Sunday, January 18, 2009


As a journalist, performer and personality ,Walter Winchell was more electrically charged than the radio signals that carried him into millions of homes each week.

Born on April 7, 1897 in a New York City where gas-lights still illuminated city streets ,handsome cabs carried the wealthy up and down Fifth Avenue, while tabloids filled newsstands, Winchell grew to become one of the most renowned and reviled, competitive and controversial, media figures of the 20th century.

With equal parts greasepaint and printer's ink flowing in his veins, Winchell left school after sixth grade and joined vaudeville's equivalent of a 1990's boy band, the Newsboys Sextet. Between performances, he prowled the city by night in search of inside, showbiz gossip.

By 1930, Winchell was a young newsman covering Manhattan's cafe society and Broadway's stagedoor characters for his breezy, street-smart column in the tabloid, New York Daily Mirror. An appearance on a CBS radio show opened the door for a spot hosting his own network series, The Jergen's Journal on NBC radio's Blue Network.

His rise on radio was meteoric. Winchell's Sunday night, NBC Radio show was an institution in American broadcasting for years to come. The eclectic combination of serious news coverage , inventive vernacular, showbiz gossip and gut-level ,political analysis reached almost 90% of the radio audience .It made Walter Winchell one of the most influential voices in the country.

When fugitive mobster Louis "Lepke" Buchalter , who headed a company of killers for hire refered to as Murder, Incorporated, wanted to surrender to the F.B.I., he asked Winchell to provide safe transfer to authorities. Winchell knew how to break news of this magnitude, how to benefit from it's publicity, and sustain its impact. He never let go of the story.Three decades after the incident, Winchell released a long-playing , vinyl disc on the DOT label in which he detailed the inside story of Lepke's downfall.

In the post -World War Two era , Winchell was accused of using his power to promote a personal, right-wing, political agenda. Some observers say the power-hungry , manipulative newsman protrayed by Burt Lancaster in his 1957 film, The Sweet Smell of Success, was predicated on Winchell.

The perapetetic newsman stunned America at the height of McCarthy-ism , when he claimed, in a newspaper column ,that the nation's most beloved, television performer, Lucille Ball, was a card-carrying Communist. The country was shocked, CBS-TV was enraged and Lucy was devastated. Ball's husband and business partner, Desi Arnaz ,took a smart and sardonic stance, when he replied by saying that the only thing red about Lucy is her haircolor, and even that's not real.

In the end, Winchell's accusation was proven false and had to be retracted. Stangely, just months later ,the production company Arnaz and Ball owned, Desilu, began to produce a syndicated, dramatic, TV series based on the exploits of the New York newsman and starring the columnist in an eponymous, leading role . The program , entitled The Walter Winchell Files, was cancelled after two seasons.

Below is a clip from a 1956 news and analysis series he hosted on the ABC-TV network. In just a few seconds of staccato delivery and high velocity headlines, you get a sense of the energy that propelled Winchell forward as a force in American media. Enjoy!!!!

Like so many of the tabloids for which he wrote and network radio , itself, Winchell was eclipsed by the advent of television news. Late in his life , in the 1960's, he gained new fame as narrator of ABC-TV's, hit drama, The Untouchables, which showcased the violent stories of roaring twenties gangbuster, Elliot Ness. The show was, as you'll see in the clip below, ironically set ,not in Winchell's beloved New York, but in Chicago. Enjoy!!!!!

Winchell died of prostate cancer on February 20, 1972. His friend, CNN's Larry King, says Wincehll ended life as a recluse , living in a suite at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He had no media outlet for which to report, and almost never left his quarters. He emerged only to hand out mimeographed copies of a gossip column he wrote every day until he died.

If you want to learn more about Walter Winchell and his legacy in journalism, check out Neil Gabler's excellent biography.

Guess this is where we cue NBC's " The More You Know" logo:)

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