Walter Winchell

Walter Winchell

Infobox Person
name=Walter Winchell

birth_date=birth date|1897|4|7|mf=y
birth_place=New York City, New York, U.S.
death_date=death date and age|1972|2|20|1897|4|7|mf=y
death_place=Los Angeles, California, U.S.

Walter Winchell (April 7, 1897 – February 20, 1972) was an American newspaper and radio commentator. He invented the "gossip column" while at the "New York Evening Graphic". He ignored the journalistic taboo against exposing the private lives of public figures, permanently altering journalism. He was a major gossip reporter, whose newspaper column and radio program could alter the reputation of a celebrity.

Professional career

Born in New York City as Walter Winschel, Winchell started performing in vaudeville troupes while still a teenager. His journalism began when he started posting gossipy notes about his acting troupe on backstage bulletin boards. He became a professional journalist during the 1920s.

Winchell's publications were extremely popular and influential for decades, notoriously aiding or harming the careers of many entertainers. Although he concentrated on gossiping about entertainment figures, Winchell frequently expressed opinions about public affairs.

By the 1930s, he was "an intimate friend of Owney Madden, New York's No. 1 gang leader of the prohibition era,"cite news | title =Book Review of Gossip: The Life And Times Of Walter Winchell—St. Clair McKelway—Viking | date =Sep. 23, 1940 | url =,9171,802020,00.htmlRetrieved on Nov. 13, 2006] but "in 1932 Winchell's intimacy with criminals caused him to fear he would be "rubbed out" for "knowing too much." He fled to California, [and] returned weeks later with a new enthusiasm for law, G-men, Uncle Sam, [and] Old Glory." His coverage of the Lindbergh kidnapping and subsequent trial was famous. Then he became in the space of two years, the friend of J. Edgar Hoover, the No. 2 G-man of the repeal era. He was responsible for turning Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, of Murder, Inc., over to Hoover.

His newspaper column was syndicated in over 2,000 newspapers world-wide, and he was read by about 50 million people a day from the 1920s until the early 1960s. His Sunday night radio broadcast was heard by another 20 million people from 1930 to the late 1950s. As he invented the gossip column, he changed journalism forever.

Winchell, who was Jewish, was one of the first commentators in America to attack Adolf Hitler and American pro-fascist and pro-Nazi organizations such as the German-American Bund. He generally had a left-of-center political view through the 1930s and World War II, when he was stridently pro-Roosevelt, pro-labor, and pro–Democratic Party. After WW II Winchell began to perceive Communism as the main threat facing America. A signal of Winchell's changed perspective was his wartime attack on the National Maritime Union, the labor organization for the civilian United States Merchant Marine, which he believed was run by Communists. ["Liberty Ships" 1995 Public Broadcasting System (PBS) documentary] This evolution in Winchell's perspective continued after the war. During the late 1940s, he became allied with the right wing of American politics. In this new role, Winchell frequently attacked politicians he did not like by implying in his commentaries that they were Communist sympathizers.

During the 1950s Winchell favored Senator Joseph McCarthy, and as McCarthy's Red Scare tactics became more extreme and unbelievable, Winchell lost credibility along with McCarthy. He also had a weekly radio broadcast which was simulcast on ABC television until he ended that employment because if a dispute with ABC executives during 1955.

The dispute with Jack Paar "effectively ended Winchell's career", beginning a shift in power from print to television. ["Pioneers of Television": "Late Night" episode (2008 PBS mini-series) "Paar's feud with newspaper columnist Walter Winchell marked a major turning point in American media power. No one had ever dared criticize Winchell, because a few lines in his column could destroy a career, but when Winchell disparaged Paar in print, Paar fought back and mocked Winchell repeatedly on the air. Paar's criticisms effectively ended Winchell's career. The tables had turned, now TV had the power."]

