Barbara Walters’ bumpy ride to the top of TV land

[30 May 2008]

By Glenn Garvin

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

CORAL GABLES, Fla. - She left “The Today Show” where everybody loved her for an anchor chair on an evening newscast. After months of hype over her gender and her paycheck, half the country tuned in to watch the first night. But the viewers never came back. The show stayed in a distant third place, right where it was before the network spent all that money on her, and soon the critics began sniping about her delivery, her interviews and - as if it were some kind of sin against journalism - her salary. Soon it wasn’t a question of whether the plug would be pulled on her show, but when.

Nope, this isn’t a story about Katie Couric and her troubles at CBS. It’s about Barbara Walters, whose short and unhappy career anchoring ABC’s evening newscast three decades ago was eerily, painfully similar. If there’s one person in the world who truly understands what Couric is going through, it’s Walters.

“I was a failure,” she remembers thinking. “My career was over. I was supporting my mother, my father, my sister, my daughter, and I thought I was finished.”

The good news, Katie, is that the story can have a happy ending. Freed of the straitjacket that goes with the anchor chair, you can reshape your career, roll up monster Nielsen ratings, sneer at your enemies in the rearview mirror and write an autobiography that debuts at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. Walters did. And she thinks you will, too.

“Katie will be fine,” she says. “She"ll just have to find whatever her next venue is.”

At 78, with nearly a half-century’s experience in television news, Walters is still finding new venues while retaining her mastery over the old. Though she retired from her reporter-anchor gig on ABC’s “20/20” newsmagazine show four years ago, she’s still doing interview specials for the network several times a year. Her daytime talkfest “The View” is pulling in more viewers than ever. And now she’s a bestselling author: Her startlingly candid autobiography, “Audition: A Memoir” (Knopf, $29.95), has sold 375,000 copies in barely two weeks.

The book is an intensely personal account of Walters’ life, covering everything from her secret affair with a U.S. senator to her often difficult relationship with her mentally retarded sister to her childhood gambling expeditions with a Miami Beach mobster.

But the recurring theme is her difficult climb through the male-dominated world of television news in a pre-feminist age when a male colleague’s blithe suggestion that she be restricted to “girlie” interviews seemed perfectly sensible to her network bosses. Even as she rose from dog-food commercials to become broadcast journalism’s first million-dollar woman, it never seemed to get any easier. “That’s why I called the book `Audition,’” she says. “I always had the feeling that I was on a tryout.”

Some tryouts were successful. Walters joined “The Today Show” in 1961 as a writer at a time when the show’s only on-camera women were the so-called Today Girls, actresses and singers who did the weather, poured tea and looked pretty. By the time she left, 15 years later, she was the co-host.

Other tryouts did not work out. When Walters jumped to ABC for that $1-million-a-year contract to be the first woman to anchor a network evening news program, the move was an instant disaster. Harry Reasoner, her co-anchor, resented her - he tracked every story she delivered with a stopwatch, then demanded equal airtime down to the second - and openly disparaged her attempts at banter. “Henry Kissinger may not look the type, but he is considered to be rather a sex symbol,” she observed on the air one night after interviewing the secretary of state. “You’d know more about that than I would,” was Reasoner’s frigid retort. As the awful reviews rolled in, Walters complained to an editor friend that his magazine had called her a flop. “Well, you are a flop,” he replied.

What Walters couldn’t figure out, then or now, was why everyone blamed her. Reasoner, after all, was responsible for half the show’s bad chemistry. And the newscast had been in last place when he anchored it alone.

“What I knew then was I had this supposedly great historic position, and I was a total failure,” she recalls. “But I had a partner. I was not doing it alone.”

It was not Walters’ first pairing with an unwilling on-air partner. She also had a contentious relationship with her “Today Show” co-host Frank McGee, the one who demanded she be limited to “girly interviews.” But they kept their mutual hostility off-camera, so much so that Walters got thousands of sympathy cards from viewers when McGee died in 1974.

“That all sounds as if it was ancient, the 19th century,” says a shuddering Walters. “And then it happened again with Harry Reasoner. He eventually wrote his autobiography, and I did the interview with him. It was nothing personal ... He didn’t want to work with anyone.”

