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S34 Ep5

Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip

Premiere: 10/20/2020 | 00:02:00 |

Meet Walter Winchell, the newspaper columnist, radio commentator and television personality who pioneered the fast-paced, gossip-driven, politically charged journalism that dominates today. At his peak, his audience was 50 million. Stanley Tucci portrays Winchell in a new American Masters documentary.



About the Episode

Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip Tells the Story of the Media Personality Who Pioneered Fast-Paced, Celebrity-Focused and Politically Charged Journalism

Featuring Stanley Tucci as Winchell and narrated by Whoopi Goldberg

Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip traces the life and career of the syndicated columnist, radio news commentator and television host who pioneered the fast-paced, gossip driven, politically charged media culture that dominates today. At the height of his career, Winchell had a combined print and radio audience of 50 million and the power to make or break careers. He became the most feared and admired man in America, a man who transformed entertainment journalism and championed “Mr. and Mrs. America” in his daily columns and Sunday night radio program. Decades later, an alliance with Senator Joseph McCarthy and feuds with Josephine Baker and Ed Sullivan turned his audience against him and forced him into obscurity.

Featuring Stanley Tucci as Winchell and narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, this American Masters documentary breathes new life into Winchell’s original newspaper columns and broadcast scripts, drawing on rare recordings and a recently digitized collection of his work in the Billy Rose Theatre Division at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Winchell’s own words comprise nearly a quarter of the script as the film tracks the rise and fall of his career, and his continued influence on today’s media. “He was not only present at the creation of modern journalism,” concludes biographer and film interviewee Neal Gabler, “in many respects he was the creation.”

"Gossip is the art of saying nothing in a way that leaves practically nothing unsaid."

Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip is a production of Ben Loeterman Productions, Inc., in association with THIRTEEN’s American Masters for WNET. Written, produced and directed by Ben Loeterman.


Major funding for Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Support for American Masters is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, AARP, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, Rosalind P. Walter Foundation, Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Judith & Burton Resnick, Seton Melvin Charitable Trust, The Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation, The Ambrose Monell Foundation, Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, Vital Projects Fund, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, Ellen and James S. Marcus, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, Koo and Patricia Yuen and public television viewers.


♪♪♪ Man: What do you think -- Man #2: Kemosabe.

Woman: Sounds like the boys are home.

Daly: And now we come to the special feature of our program, the appearance of our mystery celebrity.

[ Applause ] Contestant: From the reception, I would figure it's either Dwight Eisenhower or Marilyn Monroe.

[ Laughter ] Are you primarily in pictures?

Winchell: Hmm. Daly: That means no.

Contestant: Are you, by any chance, a writer?

[ Laughter ] Daly: Well, uh, I would think we could give you a yes on that, although our guest modestly said, 'Some people don't think so.'

Contestant #2: Are you, in any sense, a newscaster?

Winchell: Mm-hmm.

Contestant #2: Are you ever seen at table 50 in the Stork Club?

Winchell: Mnh-mnh!


Contestant #2: Walter Winchell.

Daly: Walter Winchell.

Winchell: How can you tell?! Czitrom: The combination of his radio success and his syndicated newspaper column makes Winchell probably the single most popular and powerful man in the entertainment business.

Gabler: Walter Winchell is the architect of modern American media.

He turned journalism into a form of entertainment.

Winchell: Marion Snowden's second husband, Louis Reed, announced that he would divorce the former Princess Rospigliosi in Reno after Christmas.

Doherty: Where in the past we might have wanted to gossip about our neighbors, now we can actually have gossip about people who are rich, glamorous, beautiful.

Goldberg: In the 1930s, Walter Winchell is one of the first to denounce the Nazis.

Winchell: Hitler is too great a menace to ignore, as... Houchin Winfield: Many journalists -- they didn't see the crucial aspect of this, and I think Winchell did.

McCarthy: Even if there were only one communist in the State Department, that would still be one communist too many.

Goldberg: In the 1950s, he helps lead a witch hunt.

