Walter Winchell (April 7, 1897 – February 20, 1972) was an American newspaper and radio gossip commentator.
Winchell found embarrassing stories about famous people by exploiting his exceptionally wide circle of contacts, and trading gossip, sometimes in return for his silence. His uniquely outspoken style made him both feared and admired, and his column was syndicated worldwide. In the 1930s, he attacked the appeasers of Nazism, and later aligned with Joseph McCarthy in his campaign against communists. He damaged the reputations of Charles Lindbergh and Josephine Baker as well as other individuals who had earned his enmity. However, the McCarthy connection in time made him deeply unfashionable, his talents did not adapt well for television, and his career ended in humiliation.
Winchell in 1960
April 7, 1897
New York City, U.S.
|Died||February 20, 1972 (aged 74)|
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Greenwood/Memory Lawn Mortuary & Cemetery|
(m. 1919; div. 1928)
Winchell was born in New York City, the son of Jennie (Bakst) 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 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.
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 murdered. 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 per 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": "I follow Winchell and read 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, 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. 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. In 1956, he signed with NBC to host a variety program called The Walter Winchell Show, which was canceled after only 13 weeks—a particularly bitter failure in view of the success of his longtime rival Ed Sullivan in a similar format with The Ed Sullivan Show. ABC re-hired him in 1959 to narrate The Untouchables for four seasons. In 1960, a revival of the 1955 television simulcast of Winchell's radio broadcast was cancelled after six weeks.
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 to 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 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 unapologetically would 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 U.S. officials allowed her back into the country. The adverse publicity, combined with Winchell's warm relationship with Joseph 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".
Herman Klurfeld, a ghostwriter for Winchell for almost three decades, started writing to four newspaper columns per week for Winchell in 1936 and worked for him for 29 years. He also wrote many of the signature one-liners, called "lasties", that Mr. Winchell used at the end of his Sunday evening radio broadcasts. One of Klurfeld's quips was "She's been on more laps than a napkin". In 1952, the New York Post revealed Mr. Klurfeld as Mr. Winchell's ghostwriter. (Klurfeld also wrote a biography of Winchell entitled Walter Winchell: His Life and Times, which was the basis for the 1998 movie Winchell.)
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 words per minute in an interview in 1967), noticeably faster than the typical pace of American speech. His diction also can 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 Elizabeth June Magee, who had already adopted daughter Gloria and given birth to her and Winchell's 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) and 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 the family garage on Christmas night of 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 from 1964 to 1978.
Winchell announced his retirement on February 5, 1969, citing his son's suicide as a major reason as well as the delicate health of his companion, June Magee. Exactly one year after his retirement, Magee died at a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, while undergoing treatment for a heart condition.
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 had expressed a willingness to go, but were turned back by his daughter Walda.
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:
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 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.
In his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein introduced the term "winchell" into the American vocabulary as a term for a politically intrusive gossip columnist, in reference to the character Ben Caxton. He contrasted Winchell with Walter Lippmann, another well-known journalist, whose forte was politics rather than celebrity gossip.
The term "Winchellism" is named after him. Though its use is extremely rare and may be considered archaic, the term has two different usages.
Let's fly away
And find a land that's so provincial,
We'll never hear what Walter Winchell
Might be forced to say!
His ranking among the most listened-to radio programs climbed higher and higher until in 1948 his audience was the biggest in radio.
Paar's feud with newspaper columnist Walter Winchell marked a major turning point in American media power. No one had ever dared criticize Winchell because a few lines in his column could destroy a career, but when Winchell disparaged Paar in print, Paar fought back and mocked Winchell repeatedly on the air. Paar's criticisms effectively ended Winchell's career. The tables had turned, now TV had the power."
Blessed Event is a 1932 American pre-Code comedy-drama film starring Lee Tracy as a newspaper gossip columnist who becomes entangled with a gangster. The Tracy character (Alvin Roberts) was reportedly patterned after Walter Winchell, famous gossip columnist of the era. The film was Dick Powell's film debut.Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989 film)
Bloodhounds of Broadway is a 1989 American ensemble period comedy film based on four Damon Runyon stories: "The Bloodhounds of Broadway", "A Very Honorable Guy", "The Brain Goes Home" and "Social Error". It was directed by Howard Brookner and starred Matt Dillon, Jennifer Grey, Anita Morris, Julie Hagerty, Rutger Hauer, Madonna, Esai Morales and Randy Quaid. Madonna and Jennifer Grey perform a duet, "I Surrender Dear", during the film. Madonna earned a Golden Raspberry Award nomination for Worst Supporting Actress for her performance in the film, where she lost to Brooke Shields for Speed Zone.Bloodhounds of Broadway was Brookner's only feature-length film; he died shortly before the film opened. The film was recut by the studio and Walter Winchell-esque narration was added. Six months following its theatrical release, the film was televised as a presentation of PBS's American Playhouse on May 23, 1990.Broadway Through a Keyhole
Broadway Through a Keyhole, also billed as Broadway Thru a Keyhole, is a 1933 American pre-Code musical film produced by Twentieth Century Pictures and released by United Artists.