Her two-year tenure as ABC’s anchor turned out to be less ground-breaking than it first appeared. In the 30 years since she left the evening news, just two other women have filled anchor chairs: Connie Chung, whose 1993-95 pairing with Dan Rather at CBS was even more disastrous than Walters’ with Reasoner, and Couric’s dismal solo outing at CBS that could end any day now. (Another attempt to match male and female co-anchors in 2005 imploded within weeks when ABC’s Bob Woodruff was sidelined by wounds suffered on assignment in Iraq and partner Elizabeth Vargas by an unexpected pregnancy.)

Walters says the reasons it has been such an uphill struggle for women to take over the anchor chair are both simple and complex.

“It’s not just women taking the anchor chair,” she notes. “It’s been a painful process for women in most businesses and still is. It’s interesting, because `the anchor chair’ is a network anchor chair. The other programs, cable programs and all the local programs, almost every woman is a co-anchor.

“Network today is primarily for older people, network news. There have not been that many anchors over the years. It was for many years the old boys’ network. Katie, I think, tried to do a different kind of news program, and the people who watch the news are in general more conservative and didn’t seem to want that. Maybe the fact that I was a failure discouraged people from putting other women on.

“But there will be one.”

The conversation with Walters was unfolding while she relaxed in her room at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. (“Make sure the story says I was wearing shoes,” says Walters, who wasn’t.) South Florida is, or at least was, a second home to her - she lived here during various stretches of the 1930s, `40s and `50s, and her parents and sister are buried here - but the Gables is unfamiliar ground. “Coral Gables was like, undeveloped,” she recalls. “We never went to Coral Gables; that was far away.”

Walters’ father Lou made and lost several fortunes running nightclubs - most notably Lou Walters’ Latin Quarter on Palm Island, where he promoted shows that were a peculiar mix of entertainment headliners of the day like Milton Berle and Sophie Tucker, eccentric personal favorites like an all-girl bagpipe band, and scores of (nearly) naked chorus girls.

He was a masterful promoter - he once booked bosomy singer-actress Jane Russell for several weeks, then sued her for wearing her necklines too high - but his show clubs would eventually be done in by the entertainment newcomer in which Barbara would make her own fortune, TV. A 1962 Miami Herald story on one of Lou’s nightclub ventures quotes him ruefully as saying his daughter had just gone to work on “The Today Show” and already “makes more money than I do.”

Walters remembers her South Florida interludes as enjoyable but quite strange. One took place in the latter days of World War II, when the family lived on Hibiscus Island and she attended Ida M. Fisher Junior High on Miami Beach.

“The Army was in Miami Beach and the Navy in Miami,” she says. “As we sat in class we would hear the soldiers marching. We would see German prisoners of war in open trucks - there must have been a prison camp nearby.”

Odder still was an earlier stay on Palm Island, living in a house that her father leased in a package deal with the building across the street that he turned into the Latin Quarter nightclub.

“Along with the the building that was the Latin Quarter, came this pistachio-green mansion on the water right as you got off the causeway,” she remembers. “There was a woman who was the housekeeper who had been there before us. And there was a man named Bill Dwyer and his bodyguard-chauffeur. Supposedly he had the right to live there for a year. My father didn"t know much about him. But sure enough it turned out he did have that right. And so he stayed that winter.”

A good thing, perhaps, that the Walters family didn’t know much about its houseguest. Big Bill Dwyer was a New York mobster who had used the fortune he made in bootlegging to go into the gambling business. A lonely 10-year-old Barbara (there were no other kids on Palm Island) became his regular afternoon companion at the racetrack.

“He used to take me to Tropical Park when I was very young, and he’d bet for me,” she says. “And somehow I always won. And other than that we never saw him. The house was so big - they stayed in one room, he and the chauffeur - that I barely saw them ...

“When I think about it, it seems very strange. But at the time I was a kid, a little girl. What did I know?”

Top that, Katie.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/barbara-walters-bumpy-ride-to-the-top-of-tv-land/