Czitrom: McCarthy understood the enormous potential of having Winchell able to wield his power to destroy reputations and to destroy people that neither of them liked.

Nancy: Winchell, in such an easy, quick way could take anybody's career and destroy it.

Carlson: The story of American decline is the story of... Colbert: I wait for the facts, okay?

Maddow: These worst-case scenario implications... Jones: This is their plan, people.

These are demons.

Gabler: This notion that you can influence people through media, whether it's getting them to buy stuff, changing their politics, trading on their anger, Winchell's influence is still there.

It sort of hovers over everything.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Goldberg: At the ripe age of 12, Walter Winchell launches his career as an entertainer on the vaudeville stage.

Gabler: Chaim Weinschel was a Jewish liturgical singer in Poland, and he emigrated to the United States in 1881, One of the members of the family wanted to sound a little bit tonier.

A fellow worker had the name Winchell, so he decided to adopt that name.

And everyone in the family eventually became Winchell.

Goldberg: Walter is born in 1897 in Harlem.

The family was very poor, Czitrom: Jacob Winchell spent a lifetime working in the garment industry.

He also had several businesses that went bust.

And I think Walter Winchell always thought that his father was just an utter failure.

♪♪♪ Winchell: From my childhood, I knew what I didn't want.

I didn't want to be cold.

I didn't want to be hungry, homeless, or anonymous.

♪♪♪ Goldberg: Walter does various jobs to help support the family.

In the sixth grade, he's expelled for truancy when he gets a break in a vaudeville revue.

♪♪♪ Walter tours the national circuit for 10 years.

Doherty: He sings a little. He dances a little.

He's not an ace talent, but he's a reasonable hustler.

Goldberg: His partner on stage is Rita Greene.

Gabler: Rita's only 19, and Walter's only 22.

But nevertheless, they decide they're going to get married.

She gives Walter a gift that changes Walter Winchell's life.

[ Ding ] Czitrom: He starts publishing spontaneously, just a little gossip sheet for people in the troupe.

It's full of little gossipy bits about where people are going for their next show, who's starring in what production, couples that might be splitting up, and he discovers that people love this stuff.

Goldberg: Winchell retires from the stage to submit stories to 'The Vaudeville News,' proposing they pay him $25, half the going rate, 'just to see whether I have any business in the newspaper racket.'

[ Ding ] Winchell: Fax! One may observe many things from a fifth-floor window when the window is clean.

There goes E.H. Conway, Director of Publicity for the Orpheum Circuit... Goldberg: Soon they double his salary.

Gabler: He has no journalistic training whatsoever, but he does have another form of training which ultimately comes more important.

He understands how to entertain people.

Goldberg: In May 1922, Winchell prints a couple of sentences about a pretty 17-year-old.

Her stage name is June Aster, real name June Magee.

He fails to mention that he'd like to start dating her.

Gabler: And there's only one problem with this.

He's still married.

Goldberg: While separated from Rita, Walter and June adopt a child.

They never marry, but will remain together the rest of their lives.

[Typewriter keys clacking] Czitrom: 1924, he is hired by the 'New York Evening Graphic,' one of the new tabloids that is beginning to remake the world of journalism in New York City.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ The tabloids find a new readership -- two million people reading tabloids who had never read a newspaper previously, working-class, lower-middle-class people, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants, many of them with limited knowledge of English.

So photographs and illustrations played an especially important role.

And, of course, the emphasis on scandal, vice, celebrities, murder was also directed to those people.

Doherty: The 'New York Evening Graphic' is probably the most licentious, sensationalistic of all the tabloids, affectionately known as the 'Porno Graphic' because of its affinity for barely legal images of female nudity and cheesecake.

Czitrom: Winchell has a column called 'Your Broadway And Mine' in which he really begins to create his own voice in a new kind of column, the gossip column.

Winchell: George Christian, who was President Harding's secretary, held the attention of a gathering at Miss Guinan's lah-de-dah the other morning when he defended his late chief's honor... Doherty: People started buying the 'Graphic' not just for the front page and the pictures anymore, but for the inside dope that Winchell is giving them.

