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'Good Evening Mr. and Mrs. America and All the Ships at Sea' : Walter Winchell's nightly greeting was the signature of gossip's Golden Age, but the world moved on and Winchell didn't. : WINCHELL: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity, By Neil Gabler (Alfred A. Knopf: $30; 681 pp.)

November 13, 1994|Murray Kempton | Murray Kempton is a longtime New York columnist

Every sorcerer must have his apprenticeship; and Henry Allen, the Washington Post's weaver of spells, served his as a trainee at the New York Daily News at the end of the 1960s.

The post-war suburban drift of the Irish and Italians had changed New York and consigned the News to stay where it was and refuse to adjust to the change. The congregants who had once crowded its pews had begun to fall away as from a dying church; and, since the acolyte's nostrils are fresher than the initiate's, Allen could feelingly suffer the air to whose stagnations its journeymen had been awhile since benumbed.

As Allen recalls in his recent book, "Going Too Far Enough" (Smithsonian): "I felt as if I were walking through the Museum of Natural History, looking at dioramas, the Plains Indians in their tepees, that sort of thing, a gone world."

And yet the Plains Indian is still with us, however most conspicuously visible at work with the croupier's rake. So too is the Daily News; and, if we are to think of both as historical relics, where can we place the Walter Winchell that Neil Gabler has so admirably toiled to resurrect?

Los Angeles Times Sunday December 11, 1994 Home Edition Book Review Page 15 Book Review Desk 2 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Through an editing error in Nina Totenberg's review of "Strange Justice" and "Resurrection" (Nov. 13), Sen. John Danforth was misidentified as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In the same issue, the uncredited cover illustration was by Nancy Barnet.

Not with the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History, I'm afraid, but upstairs with the stego- and bronto-sauri who press us to ask, "Can these bones have lived?" Winchell seems to have slipped under the primeval ooze almost as long ago as they did and to have become a livelier subject for the paleontologist's curiosity than the historian's.

And yet he was a very great man in his time, which was in the 1920s, when he was obscure and earning the appreciative attention of refined appetites. In the '30s, when he was famous, he catered to the taste of coarser appetites and was well on his way toward the demoralizing self-importance that would transform him into a common scold in the '40s and reduce him to more shade than presence by the end of the '50s.

When in 19299 he had scarcely shifted his column of Broadway gossip from the exiguously disreputable New York Graphic to the better-filled and somewhat better-reputed theater of the New York Mirror, Heywood Broun was already persuaded of a future "when (Winchell's) life and works are studied in freshman English classes a hundred years hence."

H. L. Mencken registered high respect for his "multitudinous bright inventions" in The American Language and complimented him as "no mean student of new phrases" while finding his etymologies occasionally suspect. Mencken assigns Winchell credit for coinages such as pfft (formarital rifts), welded (for marital conjunctions), blessed event (for the newly born), making whoopee (for courtships), curdled (for post-courtship disillusionment) and phewed (for feud).

Most of these flowers have faded in obedience to a habit general among neologisms, but they echo with unexpected force even now and were once resonant enough to inspire movie titles like "Pfft" and "Blessed Event."

Poor Winchell's simultaneous dotings over by arbiters of good taste and slaverings over by exemplars of bad taste may fairly pardon his having gotten so swollen with himself as to think Broadway too small for his enlarged bulk and, as Mencken regretted, "put off the jester's motley and put on the evangelist's shroud" to reach out to embrace the cosmos.

By then he had a wider syndication than any other newspaper columnist and a larger radio audience than any other commentator, or for that matter, any other entertainer. His effectiveness as a preacher of the New Deal's gospel was second only to Franklin D. Roosevelt's; and he was occasionally invited to the White House for conversations that lasted longer than either party had anticipated.

The Second World War was his apotheosis as the President's bugle boy, flogger of the laggard, spur to the languid, and flailer of imaginary fascists. His frenzies were as warming to liberals in the '40s as they would be to Joe McCarthy when Winchell began flailing at imaginary Communists in the '50s.

Winchell's comet had sputtered downward from the apex of its afternoons with Presidents to my own modest level by 1954, when the two of us found ourselves sitting across from one another at the Army-McCarthy hearings on "Un-American Activities." He turned out to be a surprisingly agreeable comrade, ever anxious to please and generous about bringing back secrets garnered from his intimate access to the McCarthy camp and doling them out in snippets that tended to be stale when authentic and spurious when fresh.

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