New York City speakeasy proprietress Texas Guinan appears as a fictionalized version of herself in the film. It also features early appearances by Lucille Ball, Ann Sothern, and Susan Fleming. The film is based on an original story by Broadway columnist Walter Winchell.Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation
The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation (Damon Runyon) is an American not-for-profit cancer research organization focused on "discovering the talent to discover the cure". The organization states that its goals are to: "identify the best and brightest early career scientists in cancer research, accelerate the translation of scientific discoveries into new diagnostic tools and treatments, and to enable risk-taking on bold new ideas".The organization was founded in 1946 by media personality Walter Winchell in New York City, New York, under the name Damon Runyon Cancer Memorial Fund in memory of his colleague and friend Damon Runyon, a newspaperman and author.Doris Ruby
Doris Ruby (1927 – December 16, 1951) was a 24-year-old dancer from Sunnyside, Queens who died in the 1951 Miami Airlines C-46 crash. She was a popular nightclub entertainer.Henry S. Levy and Sons
Henry S. Levy and Sons, popularly known as Levy's, was a bakery based in Brooklyn, New York, most famous for its rye bread. It is best known for its advertising campaign "You Don't Have to Be Jewish to Love Levy's", which columnist Walter Winchell referred to as "the commercial [sic] with a sensayuma" (sense of humor).Jacqueline Susann's Open Door
Jacqueline Susann's Open Door is an American discussion show hosted by Jacqueline Susann, later to become famous as the author of Valley of the Dolls. It aired nationally on the DuMont Television Network between May 7 and June 18, 1951. Each week Susann would interview celebrities.
Sam Chase's review of the program in the June 2, 1951, issue of Billboard illustrated the significance of the program's title: "Purpose of the show is to try to open the door to a job for people with capabilities who have had difficulties getting themselves located. ... Two of her [Susann's] guests, for instance, were a gal in a wheelchair who desired a steno post and a spry 84-year-old gal who'd been a receptionist. ... Third door-opening was sought for a lad who wanted a production job with a newspaper, ad agency or magazine because his gal was getting tired of waiting for him."
Chase also noted the roles of celebrities who were interviewed: "Regular feature on the show will be appearance of a guest celeb who will tell how tough it was to get doors open for himself once."Walter Winchell wrote in his syndicated newspaper column published May 30, 1951, "Jacqueline Susann's Open Door (via WABD) is human-interest at its heart-tuggiest."No episodes are known to exist today.Love and Hisses
Love and Hisses is a 1937 American musical comedy film directed by Sidney Lanfield and starring Walter Winchell, Ben Bernie and Simone Simon. It is the sequel to the film Wake Up and Live. Twentieth Century Fox's Darryl F. Zanuck wanted to continue the series with further films, but Winchell chose to return to New York to concentrate on his newspaper and radio work.Lyle Stuart
Lyle Stuart (August 11, 1922 – June 24, 2006) was an American author and independent publisher of controversial books. Born Lionel Simon on August 11, 1922, Stuart worked as a newsman for years before launching his publishing firm, Lyle Stuart, Incorporated.
A former part-owner of the original Aladdin Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Stuart was also a noted gambling authority, who advised casinos on how to protect themselves from cheats and cons. A garrulous raconteur, he had a wide circle of friends, freely admitting to a lively sex life and, as expected of a gambling authority and a former partial casino owner, he was fond of gambling, with baccarat and craps being his games of choice. His gambling bestsellers were Casino Gambling for the Winner, Winning at Casino Gambling, and Lyle Stuart on Baccarat. He boasted, in Casino Gambling for the Winner, of having won $166,505 in ten consecutive visits to Las Vegas.Michael Herr
Michael David Herr (April 13, 1940 – June 23, 2016) was an American writer and war correspondent, known as the author of Dispatches (1977), a memoir of his time as a correspondent for Esquire magazine (1967–1969) during the Vietnam War. The book was called the best "to have been written about the Vietnam War" by The New York Times Book Review. Novelist John le Carré called it "the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time." Herr later was credited with pioneering the literary genre of the nonfiction novel, along with authors such as Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Tom Wolfe.New York Daily Mirror
The New York Daily Mirror was an American morning tabloid newspaper first published on June 24, 1924, in New York City by the William Randolph Hearst organization as a contrast to their mainstream broadsheets, the Evening Journal and New York American, later consolidated into the New York Journal American. It was created to compete with the New York Daily News which was then a sensationalist tabloid and the most widely circulated newspaper in the United States. Hearst preferred the broadsheet format and sold the Mirror to an associate in 1928, only to buy it back in 1932.
Early on, several bright young writers and photographic journalists joined the Daily Mirror, such as Ring Lardner, Jr., Hy Peskin and the political commentator Drew Pearson. The poet-songwriter Nick Kenny was the paper's radio editor, and Edward Zeltner contributed a column. The gossip columnist Walter Winchell was hired away from the New York Evening Graphic, given his own radio show and syndicated, in his prime—the 1940s and early 1950s—in more than 2000 daily papers. In 1927, the paper devoted substantial resources to the exploitation of scandal with repeated stories on such events as the divorce trial of real estate tycoon Edward West "Daddy" Browning who at age 51 had married 16-year-old Frances Belle "Peaches" Heenan. Management of the Mirror estimated that its content was 10% news and 90% entertainment.
