Wednesday, February 03, 2010


Walter Winchell was a petty and mean bastard. I want to make that clear. As inspiring as his story is, remember that. It's important not to lionize people. what's true is fantastic enough. He grew up poor on the Upper East Side. He built something from nothing, and he did it by hustling. He was a real prick, a megalomaniac, and a vindictive womanizer. I do quite like some of his contributions to the English language including the eponymous term "Winchellism" which applied to any number of his his invented words or phrases and more interestingly:
"A pejorative judgment that an author's works are specifically designed to imply or invoke scandal and may even be libelous."
He began in vaudeville, quickly finding that his talent was in writing about vaudeville more than singing or dancing. He wrote for the Vaudeville News starting in 1922 and left it for The Evening Graphic in 1924. It was there that he began making enemies with celebrities and friends with mobsters. Both situations gave him fodder for his column.On June 10th 1929 he was hired by the New York Daily Mirror where he finally became a syndicated columnist. That's when the real trouble began. At first Winchell wrote 4 days a week, then five, then he got a Sunday column. Eventually his column was syndicated in over 2,000 newspapers and read by 50 million people. Success there led to radio.

In 1931 he first began his weekly broadcasts for CBS. The Lucky Strike radio program gave him 5 minutes of airtime at the request of George Hill the president of American Tobacco. He was instantly popular. On March 29th, 1937 he debuted on NBC. Jergens sponsored a 15-minute Sunday night program The Jergens Journal, starring Winchell's high speed delivery. The book "The Secret Life of Walter Winchell" described it like this:
"The familiar staccato voice, heralding twelve and one half minutes of the Jergens Journal... Tapping a telegraph key wildly, though he bothered to learn Morse Code. Ripping at his necktie. Nuzzling against the microphone. Filling his hatband with nervous sweat. Gobbling at twenty million pairs of ears. "
He began each episode with the phrase "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." His banter was clocked at an average of 197 words per minute. While his column focused on gossip, his radio program included a lot of international news giving it a greater air of seriousness. Despite his sensationalist reputation for Hollywood gossip he was also one of the first American journalists to criticize Adolf Hitler in the build up to WWII.

On June 15, 1945, NBC Blue officially became the ABC Network, Winchell rolled on with a different emblem on his microphone. The Jergens Journal ran until December 26th 1948 when Winchell made the leap to Television. It was later renamed "The Woodbury Journal" for their new sponsor. His ABC television program was sponsored by Gruen Watches, and simulcast on ABC radio until 1955. He got into an argument with ABC executives and they canned him. He sued and went to the much smaller Mutual Network.

Winchell a rabid anti-communist had supported Senator Joe McCarthy [R]. Thought Winchell had turned on McCarthy at the end, it had left him stained somewhat and his career was in decline. The fight that would end his career was brewing. He and Jack Paar didn't get along. Paar had been on the Lucky Strike Program as well so they had crossed paths around 1931 only do so again in 1957. Paar had reemerged from Quiz-show exile to host the Tonight Show. Winchell gave Paar the treatment. He said that Paar was having marital problems. Paar denied it, but the fact is, Paar married and divorced the same woman twice. It wasn't a stretch. But Paar had a platform from which to fire back. He said that Winchell never voted (which was untrue) and that his column was "written by a fly." He called him a "silly old man" and went on to mock Winchell's high pitched voice. Ironically it was Paar who had to make a retraction. More here.

Paar kept up the pressure and in a series of attacks in 1959 he read passages from the book "The Secret Life of Walter Winchell." It was a hit piece written by Lyle Stewart that gave Winchell the treatment he'd given everyone else. At the same time Winchell's home base newspaper The New York Daily Mirror was floundering under a prolonged strike. The newspaper went under in 1962 and Winchell was cast adrift and to faded into obscurity. He retired from the Mutual Network in 1969.