Winchell: Al Jolson and John Barrymore may be the best of friends, but now that both are Warner aces, a fist fight is inevitable, what with Jolson going in for... Gabler: We think of gossip as some sort of tawdry thing.

Not Walter Winchell.

What Walter Winchell understood, almost uniquely among journalists, is that gossip was a way to take down the mighty and raise up the low-born.

[ Telephone rings ] Czitrom: In those first years at the 'Graphic,' he begins to craft a new style, something no one had ever seen before.

Doherty: On deadline one day, he just starts typing out these items that aren't logically related, one after another, almost like Tommy-gun-style sentences.

Typically, print had paragraphs, and things needed to follow in a kind of rational pattern.

What Winchell comes upon is that we don't really need that.

[ Typewriter keys clacking ] He wrote in a way that nobody else in journalism wrote, the special 'slanguage,' as he called it.

Cantor: ♪ Another bride, another groom ♪ Douglas: He had enormous linguistic inventiveness, phrases that immediately became known.

Cantor: ♪ Another reason ♪ Winchell: Making whoopee.

Cantor: ♪ For making whoopee ♪ Douglas: 'Making whoopee' was having fun.

Doherty: Having sex.

Winchell: Adam-and-Eveing it.

Doherty: 'Adam-and-Eveing' meant that you were going off on your honeymoon.

Douglas: 'Phfft' meant getting divorced.

Doherty: 'Infanticipating -- Increasing the mom and pop-ulation.'

And some of them actually enter the language -- 'Blessed event' or 'the stork visited them.'

Winchell: Two fans meet.

'Where were you last Sat-a-ve' 'I was Gobbo-Gilberton with my new heart, Molly.'

'What! It seems as only yesterday that you were welded to Sarah.'

Douglas: He also had great lines, like, 'She's been on more laps than a napkin.'

Gabler: But this was a way to challenge official culture, to empower his readers.

He was creating something that they understood that their social betters didn't understand.

Goldberg: Elites are horrified.

Marlen Pew, a proud defender of journalistic ethics, accuses Winchell of borrowing from Gigolo society.

He calls it 'dirt no other writer would put on paper.'

Winchell: As if this or that newspaper cares a continental about ethics, as they are so amusingly called, in these wild days of thefting each other's circulation and all the other malarkey that passes for tradition.


Goldberg: By 1927, the family has grown to include Eileen.

Walter renames her 'Walda' after himself, but he seems even more devoted to his adopted daughter, Gloria.

Gabler: Gloria had a congenital heart defect, and when she's 9 years old, she suddenly comes down with pneumonia.

Christmas Day 1932, she dies.

Both June and Walter are absolutely disconsolate.

It's a hole in his life. It's a hole he never fills.

Goldberg: The darkest moments always remain private.

What the public sees two and a half years later is the birth of Walda's new baby brother, Walt Jr.

♪♪♪ In 1929, Winchell signs with the 'New York Daily Mirror,' part of the Hearst chain and its King Features Syndicate.

His readership rockets exponentially and so does his salary, to the equivalent of $10,000 a week, plus a whopping 50% of the column's syndication rights.

Douglas: Syndication was a way to sell a very popular cartoon strip or a columnist to a bunch of papers around the country who couldn't afford to have their own Walter Winchell.

Gabler: Winchell now has a newspaper audience daily of tens of millions of people.

Gabler: Winchell's star takes off just months before the Great Depression grips the nation.

Soon, millions are out of work.

Few people can spare the change for a daily paper.

Within a couple of years, the news business loses nearly half of its ad revenue.

Winchell: Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. North America and all the ships at sea. Let's go to press.

Goldberg: Winchell hangs on to his newspaper salary... Winchell: Mr. and Mrs. Irving Berlin... Goldberg: ...and taps into a new source of money and power.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Winchell: Jackson, Miss.

The legislature passed a new bill... Czitrom: Winchell understood the power of radio very well, and when he begins his radio broadcasts, he becomes very soon probably the most powerful and widely listened to radio voice in the United States.