By the 1930s, the Daily Mirror was one of the Hearst Corporation's largest papers in terms of circulation. However, the paper never became a significantly profitable property as its earnings were mostly destined to support the company's faltering afternoon papers, and in its later years it declined substantially despite numerous efforts to turn things around.
Despite having the second-highest daily circulation of an American newspaper at the time, the Daily Mirror closed on October 16, 1963, after the 114-day 1962–63 New York City newspaper strike. The Daily Mirror name rights were at that point acquired by its rival the Daily News.On January 4, 1971, publisher Robert W. Farrell revived the New York Daily Mirror in name only, as a tabloid, published in Long Island City, Queens. Operating on a shoestring budget, the paper faced obstruction from the Daily News (from whom it had acquired the Daily Mirror name rights after the Daily News let them lapse). This new iteration of the Daily Mirror ceased publication on February 28, 1972.New York Graphic
The New York Evening Graphic (not to be confused with the earlier Daily Graphic) was a tabloid newspaper published from 1924 to 1932 by Bernarr "Bodylove" Macfadden. Exploitative and mendacious in its short life, the "pornoGraphic" defined tabloid journalism, launching the careers of Walter Winchell, Louis Sobol, and sportswriter-turned-television host Ed Sullivan.Okay, America!
Okay, America! is a 1932 American Pre-Code film, about a gossip columnist's rise to fame, based closely on the real life of Walter Winchell.Ruth Terry
Ruth Mae Terry (born Ruth Mae McMahon, October 21, 1920 – March 11, 2016) was an American singer and actress in film and television from the 1930s to the 1960s. She claimed her stage name came from Walter Winchell, who combined the names of two then-famous baseball players, Babe Ruth and Bill Terry.The Walter Winchell File
The Walter Winchell File is the title of 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. The series featured columnist and announcer Walter Winchell, John Larch, George Cisar, Robert Anderson, Robert Brubaker, Dolores Donlon, and Gene Barry, a year before he was cast in the lead of NBC's Bat Masterson.
Thirty-nine episodes were produced; the first twenty-six aired on ABC during the 1957-1958 season (sponsored by Revlon), and the final thirteen were seen in syndication in 1959.
Among the guest stars was the child actor Dennis Holmes, who played 7-year-old Allie Marisch in the 1957 episode "Thou Shalt Not Kill."Rodolfo Hoyos Jr., was cast as "El Jefe" in the 1958 episode "The Stop-over".The Walter Winchell Show
Columnist Walter Winchell had been a mainstay on the early years of ABC television with a simulcast of his 15-minute weekly time radio show until he left ABC in 1955 in a dispute with executives. The Walter Winchell Show of 1956 was the result of his agreement to return with a half hour, television-only broadcast.
In his five-year absence from ABC, the number of television programs linked directly to radio had dwindled greatly, as the still-newish medium had developed its own actors, and the remaining radio holdovers had learned how to play to the camera. Winchell would have none of this. Still wearing his felt "reporter" hat on the air, and punching out bogus "Morse Code" with his telegraph key to punctuate his stories, Winchell came across as a relic of another era. Even his trademark opening line, "Good evening Mr. and Mrs. North and South America and all the ships at sea ... let's go to press!" seemed obsolete by 1960. NBC's Jack Paar relentlessly mocked Winchell on his own show Tonight, a feud that effectively ended Winchell's career.
The revived Winchell program was a Nielsen ratings disaster and was cancelled after only six broadcasts. Winchell's only real association with ABC or television after this was his continued narration of The Untouchables until that program was cancelled three years later.Wake Up and Live
Wake Up and Live is a 1937 Fox musical film directed by Sidney Lanfield and produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. The movie stars Walter Winchell, Ben Bernie and Alice Faye and was based upon the self-help bestseller by Dorothea Brande. The film was followed by Love and Hisses (1937).Winchell (film)
Winchell is an HBO television film directed by Paul Mazursky which dramatizes the life of columnist Walter Winchell. It is based on the book Walter Winchell: His Life and Times by Herman Klurfeld.You Don't Have to Be Jewish
You Don't Have to be Jewish is a 1965 comedy album written by Bob Booker and George Foster, the team behind the 1962 comedy album The First Family. The album features Lou Jacobi, Betty Walker, Jack Gilford, Joe Silver, Jackie Kannon, Bob McFadden, Frank Gallop, and Arlene Golonka, in a variety of roles, mostly Jewish, performing a mixture of jokes and comedy sketches. The album was highly successful, with syndicated columnist Walter Winchell calling the album "the No. 1 seller in Suburbia" and noting that as a popular gift "it has replaced the fountain pen at Bar Mitzvahs." A sequel, When You're in Love, the Whole World is Jewish, largely reunited the original cast but replaced the unavailable Golonka with her friend Valerie Harper.
"You Don't Have to be Jewish to love Levy's" was an advertising campaign for Levy's rye bread that began in 1961 and ran through the 1970s.