Walter Winchell (real name was ne Winschel or Winschel), April 7, 1897 – February 20, 1972, was an American newspaper and radio gossip commentator, famous for attempting to destroy the careers of people both private and public whom he disliked.
Winchell was born in East Harlem, New York, the son of Jennie and Jacob Winchell, a salesman; they were Russian Jewish immigrants. He left school in the sixth grade and started performing in Gus Edwards’s vaudeville troupe known as the “Newsboys Sextet,” which also included a young George Jessel.
He began his career in journalism by posting notes about his acting troupe on backstage bulletin boards. He joined the Vaudeville News in 1920, then left the paper for the Evening Graphic in 1924, where his column was named Mainly About Mainstreeters. He was hired on June 10, 1929, by the New York Daily Mirror, where he finally became the author of the first syndicated gossip column, entitled On-Broadway. The column was syndicated by King Features Syndicate.
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He used connections in the entertainment, social, and governmental realms to expose exciting or embarrassing information about celebrities in those industries. This caused him to become very feared as a journalist, because he would routinely affect the lives of famous or powerful people, exposing alleged information and rumors about them, using this as ammunition to attack his enemies and to blackmail influential people. He used this power, trading positive mention in his column (and later, his radio show) for more rumors and secrets.
He made his radio debut over WABC in New York, a CBS affiliate, on May 12, 1930. The show entitled Saks on Broadway was a 15-minute feature that provided business news about Broadway. He switched to WJZ (later renamed WABC) and the NBC Blue (later ABC Radio) in 1932 for the Jergens Journal.
By the 1930s, Winchell was “an intimate friend of Owney Madden, New York’s No. 1 gang leader of the prohibition era”, but “in 1932 Winchell’s intimacy with criminals caused him to fear he would be ‘rubbed out’ for ‘knowing too much.'” He fled to California and “returned weeks later with a new enthusiasm for law, G-men, Uncle Sam, [and] Old Glory”. His coverage of the Lindbergh kidnapping and subsequent trial received national attention. Within two years, he befriended J. Edgar Hoover, the No. 2 G-man of the repeal era. He was responsible for turning Louis “Lepke” Buchalter of Murder, Inc. over to Hoover. His newspaper column was syndicated in over 2,000 newspapers worldwide, and he was read by 50 million people a day from the 1920s until the early 1960s. His Sunday night radio broadcast was heard by another 20 million people from 1930 to the late 1950s. In 1948, Winchell had the top-rated radio show when he surpassed Fred Allen and Jack Benny. One example of his profile at his professional peak was being mentioned in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s 1937 song “The Lady Is a Tramp”: “She follows Winchell, and she reads every line.”
Winchell was Jewish and was one of the first commentators in America to attack Adolf Hitler and American pro-fascist and pro-Nazi organizations such as the German-American Bund, and especially its leader Fritz Julius Kuhn. He was a staunch supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal throughout the Depression era, and frequently served as the Roosevelt Administration’s mouthpiece in favor of interventionism as the European war crisis loomed in the late 1930s. Early on, he denounced American isolationists as favoring appeasement of Hitler, and was explicit in his attacks on such prominent isolationists as Charles Lindbergh, whom he dubbed “The Lone Ostrich”, and Gerald L. K. Smith, whom he denounced as “Gerald Lucifer KKKodfish Smith”. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Winchell was also an outspoken supporter of civil rights for African Americans, and frequently attacked the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups as supporting un-American, pro-German goals. After World War II, Winchell began to denounce Communism as the main threat facing America.
During World War II, he attacked the National Maritime Union, the labor organization for the civilian United States Merchant Marine, which he said was run by Communists. In 1948 and 1949, he and influential leftist columnist Drew Pearson “inaccurately and maliciously assaulted Secretary of Defense James Forrestal in columns and radio broadcasts.”
During the 1950s, Winchell supported Senator Joseph McCarthy’s quest to identify Communists in the entertainment industry, but his popularity and influence began to decline as the public turned against McCarthy. His weekly radio broadcast was simulcast on ABC television until he ended that association because of a dispute with ABC executives in 1955.
Here’s a video from The Walter Winchell File:
He starred in The Walter Winchell File, a television crime drama series that initially aired from 1957 to 1958, dramatizing cases from the New York City Police Department that were covered in the New York Daily Mirror. ABC re-hired him in 1959 to narrate The Untouchables for four seasons. In 1960, he signed with NBC to host a variety program called The Walter Winchell Show, which was canceled after only thirteen weeks—a particularly bitter failure in view of the success of his longtime rival Harlem buddy Ed Sullivan in a similar format.