Winchell: Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. United States, Cuba, Canada, and Alaska.

Thanks for permitting me to be your guest.

Douglas: He had a very personal, direct mode of address.

'Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea.'

Winchell: Here I am with a microphone in my hand and a thrill in my heart, breathless and keyed up to an exciting pitch, hoping and trusting you will be diverted by any nonsense.

Douglas: He used sound effects.

We had a telegraph key that punctuated the time between each flashed.

Winchell: Flash -- Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and Captain P.G. Taylor reported well out over the Pacific in their sky dash... Czitrom: He has the style that makes you feel that you're right there and that this guy really knows what's happening, and, therefore, now I know what's really happening.

Doherty: In the Great Depression, Americans have more need than ever for vicarious entertainment.

And what we especially like to see is the rich brought low.

Winchell: Gloria Swanson, Herbert Marshall, legends of a marriage, are again discouraged by Mrs. Marshall.

Doherty: Winchell is zapping these people that I vicariously want attacked.

Winchell: Flash -- Crown Point, Indiana... Goldberg: At his peak, Winchell commands the attention of two out of three Americans.

Gabler: He was making an enormous amount of money.

He's got the column syndicated through thousands of newspapers.

He's got the number-one informational radio broadcast in America.

Winchell: The newspapers have confirmed the report... Douglas: People talked about walking down the street on a Sunday night.

Winchell: Short marriages, quick divorces... Douglas: You could hear the entirety of Walter Winchell's broadcast because everybody had it on.

Winchell: The rumors persist, however, that Sally Rand has been mismanned for several weeks.

The line for denials forms to the left, Sally.

Roosevelt: This nation is asking for action and action now.

Goldberg: In 1933, the new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, understands the best way to win over America to his alphabet soup of New Deal programs is to first win over the press.

Greene: FDR was a master at controlling the media.

He would walk in and say, 'All right, boys,' and they were mostly boys.

And he would say, you know, 'Here's what's on the agenda.'

He was trying to get his messages out without having to say it himself.

Goldberg: As a gossip columnist, Winchell is not invited to the press briefings, but it's his audience of 50 million readers and listeners that the president covets.

Gabler: Roosevelt understands how he might convert this power, which Winchell has, which heretofore has been directed toward show business and things of that nature, into politics.

Goldberg: Roosevelt invites Winchell to the White House, and in a 10-minute meeting, seduces him.

Winchell: Franklin Roosevelt means more to me than any other man.

Gabler: This previously apolitical man suddenly becomes an ardent New Dealer and populist.

Winchell: Here's something to groan about.

A schoolteacher, who is certainly a human being, was dismissed from Public School 36 because they alleged she gave away free lunches to children... Gabler: Winchell was thrilled, had to be important to him, to have that gravitas and influence as a gossip columnist.

Czitrom: He becomes a kind of beacon, people writing him all the time, asking for help.

'Will you mention this cause?'

'Can you talk about this person who is being persecuted?'

Winchell: My mail of late has been abundant over the sentencing to jail for 30 days of Mr. Charles Kastner.

Mr. Kastner is a jobless father, and because he couldn't afford to buy a turkey for his children, he shot a goose.

He was jailed because he had no $2.50 hunting license.

[ Ding ] ♪♪♪ Goldberg: As the Great Depression bears down on the rest of America, Walter Winchell enjoys the high life in New York City, Rhodes: Winchell is certainly a champion of the Negro, as they would say.

You know, he has white friends.

He keeps away from sort of classic racial stereotypes.

But even though New York doesn't have legally sanctioned segregation, nightclubs are designed around the needs, the interests, the tastes of white patrons.

Goldberg: Winchell sets up shop at the unofficially segregated Stork Club.

Its bootlegger owner Sherman Billingsley is happy to pick up Winchell's tab, knowing he will tout the club every chance he gets.

Winchell: The New Yorkiest spot in New York is the Stork Club on West 58th Street, which entices the well-known from all divisions nightly.

Gabler: The Stork Club is the heart of the heart of celebrity in New York.