An attempt to revive his commentary program five years later proved to be a fiasco: Winchell was canceled after only six broadcasts. In between, NBC had given him the opportunity to host a variety show, which lasted only 13 weeks. His readership gradually dropped, and when his home paper, the "New York Daily Mirror", for which he worked for 34 years, closed during 1963, he faded from the public eye. He did, however, receive $25,000 an episode to narrate "The Untouchables" on the ABC television network for five seasons beginning in 1959. Winchell's highly recognizable voice lent credibility to the series, and his work as narrator is often better remembered today than his long-out-of-print newspaper columns.


Winchell's success was not due entirely the salaciousness of the celebrity secrets he revealed: many other columnists, such as Ed Sullivan in New York and Louella Parsons in Los Angeles, began to write gossip soon after Winchell's initial success. But Winchell had a style that others found impossible to mimic. He disdained the ornate style that had characterized newspaper columns in the past and instead wrote in a kind of telegraphic style filled with slang and incomplete sentences. Creating his own shorthand language, Winchell was responsible for introducing into the American vernacular such now-familiar words and phrases as "scram," "pushover," and "belly laughs." (Winchell's casual manner of writing famously earned him the ire of mobster Dutch Schultz, who confronted Winchell at New York's Cotton Club and publicly lambasted him for using the phrase "pushover" to describe Schultz's penchant for blonde women). [Sann, Paul. "Kill the Dutchman!"] He wrote many quips such as "Nothing recedes like success," and "I usually get my stuff from people who promised somebody else that they would keep it a secret."

Winchell began his radio broadcasts by pressing randomly on a telegraph key, a sound which created a sense of urgency and importance. He then opened with the catch phrase "Good evening Mr. and Mrs. North and South America and all the ships at sea. Let's go to press." He would then read each of his stories with a staccato delivery at an average rate of 197 words per minute, noticeably faster than the typical pace of American speech.

Winchell became a celebrity himself, often appearing as himself in movies. He frequented Sherman Billingsley's Stork Club during the 1940s, and always sat at table 50 in the Cub Room. There was a Winchellburger on the menu.

A less endearing aspect of Winchell's style were his attempts, especially after World War II, to destroy the careers of personal or political enemies: an example is the feud he had with New York radio host Barry Gray, whom he described as "Borey Pink" and a "disk jerk." [,10987,817546,00.html] When Winchell heard that Marlen Edwin Pew of the trade journal "Editor & Publisher" had criticized him as a bad influence on the American press, he thereafter referred to him as "Marlen Pee-you."

Winchell often did not have credible sources for his accusations. He did not have any real incentive to be accurate, because for most of his career his contract with his newspaper and radio employers required them to reimburse him for any damages he had to pay, should he be sued for slander or libel. Whenever friends reproached him for betraying confidences, he responded, "I know—- I'm just a son of a bitch." By the mid-1950s he was widely believed to be arrogant, cruel, and ruthless. The changes in Winchell's public image over time can be seen by comparing the two fictional movie gossip columnists who were based on Winchell. In the 1932 film, "Okay, America", the columnist, played by Lew Ayres, is a hero. In the 1957 film, "Sweet Smell of Success", the columnist, played by, Burt Lancaster, is obnoxious, mentally ill and possessed of an unhealthy fondness for his sister. This is, in part, an allusion to an incident in which Winchell ended his daughter Walda's impending marriage.

Personal life

On August 11, 1919, Winchell married Rita Green, one of his onstage partners. The couple separated a few years later, and he moved in with June Magee, who had already given birth to their first child, a daughter named Walda. Winchell and Green eventually divorced in 1928. Winchell and Magee would never marry, although the couple maintained the front of being married for the rest of their lives. Winchell feared that a marriage license would reveal the fact that Walda was illegitimate.

Winchell and Magee successfully kept the secret of their nonmarriage, but were struck by tragedy with all three of their children. Their adopted daughter Gloria died of pneumonia at age nine, and Walda spent time in mental institutions. Walter, Jr., the only son of the journalist, committed suicide in his family's garage on Christmas night, 1968. Having spent the previous two years on welfare, Winchell, Jr. had last been employed as a dishwasher in Santa Ana, California, but listed himself as a freelance writer.

