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The Legacy of Winchell: Gossip as History : Memorabilia: The columnist chronicled the mid-20th Century in the popular media. His papers will be auctioned this week.

December 09, 1990|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nobody, except Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley, seems to have really liked Walter Winchell. His nicknames included the louse that roared.

But for decades Winchell was one of the most powerful men in America, wielding his microphone and his newspaper column like whips.

His celebrity gossip column was syndicated in a thousand newspapers. And his voice, still heard on reruns of "The Untouchables" TV series, was more familiar than Franklin Delano Roosevelt's. Millions turned up their radios at the sound of his famous sign-on: "Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea."

More than 40,000 letters, radio scripts and other items accumulated by Winchell during almost 50 years as a newsman will be auctioned Wednesday by Butterfield & Butterfield. Held simultaneously in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the auction will make available the contents of 31 file drawers of Winchellana, including more than 600 letters from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, many of them thanking the columnist for passing on tips on possible subversives.

Andrew Johnston, who wrote the catalogue for the sale, says the collection is the most important he has handled as head of the auction house's books and manuscripts department.

In Johnston's view, the collection is nothing less than a chronicle of America in the mid-20th Century, albeit one skewed by Winchell's prejudices and delivered in his unique machine-gun style.

"He wrote history just as much as your best professor at Yale," Johnston says.

Winchell also wrote it in a language all his own. Among his most successful coinages, the term phfft to describe a failed marriage. Less felicitous wordsmithing on Winchell's part produced the name he gave his daughter, Walda, a graceless feminization of his own moniker.

The grandson of a rabbi, Winchell, who dropped out of school in sixth grade, failed in vaudeville before he found his niche as America's fastest-talking gossip (he rat-tat-tatted his radio broadcasts at the rate of 200 words per minute).

Founder of the ellipsis school of journalism--he separated the items in his columns with three dots--Winchell delighted in making and breaking careers. He helped the distinctly uncharismatic Hoover became a national celebrity, and he was a passionate supporter of FDR, who frequently received the columnist at the White House.

Although he had begun to lose his clout by the late 1950s, would-be stars continued to value his goodwill. Among the papers to be auctioned: a note from Barbra Striesand acknowledging his "earliest applause and encouragement."

Winchell was also a good hater. An early anti-Nazi, he later threw his support to witch-hunting Sen. Joe McCarthy and became a fanatic opponent of Scummunists, as he called them. One of the most ironic items in the collection, Johnston says, is a letter from McCarthy, denouncing his opponents as a "cabal of smear artists" without any apparent recognition of his own achievements as a shameless besmircher of reputations.

Another lot to be auctioned consists of material relating to Winchell's feud with Josephine Baker, the legendary African-American performer who captivated Paris wearing a few bananas. In 1951 Baker was treated badly at the Stork Club (a racially motivated incident, she said). Winchell was a tireless promoter of the Manhattan night club, where he presided at Table 50. Baker subsequently filed suit against Winchell, claiming that he had set out to vilify her, a contention borne out by his own files.

Consigned by Winchell's granddaughter, Elizabeth, the collection includes letters from an extraordinary range of public figures, from silent star Theda Bara and writer-adventurer Richard Halliburton to President Harry S. Truman. Truman did not bother to hide his disdain for Winchell, who once accused the President of having been a Ku Klux Klan member.

In anticipation of the sale, Butterfield & Butterfield targeted such prospective buyers as individuals whose correspondence will be sold and their heirs, major libraries and media research centers and the book-collecting community. Of considerable interest to bibliophiles is a letter Ernest Hemingway wrote from Cuba that notes that his publisher thinks the book Hemingway has been working on for "one year and 13 days" is better than "F. to A." or "A Farewell to Arms."

But Johnston thinks the choicest item is a letter from "Gone With the Wind" author Margaret Mitchell, sent special delivery in March, 1940. In it, Mitchell explains that, contrary to Winchell's recently published "skewp," David O. Selznick did not give her his Best Picture Oscar, although he offered it to her, nor did he give her a bonus in light of the movie version's extraordinary success.

"It was an absolutely unknown letter until we dug it up," says Johnston, who thinks it will bring $4,000 to $5,000.

Johnston also expects the bound copies of the New York Daily Mirror, for which Winchell wrote his column from the 1930s until the early 1960s, to attract a library or some or other institutional buyer.

Walter Winchell wasn't a pretty figure in the history of his times. Michael Herr, who published a fictionalized version of Winchell's life earlier this year, called him "a cheap genius." But he was a prime mover in the blurring of the line between journalism and entertainment that continues, for better or for worse, until this day.

Winchell died in 1972 at the age of 74.

No one attended his funeral but Walda Winchell and the officiating rabbi.

The Walter Winchell files can be previewed today from noon to 5 p.m. and tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Butterfield & Butterfield, 7601 Sunset Blvd. The auction will be held Wednesday at 1 p.m. For further information, call (213) 850-7000.

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