So we have Joe DiMaggio, we have Ernest Hemingway, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

Everyone comes to the Stork, and everyone has to come to table 50 because that's where the real royalty in the Stork Club has his throne.

And it's a kind of a feeding frenzy.

Press agents were hired by celebrities to get the celebrities' names into columns.

To get your name in Winchell's column is a real coup.

It meant you had arrived.

Man: ♪ I want to be in Winchell's column ♪ ♪ Honestly, baby, I do ♪ ♪ So he can say that I'm that way ♪ ♪ That swell again... ♪ Goldberg: But Winchell knows who his real audience is and seasons his column with what he calls 'scallions.'

Gabler: You wouldn't want a scallion from Walter Winchell.

Winchell could kill your career with a scallion.

Winchell: Scallions to Lillian Roth for making such a scene over the phone to the editor and then having the lad who socked her arrested a week later.

Woman: ♪ It didn't take long ♪ ♪ Before the high hats are doin' it ♪ ♪ Park Avenue-ing it All over town ♪ Doherty: But sometimes Winchell would just go to a show and take a flyer on somebody.

That is, 'I'll go to a Broadway show and see a beautiful ingenue.

And if that ingenue sees her name in my column, forever after, she's gonna be grateful to me.'

Goldberg: Known as a long-stemmed rose, Mary Lou Bently heads the list of starlets and girlfriends Winchell parades on his arm, most prominently the actress Jane Kean, and yet his infidelities never make it into the scandal sheets.

Gabler: There was a sort of honor among thieves.

You never outed Walter Winchell.

He worked with a certain kind of impunity because he was a journalist, but also because he was Walter Winchell.

Goldberg: Meanwhile, he boasts in the column about a wholesome home life, no matter how much June wants to keep her life private.

Winchell: Don't put me in the paper.

Don't make me say things I didn't say.

People will think I'm silly or something.

Walda, come here.

Be careful what you say in front of Daddy.

They'll put you in the paper.

Gabler: But if Walter Winchell really had a paramour, in the truest sense, it was the column.

♪♪♪ Goldberg: With a daily column and a weekly radio show to feed, the hunt for gripping items becomes Winchell's obsession, Securing permission to outfit his car with a police scanner and siren, in the 1930s and 40s, he prowls the streets of Manhattan after the clubs close, racing to be the first at a crime scene.

Winchell: A triple mystery murder shocked the city sometime last night.

Attention -- Commissioner Valentine, please phone, I have an alleged clue.

Czitrom: This is a guy now who was not simply operating in the world of show business, of vaudeville, of Broadway, but he is somebody who was now operating in the higher echelons of politics and law enforcement.

He becomes friends with J. Edgar Hoover, who's something of a publicity hound and was always looking for ways to pump up the FBI's reputation.

Doherty: The relationship between Winchell and Hoover is very much symbiotic.

Winchell consistently refers to Hoover as the person that gangsters fear more than anybody.

What Winchell gets from Hoover is scoops, information, and access to power and the buzz that you get from that.

Gabler: These two men are very similar in very many ways.

They trade in secrets.

They live in a world of conspiracy.

They know how to weaponize secrets.

That is something that binds them at a very deep level.

Douglas: Winchell wants to be taken seriously as a newsman, and he does begin to fold in news stories, political news stories.

[ Film reel clicking ] But his real coming out was the Lindbergh trial.

Goldberg: In 1932, a child is kidnapped and murdered.

He's the 20-month-old son of Charles Lindbergh, an American hero for being the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic.

Two years later, Bruno Hauptmann is arrested for the crime.

Gabler: This is the trial of the century, and any byline in America wants to be there.

Czitrom: Winchell showed up every day at the courthouse with his typewriter pounding out thousands of words a day of copy.

And Winchell stayed out through the whole trial, weeks of this.

He believed that this was a way to demonstrate that he was a serious reporter.

Goldberg: Winchell doesn't just take a reporter's byline.

He becomes the headline.

In doing so, he pioneers the blending of news and entertainment.