Later years

Winchell announced his retirement on February 5, 1969, citing the tragedy of his son's suicide as a major reason, while also noting the delicate health of his wife. Exactly one year later, she died at a Phoenix hospital while undergoing treatment for a heart condition.

Winchell's final two years were spent as a recluse at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Larry King, who replaced Winchell at the "Miami Herald", observed, "He was so sad. You know what Winchell was doing at the end? Typing out mimeographed sheets with his column, handing them out on the corner. That's how sad he got. When he died, only one person came to his funeral." (Several of Winchell's former co-workers expressed a willingness to go, but were turned back by his daughter Walda.) [Neal Gabler, "Winchell : Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity" (Vintage: 1995), p. 3]

Winchell died of prostate cancer at the age of 74. Although his obituary appeared on the front page of "The New York Times", his importance had long since ended.


Even during Winchell's lifetime, journalists were critical of his effect on the media. In 1940, "Time Magazine" said St. Clair McKelway, who had written a New Yorker Magazine series of articles on him, bemoaned, "the effect of Winchellism on the standards of the press. When Winchell began gossiping in 1924 for the late scatological tabloid "Evening Graphic", no U.S. paper hawked rumors about the marital relations of public figures until they turned up in divorce courts. For 16 years, gossip columns spread until even the staid "New York Times" whispered that it heard from friends of a son of the President that he was going to be divorced. In its first year, "The Graphic" would have considered this news not fit to print." Laments McKelway, "Gossip-writing is at present like a spirochete in the body of journalism.... Newspapers... have never been held in less esteem by their readers or exercised less influence on the political and ethical thought of the times." Winchell responded to McKelway saying, "Oh stop! You talk like a high-school student of journalism"*One definition is a pejorative judgment that an author's works are specifically designed to imply or invoke scandal and may be libelous.
*The other definition is “any word or phrase compounded brought to the fore by the columnist Walter Winchell” [cite journal | last=Kuethe | first =J. Louis | title =John Hopkins Jargon | journal =American Speech, Vol. 7, No. 5 | pages =327–338 | date =Jun., 1932] or his imitators. Looking at his writing's effect on the language, an etymologist of his day said “there are plenty of … expressions which he has fathered and which are now current among his readers and imitators and constitute a flash language which has been called Winchellese. Through a newspaper column which has nation-wide circulation, Winchell has achieved the position of dictator of contemporary slang.”cite journal | last =Beath | first =Paul Robert | title =Winchellese | journal =American Speech, Vol. 7, No. 1 | date =Oct., 1931 | pages =44–46] Winchell invented his own phrases that were viewed as slightly racy at the time. Some of the expressions for falling in love used by Winchell were: “pashing it”, “sizzle for”, “that way, go for each other”, “garbo-ing it”, “uh-huh”; and in the same category, “new Garbo, trouser-crease-eraser”, and “pash”. Some Winchellisms for marriage are: “middle-aisle it”, “altar it”, “handcuffed”, “Mendelssohn March”, ““Lohengrin it”, and “merged”..