In the early 1960s, a public dispute with Jack Paar effectively ended Winchell’s career—already in steep decline due to his association with McCarthy—signaling a shift in power from print to television. Winchell had angered Paar several years earlier when he refused to retract an item alleging that Paar was having marital difficulties. Biographer Neal Gabler described the exchange on Paar’s show in 1961:
Hostess Elsa Maxwell appeared on the program and began gibing at Walter, accusing him of hypocrisy for waving the flag while never having voted [which, incidentally, wasn’t true; the show later issued a retraction]. Paar joined in. He said Walter’s column was “written by a fly” and that his voice was so high because he wears “too-tight underwear” … [H]e also told the story of the mistaken item about his marriage, and cracked that Walter had a “hole in his soul”.
On subsequent programs, Paar called Winchell a “silly old man” and cited other examples of his underhanded tactics. No one had previously dared criticize Winchell publicly, but by then his influence had eroded to the point that he could not effectively respond. The New York Daily Mirror, his flagship newspaper for 34 years, closed in 1963; his readership dropped steadily, and he faded from the public eye.
Winchell became notorious for his attempts to destroy the careers of his political and personal enemies as his own career progressed, especially after World War II. Favorite tactics were allegations of having ties to Communist organizations and accusations of sexual impropriety. He was not above childish name-calling; for example, he described New York radio host Barry Gray as “Borey Pink” and a “disk jerk”. Winchell heard that Marlen Edwin Pew of the trade journal Editor & Publisher had criticized him as a bad influence on the American press, and he began calling him “Marlen Pee-you”.
For most of his career, his contracts with newspaper and radio employers required them to hold him harmless from any damages resulting from lawsuits for slander or libel. He would unapologetically publish material told to him in confidence by friends; when confronted over such betrayals, he typically responded, “I know — I’m just a son of a bitch.” By the mid-1950s, he was widely seen as arrogant, cruel, and ruthless.
While on an American tour in 1951, Josephine Baker, who would never perform before segregated audiences, criticized the Stork Club’s unwritten policy of discouraging black patrons, then scolded Winchell, an old ally, for not rising to her defense. Winchell responded swiftly with a series of harsh public rebukes, including accusations of Communist sympathies (a serious charge at the time). He spurned any attempts by friends to mitigate the heated rhetoric. The ensuing publicity resulted in the termination of Baker’s work visa, forcing her to cancel all her engagements and return to France. It was almost a decade before US officials allowed her back into the country. The adverse publicity, combined with Winchell’s warm relationship with Joe McCarthy, further undercut his credibility and power.
Many other columnists began to write gossip soon after Winchell’s initial success, such as Ed Sullivan in New York and Louella Parsons in Los Angeles. He wrote in a style filled with slang and incomplete sentences. Winchell’s casual writing style famously earned him the ire of mobster Dutch Schultz, who confronted him at New York’s Cotton Club and publicly lambasted him for using the phrase “pushover” to describe Schultz’s penchant for blonde women. Some notable Winchell quotations are: “Nothing recedes like success”, and “I usually get my stuff from people who promised somebody else that they would keep it a secret”.
Winchell opened his radio broadcasts by pressing randomly on a telegraph key, a sound that created a sense of urgency and importance, and using the catchphrase “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea. Let’s go to press.” He would then read each of his stories with a staccato delivery (up to a rate of 197 words per minute, though he claimed a speed of well over 200 wpm in an interview in 1967), noticeably faster than the typical pace of American speech. His diction can also be heard in his breathless narration of the Untouchables television series as well as in several Hollywood films.
On August 11, 1919, Winchell married Rita Greene, one of his onstage partners. The couple separated a few years later, and he moved in with June Magee, who had already adopted daughter, Gloria and given birth to their first child in 1927, a daughter named Walda. Winchell and Greene eventually divorced in 1928. Winchell and Magee would never marry, although the couple maintained the front of being married for the rest of their lives.
Winchell and Magee had three children; two daughters, Gloria (whom the couple adopted), Walda, and a son, Walter Jr. Gloria died of pneumonia at the age of nine, and Walda spent time in psychiatric hospitals. Walter Jr., the only son of the journalist, committed suicide in his family’s garage on Christmas night, 1968. Having spent the previous two years on welfare, Walter Jr. had last been employed as a dishwasher in Santa Ana, California, but listed himself as a freelancer who for a time wrote a column in the Los Angeles Free Press, an alternative newspaper published between 1964 and 1978.
Winchell announced his retirement on February 5, 1969, citing his son’s suicide as a major reason, while also noting the delicate health of his companion, Elizabeth June Magee. Exactly one year after his retirement, Magee died at a Phoenix hospital while undergoing treatment for a heart condition.