Winchell: From Row 'A,' Seat 5, Flemington Courthouse, January 17th -- witnesses confirmed this writer's contention at the time.

The money was allegedly spent by Bruno on September 15th, 1934, in the morning.

Gabler: He understood that people wanted novelty, that fact was irrelevant, really.

Goldberg: He uses his access to power to file sensational exclusives.

Doherty: Winchell was talking to the prosecutor, who he dines with most evenings.

So he's reporting not just the details of the trial, but he's giving you the kind of local color that only Walter Winchell can give you.

Winchell: That spellbinding 40 minutes late Friday afternoon will never be forgotten by those of us who were there.

It was the fury and the fire of the prosecutor who it seemed to most of us was representing civilization.

The verdict was guilty.

Goldberg: For Winchell, the verdict is in.

He's a legitimate journalist.

Douglas: Serious journalists still thought of him as a gossip columnist, as a sensationalist.

But for him, he felt vindicated.

Winchell: Oh, that's another big one for me.

Come on, fellas, put it in your stories.

I was the first one to call it.

Goldberg: With his signature style, Winchell begins to address ever more important stories.

Winchell: With salutes and shouts of 'Heil' the Reichsfuhrer in his car breaks the ribbon and opens the new automobile speedway from Frank Pritchard Arms Stock.

Hitler finds the new road Okay.

Greene: There is news coverage of Hitler in the early 1930s.

It's a big story that democracy in Germany has crumbled and that there's a new world leader.

Narrator: Hard work and exercise will build the body to Nazi standards.

Greene: But Winchell's tone is different.

Winchell: Too bad a man like Hitler can rise so high in politics who hates so intensely.

His biographers have told how intensely he hates his mother.

Houchin Winfield: Roosevelt saw potential war, but many, many prominent people did not want this country involved in European wars.

They felt like they were duped into being involved in World War I.

And so Roosevelt, who was more of an internationalist, was constantly held in check by those isolationists.

Goldberg: As Hitler and the Axis Powers make plans to carve up Europe, Congress pushes Roosevelt to remain neutral.

But he's becoming convinced the U.S.

cannot sidestep events unfolding overseas.

Gabler: Winchell's invited to the White House, and instead of the perfunctory 10-minute meeting that he had the first time, this is a long meeting.

Houchin Winfield: Roosevelt needed Winchell to try to explain how this was endangering the U.S.

Winchell: All good people abhor violence, and yet all people would use violence to defend their children from kidnapping.

All good nations hate force, yet every good American would not hesitate to defend his country from attack by international bandits.

Doherty: One of the things that was normative at the time, of course, was gay bashing.

Winchell: The best way to fight a person like Hitler is to ridicule him.

Henceforth, this column, will call him 'Adele Hitler.'

Greene: Nazism's about the blond, blue-eyed Aryan type.

What better way to make fun of this than to challenge Hitler's masculinity?

Winchell: I cannot refrain from flaunting the fact that Hitler is a homosexualist, or as we Broadway vulgarians say, and out-and-out fairy.

Man: Ah!

Goldberg: Across America, children at summer camps are learning archery, rifle practice, and Nazi doctrine.

Greene: They resemble Hitler Youth camps.

There are all the symbols and the flag carrying and the uniform wearing, the 'Heil Hitler' salute.

The German-American Bund had anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 members.

And it's basically a fifth column of Nazis operating in America.

Goldberg: The Bund's leader is former German soldier Fritz Kuhn.

Greene: Fritz Kuhn is the self-appointed American fuhrer who wants to bring Nazism to America.

Winchell's relentless in making fun of Fuhrer Fritz Kuhn.

Winchell: Phfftz Kuhn.


The Shamerican.




The Hitlerites are the madchens in uniforms.

Doherty: Winchell was not an observant Jew, but he was sensitive to anti-Semitism.

Goldberg: American Jews have good reason to be sensitive.

Anti-Semitism is on the rise.

Doherty: At a time when many broadcasters and columnists were utterly silent about what was going on, Walter Winchell was never afraid of speaking as a Jew against Nazism.

