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Obituaries

Herman Klurfeld, 90; longtime ghostwriter for Walter Winchell

December 22, 2006|Katie Thomas | Newsday

Herman Klurfeld's secret life ended one day in January 1952 when a New York Post photographer emerged from the bushes of his Long Island apartment building and snapped away.

At the time, Klurfeld told reporters he was a shoe salesman, but the cover of the Post the next day told the real story. "Winchell's No. 1 Ghost," the headline blared.

Klurfeld, the longtime ghostwriter for fabled gossip columnist Walter Winchell, died Monday of a heart arrhythmia at his home in Boca Raton, Fla. He was 90.

The Bronx native is best known for his 30-year post as the secret scribe to Walter Winchell, the powerful columnist and radio broadcaster whom many credit with inventing the modern gossip column.

"I think that if you want to look for one person who is more instrumental than anyone else in the writing of the column, then Herman Klurfeld is the one," said Neal Gabler, author of the 1995 biography "Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity."

Klurfeld was born in 1916, the child of Russian Jewish immigrants. He dreamed of becoming an accountant, but his life took a different turn when as a teenager he was bedridden with pneumonia and took to reading and writing jokes, recalled his younger brother, Samuel Klurfeld, of Plainview, N.Y.

At the suggestion of a friend, Klurfeld submitted his favorites to New York Post columnist Leonard Lyons. To his surprise, Lyons published one of his gags: "Girls used to dress like Mother Hubbard. Now they dress like a cupboard."

His big break came in August 1936, when Winchell summoned him into his office at the New York Mirror. "You have a way with words, kid," Klurfeld recalled later in his 1976 memoir "Winchell: His Life and Times."

"I glowed, simply awed to be in his presence," he wrote.

From 1936 to 1965, Klurfeld wrote two to four columns a week as Winchell's ghostwriter. By the end, he was writing large portions of Winchell's Sunday evening broadcasts, including many of the signature "lasties," the one-liners that capped each program.

One of his favorite lines referred to a promiscuous woman: "She's been on more laps than a napkin."

It was Klurfeld's work with Winchell exposing the evil of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, at a time when many Americans did not realize the danger, that he was most proud of, said his son, James Klurfeld, vice president and editorial page editor of Newsday.

"My father considered it his greatest accomplishment," he said.

If Klurfeld was jealous of Winchell's fame, he didn't speak of it to friends and family, his son said. Klurfeld cherished his family life; with his wife, Jeanette, they raised their son, of Stony Brook, N.Y., and a daughter, Elaine Berkowitz, now of Key Biscayne, Fla. Klurfeld's wife died in 1995, but his children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren survive him.

"He knew that Walter Winchell had a very unhappy personal life," James Klurfeld said. "He used to tell me, 'It's the hell of fame.' "

Winchell dismissed Klurfeld in 1965 when his column was cut back as the newspaper business was shrinking. Klurfeld went on to write several books and moved to Boca Raton in 1979.

In 1998, he stepped out of the shadows once more. HBO made his book into a film, "Winchell," starring Stanley Tucci as Winchell and Paul Giamatti as Klurfeld.

One day, on a visit to the film set, someone announced that the "real" Herman Klurfeld had arrived, recalled his son, who made the trip with him. "They all lined up to get his autograph," James Klurfeld said. It was a moment his father would cherish for the rest of his life. "This was a man who never got any recognition."

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