In popular culture

*Robert A. Heinlein coined the term "Winchell" as a generic description for a politically active gossip columnist. His 1961 novel "Stranger in a Strange Land" features a major character (Ben Caxton) who is a winchell. Heinlein coined as a contrasting term, "lippmann", in reference to journalist Walter Lippmann, a contemporary of Winchell's.
*Winchell is the real identity of Eddie Gretchen, the narrator of "Blabbermouth" -- a 1941 (published 1947) story by Theodore Sturgeon.
*In "The Producers musical" Leo Bloom sings, "I'm gonna put on shows that will enthrall 'em / Read my name in Winchell's column" during "I Wanna Be a Producer".
*The Cole Porter composition "Let's Fly Away", includes the lines "Let's fly away/ And find a land that's so provincial/ We'll never hear what Walter Winchell/ Might be forced to say".
*Winchell is mentioned in Billy Joel's historically themed song "We Didn't Start the Fire", in the verse chronicling 1949.
*A fictionalized "Walter Winchell" is also an important character in the 2004 bestselling novel "The Plot Against America", by Philip Roth.
*P. G. Wodehouse's short story "The Rise of Minna Nordstrom", portrays Winchell, thinly concealing his identity under the name "Waldo Winkler".
*Damon Runyon's character Waldo Winchester in the short story "Romance in the Roaring Forties", is based on Walter Winchell. On the subject of this story, Damon Runyon, Jr. comments in his memoir "Father's Footsteps": "I leave it to a realist like Walter Winchell to say whether what happens to the character is true."
*Author Michael Herr wrote "Walter Winchell - A Novel" in 1990.
*Several versions of "The Lady Is a Tramp" features the lyric "why she reads Walter Winchell and understands every line." Ella Fitzgerald sings the lyric as, "I follow Winchell and read every line" - a slight to society women who presumably scan the column only for mentions of their own names.)
*In Clare Booth Luce's ""The Women"", the character of Sylvia Fowler defends that she doesn't know for whom her husband has left her: "Nobody knows, not even Winchell."
*Shellac quote Winchell's catchphrase, "Mr and Mrs America, and all the ships at sea." in their song "The End of Radio".
*Harry Warren and Al Dubin mention Winchell in the song "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" from the movie 42nd Street: "Some day, I hope we'll be elected/To buy a lot of baby clothes/We don't know when to expect it/But it's a cinch that Winchell knows."
*In an episode of "M*A*S*H", Colonel Potter refers to Corporal Klinger as "Walter Winchell" for talking loudly about Father Mulcahy's prospective promotion
*In the movie "American Me", Walter Winchell is mentioned, along with the Hearst newspapers, as contributing to the public's anger towards Zoot Suiters in Los Angeles.
*In the book "The Plot Against America", author Philip Roth uses Winchell as one of its main supporting characters in a fiction that has Winchell as a Democratic candidate to succeed Charles Lindbergh as president of the United States.
*Mentioned in passing in the Ian Fleming novel "Live and Let Die".
*Walter Winchell is referenced in the names of two weatherman, Walter Parker and Bruch Winchell, in the Nickelodeon series "Drake & Josh".
*Burt Lancaster's role as J.J. Hunsecker in the 1957 film noir, "Sweet Smell of Success" was based on the famed columnist.
*Lee Tracy's character of Alvin in the 1932 film "Blessed Event", was based on Winchell.
*Walter Winchell was portrayed by Craig T. Nelson in The Josephine Baker Story, noted as accepting her upon her return to America from France but later turning against her for being a European sympathizer.
*Caricatured (as Walter Windpipe) in the 1936 Merrie Melodies short "The Coo-Coo Nut Grove"

In media

Shows set in the American entertainment world of the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s often feature Walter Winchell. The following actors portrayed Winchell:
*The 1932 film "Okay, America" is based on Winchell's life.
*Joey Forman in 1980 TV movie, "The Scarlett O'Hara War".
*Craig T. Nelson in 1991 movie, "The Josephine Baker Story".
*Joseph Bologna in the 1992 HBO movie, "Citizen Cohn".
*Michael Townsend Wright in the 1998 TV movie, "The Rat Pack".
*Stanley Tucci in the 1998 HBO biopic "Winchell".
*Mark Zimmerman in the 1999 TV movie, "Dash and Lilly".


Further reading

* Brooks, Tim and Marsh, Earle, "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows"
* Neal Gabler, "Winchell : Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity" (Vintage: 1995).

External links

*imdb name|id=0934595|name=Walter Winchell
*rhof|id=268|name=Walter Winchell
* [ A remembrance by a contemporary]
* [ "Winchell" movie on HBO]
*Find A Grave|id=1116

NAME= Winchell, Walter
SHORT DESCRIPTION= Journalist, commentator
DATE OF BIRTH=April 7, 1897
PLACE OF BIRTH=New York City, New York, U.S.
DATE OF DEATH=February 20, 1972
PLACE OF DEATH=Los Angeles, California, U.S.

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