Greene: Isn't there a danger in appearing too Jewish and playing into the stereotype?

So how do you not play too much to type so that you can be typecast, but also... change your listeners' views of who's an American?

Winchell: The Ratzis are going to celebrate George Washington's birthday at Madison Square Garden, claiming GW to be the nation's first Fritz Kuhn.

Goldberg: In 1939, 20,000 Nazi sympathizers stage a rally at Madison Square Garden.

Greene: The symbols of America and the symbols of Nazism sit side by side.

So you get a large banner behind the podium of George Washington flanked by swastika flags and American flags.

Goldberg: Winchell cannot allow the event to go unnoticed by the American people.

Man: [ Speaking German ] Winchell: In every corner of the land, America was nauseated.

The American press unanimously condemned it as the vilest sacrilege ever perpetrated in the name of American freedom.

[ Crowd shouting ] Goldberg: As Hitler's forces occupy Paris and threaten to invade Britain, public sentiment in America remains strongly against intervening.

The America First Committee, founded as a student anti-war movement, takes a dark turn when Charles Lindbergh becomes its spokesman.

While most of the country reveres the heroic aviator, when Lindbergh praises Germany and is given a medal by the Nazis, Winchell is quick to go on the attack.

Winchell: Lindbergh made a speech in Des Moines Thursday night, an unmistakable appeal to anti-Semitism.

Lindbergh: We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices... Greene: Lindbergh asks his audience, 'Who's leading us to war?

It's the Jews.'

Lindbergh: British, the Jewish, or the administration?

Greene: And then he slips into some of the worst anti-Semitic tropes.

'And why are we getting this message to go to war?

Where are we getting it from?

Well, we're getting it from the media.

And don't the Jews control the media?'

What he's saying -- 'Jews aren't Americans.

Our government, our press, the Jews are not part of 'our.'' [ Crowd cheering ] [ Explosion ] Goldberg: In December 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor puts an end to all debate about intervention.

Winchell feels vindicated.

Winchell: The importance of the Japanese attack is that war between the U.S. and Hitler is imminent.

This will mobilize the efforts of the whole American people.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Goldberg: The newspapers depict a cheery domestic life for the Winchells, but in reality, Walter neglects his family.

June, Walda, and Walt Jr. are sequestered at 12 Acres, the family home in Westchester.

Walter prefers to sleep in Manhattan at the luxury hotel St. Moritz.

Gabler: He'd get up at 4:00 in the afternoon, and he'd go over the items from the press agents.

He would edit, cut, he had scissors, and put it all together, and then he would go to the barber shop.

They'd be shaving him and manicuring him and cutting his hair.

And the press agents who converge on him, and people from around Broadway would come and converge on him.

And there was a buzz, always a buzz.

And then he would go to the Stork Club.

[ Laughter ] Because Walter Winchell did not want to be alone, after the Stork Club, he would do his police call.

♪♪♪ Only then we return home to his hotel and go to bed 5:00, 6:00 in the morning.

This was a routine that went on seven days a week.

Now, you think about it.

There's no room for family in that routine.

Goldberg: He sends Walt Jr. off to military boarding school at the age of 6.

Walda, a budding actress, is becoming increasingly rebellious.

At 18, she marries a man she met the day before, then quickly divorces.

A few months later, she falls in love with a shady Broadway producer, William Cahn.

Gabler: Winchell was convinced that Cahn was only after his daughter to get to Walter's influence, and he wanted to destroy that relationship.

He has Walda committed involuntarily to a mental asylum because, as he himself and June both said, his wife, 'She has to be mentally incompetent in order to be with this guy and not see through him.'

Goldberg: Winchell's column fails to mention any of this.

In fact, much of his material is now generated by others, but he keeps quiet about his ghostwriters, Ernest Cuneo and Herman Klurfeld.

Jim: My dad wrote two or three columns a week.

He also helped with the Sunday broadcast and especially he had him often write the last line of the Sunday broadcasts.