Winchell spent his final two years as a recluse at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Larry King, who replaced Winchell at the Miami Herald, observed:
He was so sad. You know what Winchell was doing at the end? Typing out mimeographed sheets with his column, handing them out on the corner. That’s how sad he got. When he died, only one person came to his funeral: his daughter.
(Several of Winchell’s former co-workers expressed a willingness to go, but were turned back by his daughter Walda.)
Winchell died of prostate cancer at the age of 74 on February 20, 1972, in Los Angeles, California. He is buried in Greenwood/Memory Lawn Mortuary & Cemetery in Phoenix.
Even during Winchell’s lifetime, journalists were critical of his effect on the media. In 1940, St. Clair McKelway, who had earlier written a series of articles about him in The New Yorker, wrote in Time Magazine:
…the effect of Winchellism on the standards of the press…. When Winchell began gossiping in 1924 for the late scatological tabloid Evening Graphic, no U.S. paper hawked rumors about the marital relations of public figures until they turned up in divorce courts. For 16 years, gossip columns spread until even the staid New York Times whispered that it heard from friends of a son of the President that he was going to be divorced. In its first year, The Graphic would have considered this news not fit to print… Gossip-writing is at present like a spirochete in the body of journalism…. Newspapers… have never been held in less esteem by their readers or exercised less influence on the political and ethical thought of the times.
Winchell responded to McKelway saying, “Oh stop! You talk like a high-school student of journalism.”
Despite the controversy surrounding Winchell, his popularity allowed him to leverage support for causes that he valued. In 1946, following the death from cancer of his close friend and fellow writer Damon Runyon, Winchell appealed to his radio audience for contributions to fight the disease. The response led Winchell to establish the Damon Runyon Cancer Memorial Fund, since renamed the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. He led the charity — with the support of celebrities including Marlene Dietrich, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Marilyn Monroe, and Joe DiMaggio — until his own death from cancer in 1972.
In 1950, Ernest Lehman, a former publicity writer for Irving Hoffman of The Hollywood Reporter, wrote a story for Cosmopolitan titled “Tell Me About It Tomorrow”. The piece is about a ruthless journalist, J.J. Hunsecker, and is generally thought to be a thinly veiled commentary on the power wielded by Winchell at the height of his influence. It was made into the film Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and the screenplay was written by Lehman and Clifford Odets.
Walter Winchell is the first person credited for coining the word frienemy in an article published by the Nevada State Journal on 19 May 1953.
In his 1962 Hugo Award-winning novel “Stranger in a Strange Land,” science fiction master Robert Heinlein introduced the term “winchell” into the American vocabulary, as a term for a politically intrusive gossip columnist referring to the character Ben Caxton. He contrasted Winchell with another well-known journalist, Walter Lippmann, whose forte was politics rather than celebrity gossip. Jill: “Ben’s not a winchell, he’s a lippmann!” Jubal: “Sorry, I’m colorblind at that distance.”
The term “Winchellism” is named after him. Though its use is extremely rare and may be considered archaic, the term has two different usages.
- One definition is a pejorative judgment that an author’s works are specifically designed to imply or invoke scandal and may be libelous.
- The other definition is “any word or phrase compounded brought to the fore by the columnist Walter Winchell” or his imitators. Looking at his writing’s effect on the language, an etymologist of his day said, “there are plenty of… expressions which he has fathered and which are now current among his readers and imitators and constitute a flash language which has been called Winchellese. Through a newspaper column which has nation-wide circulation, Winchell has achieved the position of dictator of contemporary slang.” Winchell invented his own phrases that were viewed as slightly racy at the time. Some of the expressions for falling in love used by Winchell were: “pashing it”, “sizzle for”, “that way, go for each other”, “garbo-ing it”, “uh-huh”; and in the same category, “new Garbo, trouser-crease-eraser”, and “pash”. Some Winchellisms for marriage are: “middle-aisle it”, “altar it”, “handcuffed”, “Mendelssohn March”, “Lohengrin it”, and “merged”
- Waldo Winchester, newspaper scribe, was a recurring figure in Damon Runyon’s fiction. He is referenced in the 1930 Cole Porter song “Let’s Fly Away” in the lines:
“Let’s fly away And find a land that’s so provincial, We’ll never hear what Walter Winchell Might be forced to say!”
- “Waldo Winkler”, a character in P.G. Wodehouse’s 1933 short story “The Rise of Minna Nordstrom”, is based on Winchell.
- Walter Winchell has a major role in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004), in which Roth begins with Charles Lindbergh winning the 1940 Presidential election. A fictionalized Walter Winchell becomes the principal voice against President Lindbergh and the rise of fascism in America.