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A Time So Right for Gossipmeister Walter Winchell

October 21, 1994|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; He is a columnist for Newsday

Was there ever a season when so many gossipy, sordid and celebrity-driven books were vying for attention? Five new titles about Charles and Di . . . two about Marlon Brando . . . one about Michael Jackson . . . Roseanne's sister tells all . . . Nicole Simpson's pal looks back . . . Burt Reynolds gives his side . . . and so on.

Walter Winchell (1897-1972) would have been in his glory.

In the '30s and '40s, the legendary and ruthless gossipmeister reached as many as 50 million people--two-thirds of the adult population--with his radio program and widely syndicated column in New York's Daily Mirror. His radio broadcasts ("Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea") drew an incredible 60% of all listeners tuned to their sets.

It's a life freshly chronicled--appropriately in this season of personality ink--in "Winchell" by Neal Gabler (Knopf). Although the author is amused to find himself making some of the same promotional stops as Burt Reynolds, the difference between "Winchell" and the other celeb stories in the fall logjam could not be wider.


Gabler's 681-page book offers sweeping social history in addition to biography. It's subtitled "Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity" because the trajectory of Winchell's career--from third-rate vaudevillian to tabloid tattler to multimedia giant to embittered has-been--allowed the author to illustrate rich themes: the evolution of American media, the decline in journalistic standards and the corrosive power of fame.

"Were Winchell alive today, I think he would have been tremendously frustrated that he couldn't monopolize this kind of information," Gabler said at lunch the other day.

"Now, thanks largely to Walter Winchell, there are a thousand outlets. There's People magazine, Vanity Fair, 'Hard Copy,' Star magazine. This process began while he was alive. It's one of the factors that contributed to his demise."

Gabler, 44, spent more than five years researching Winchell's life and times. Before Winchell became a newspaperman, he wrote, celebrity puffery was published by mainstream dailies while gossip was reported only by marginal sheets. It was Winchell's seminal achievement to buck publishers' fears of libel suits and cross the line--placing gossip about births, show biz and romantic liaisons in the center of the press's agenda.

"Winchell invented the form of the gossip column," Gabler said. "The whole notion of the way the gossip was presented, the means of expression, dot-dot-dot (the use of ellipses), and everything pared down to subject and predicate, and running nearly four dozen items in a single column--he invented that."

Of Winchell's radio broadcasts, Gabler wrote:

"They heard Walter's voice, the timbre high and clipped like verbal tap shoes, racing at nearly two hundred words a minute . . . It all seemed mildly but excitingly illicit--this world Winchell hurled each Sunday night into the teeth of Depression America . . . It was a world where romance was a euphemism for sex and where each listener was a voyeur, vicariously enjoying the suggestion of perpetual sexual availability of these stars, celebrities and socialites who changed lovers, husbands and wives like clothes."

Because Winchell was "the king of the media in the thirties," when he presided over cafe society from his listening post at the Stork Club in Manhattan, a mention in his column or on his broadcast "meant that one was among the exalted . . . It meant that one's life was validated, albeit validated by fame rather than accomplishment."


Is it much different today?

"Walter Winchell's life was dedicated to the proposition that anonymity is death," Gabler said. "At the same time, he realized that if he wasn't driving himself that way, somebody else would take his place. The world of celebrity was an ephemeral one. Winchell understood this better than anyone else."

When the column was dropped by the World Journal Tribune in 1967, ending Winchell's 38-year association with the Hearst organization, the loss set him adrift. As detailed in many pages by Gabler, Winchell's physical and spiritual demise over the next five years wasn't pretty. His son committed suicide, and Winchell, all but forgotten, died from cancer in Los Angeles. He was buried, incongruously for the bard of Broadway, in the Arizona desert.

Martin Scorsese has bought the film rights to "Winchell" and Steve Zaillian, an Oscar winner for "Schindler's List," is writing the screenplay. Gabler sees Dustin Hoffman donning a gray fedora and summoning his best nasal accent to play the man himself.

There, too, is another irony. Gabler, whose previous book was "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood," pointed out that Winchell cast himself apart from the luminaries of the film world. "Here is a man who said, 'I don't want to enter that power center. I want to destroy it. I hate those people. Those people are the antithesis of what I want to be . . . How can I gain attention at their expense?' "

* Paul D. Colford's column is published Fridays.

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