Gabler's brilliant study was published last October by Knopf, entitled, "Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity." Six or seven years earlier, he published a first book, "An Empire of Their Own," subtitled, "How the Jews Invented Hollywood." I loved that book and so, when his Winchell bio came out, I thought, sure, Winchell, and Gabler's the guy to write it.
Tim Forbes and Anne Harrison hosted a book party, but I got caught in a storm or something and couldn't get there. Then that wonderful features reporter for WCBS-TV News, Morey Alter, did a series on Winchell. Who he was and why he was important. Marvelous stuff. As Morey said, when you were a little kid Sunday evenings when they turned on the radio for Winchell, you were told to shut up. In my house they shut you up Sunday afternoons for Father Coughlin, Sunday evenings for Winchell. Otherwise, you could raise a little hell.
Winchell's column appeared in papers all around the country. In New York, it came out in the Hearst morning tabloid, the Mirror. That's gone now too, dead as Winchell.
If you don't know who he was, that's understandable. His time was the '40s and '50s. He began to fade in the '60s. Died in the '70s. Alone, unloved, bitter, only narrowly mourned. Ask Barry Gray about Winchell. You want to know about this great "liberal"? Ask Barry Gray, still around New York and broadcasting. But did Winchell really believe in anything? Except himself. For years he sucked up to FDR and trumpeted his own vigorous anti-fascism. Later on he parroted the Joe McCarthy line. And all the while he passed on the dirt to J. Edgar Hoover and in return was rewarded with FBI scoops.
Until now, until Gabler, the best portrait of Winchell was Clifford Odets' and Sandy Mackendrick's "Sweet Smell of Success," with Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker, the Winchell figure, and Tony Curtis in his best work ever, as sleazy press agent Sidney Falco. Ironic that just as the Gabler bio came out, Lancaster died. I'd interviewed Burt a few years earlier for Parade and asked him about "Sweet Smell."
That movie, said Lancaster, was the one they all wanted to talk about on college campuses when he went out on the circuit. There was, he said, an appetite and a curiosity: could a creature like J.J. Hunsecker actually have existed and prospered?
He was a showman, cutting his performing teeth in vaudeville. And as a columnist, he virtually created a jargon, slangy, punchy, irreverent, memorable. On the radio he was just simply terrific. To this day, half a century later, millions of Americans can mimic his telegraphic opening: "Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. North and South America, and all the ships at sea. Let's go to press. Flash!"
And the wrap? In his super-patriot, wartime mode, it might be something as crude, and as effective, as this:
"This is your New York correspondent, Walter Winchell, who says there's only one thing better than one dead Nazi. And that's two dead Japs." Instantly followed by the sweet signoff, courtesy of longtime sponsor Jergens', "with lotions of love .*.*."
As ugly as that. And as memorable.
I brushed against him professionally only once. In the late '60s here in New York, and around the country, newspapers were dying. Winchell's among them. At Women's Wear Daily, on the other hand, things were booming. As papers shut down, we were able to hire some great new journalists. Eugenia Sheppard, then past 65, was slipped in under our mandatory retirement rule not as an employee, but as an independent contractor.
We got Red Smith, maybe the best sportswriter ever, by buying New York market rights through his syndicate. He wrote sports for us, of course, and our Seventh Avenue readers were sports nuts. But there was another dimension to Red Smith. He covered political conventions and other major news events as sport, analyzing and cataloging great plays, hits and errors, and reporting who won and who lost.
It was then that Winchell, having run out of papers and having no outlet in the country's largest market, and seeing what we'd done with Eugenia and Smith, called my boss with an offer. John Fairchild, like me, didn't like Winchell. But he fobbed him off with the story only I, as publisher, could make a decision. I called Winchell at home. He was candid about his needs and his proposal was simple: we could run his column daily for three months in WWD exclusively in the New York market without paying him a dime. Then, if the Winchell column attracted readers, fetched ads, we could negotiate a figure. I got the impression he didn't care about the money, only the visibility. I thanked him for his interest and said no. It was what I'd intended to do from the first but, perhaps dishonestly, I'd heard him out.
Than, as I was about to hang up, Winchell made one final pitch. I'll always remember his words, the crackling, familiar voice, maybe the most recognizable in America, still trying to convince me.
"Mr. Brady," Winchell said, "I'm a newsboy. I stand on the corner and I sell newspapers. And I can sell your paper."
I thanked him again and ended by sending a letter confirming my disinterest. I never heard from him again. By 1972 he was dead.
But he's knocked me out. I hated the son-of-a-bitch and here in a few staccato words, eloquently, poignantly, he'd written his own epitaph.
And mine! And that of all of us who work on newspapers.
Get Gabler's book.