hunsecker in the 1957 film The Sweet Smell of Success. (In real life, Winchell, in cinema noir fashion, had his daughter Walda carted off to an asylum in a straitjacket in paternal rage against an unsuitable marriage.). The same haunting sense of hubris at the Stork Club animates Michael Herr’s artful 1990 rendition of the columnist’s life, Walter Winchell: A Novel.

Amid the rich detail, Gabler at times poetically captures the desperate hunger that fueled Winchell. There is a telling scene of the columnist wading in the surf at Miami Beach in the late 1940s with his lawyer Ernest Cuneo. “Well, King Canute,” asks Cuneo, “what more do you really want?” With tremendous vehemence, Winchell replies, “I want all the news in the world.” Then the world’s most powerful columnist adds, “And all its money too.” With these values Winchell would truly be at home in the 1990s.

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