Winchell wanted a snappy last line.

And the Sundays in our house was a difficult day because my dad would be writing the last lines all day and phoning them in.

Winchell would say, 'I don't like that.

That's no good. Throw that out.'

The house would be tense until the broadcast was over, and then everybody would start to call.

'Was that Herman's line?'

Well, they were together for 27 years.

And we don't have any pictures of them together.

He didn't get credit for what he was doing.

Winchell didn't want people to know that he had a ghostwriter.

My dad always said that they had a excellent relationship.

He said the Winchell never berated him or put him down.

I think some of that is seeing the world through rose-colored glasses.

He was not an easy man to work for.

♪♪♪ All that is model of Franklin D.

Winchell: Roosevelt will soon pass from the sight of man.

But the things from which he lived, fought, and died will live forever while they were free men left to draw breath.

Houchin Winfield: Winchell so admired Roosevelt, and I think he was in a state of shock when Roosevelt died.

Goldberg: Without a champion like Roosevelt or a foe like Hitler, Winchell lacks a political cause... until the 1950s when a new high flier catches his eye.

McCarthy: In this fight to clean out the disloyal people, the bad security risks from the State Department, the opposition we've run into has been, as you know, tremendous.

Winchell: Senator McCarthy will give the nation another big shudder next week.

He will name a very high Army officer as being an out-and-out communist.

Czitrom: It's a mistake to think of anti-communism as something that was rammed down the throats of the American people against their will, that it was somehow a tiny movement.

So, it was a popular movement.

Doherty: Winchell sees in Senator McCarthy this rising star who might one day be president of the United States, Winchell: Congressional detectives are now breathing heavily down the neck of a very big man in the Department of Defense.

Gabler: Winchell has always been disdained by the elites.

They just don't like him.

They think he's a guttersnipe.

They think he's contemptible.

McCarthy can't stand the elites either because the elites are also contemptuous of him.

And so this becomes an issue of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Doherty: McCarthy is a very far-sighted politician in the sense of using the new medium that's come on in the postwar era.

Goldberg: In the 1950s, the television diet is a mix of variety shows, westerns, and situation comedies.

Ball: What kinds of jobs do you have open?

Goldberg: But Joseph McCarthy emerges onscreen as a new kind of TV star.

McCarthy: One great evil... Doherty: McCarthy realizes, 'Why should I spend decades toiling in the Senate mastering legislation when I can go on this new medium of television and get a national profile instantaneously by making the right accusation?'

Winchell: Mr. North and South America and all the ships at sea, let's go to press -- Dallas, Texas.

Goldberg: Winchell gets his own program, a televised version of his radio show.

Winchell: New York City, hear this.

Dorothy Parker, the famous playwright and poet, will make a speech in New York on the 17th at a hall in Greenwich Village, probably on 4th Street, on behalf of the communists now in American jails for conspiring to overthrow the United States.

Good girl, good girl.

♪♪♪ Goldberg: Winchell uses accusations of communism to destroy his enemies, like Josephine Baker, who, after vaulting to fame in France, has become an international star.

Rhodes: Josephine Baker had lived this amazing life all the way from the stage to working for the French Resistance to sort of advocating for civil rights.

[ Cheering ] Goldberg: When she returns in 1951 to tour the U.S., the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People proclaims Baker Woman of the Year.

Rhodes: After the war, African-Americans are demanding their rights, and the discrimination that still exists is becoming less and less tolerable.

So Josephine Baker was celebrated as a credit to her race, a real symbol of racial accomplishment.

Gabler: She demands that the nightclubs be integrated, and Winchell, who has always been a prominent advocate of civil rights, cheers her on in his column and integrates the club for her.

Winchell: Josephine Baker's applause at Copa City is the most deafening, prolonged and sincere we have ever heard in 40 years of showbiz, a one gal-show with exquisite gowns, charm, magic, and big-time zing.

In two words, a star.

[ Applause ] Goldberg: In New York, Baker is invited by friends to the Stork Club for dinner.

Rhodes: As Josephine and her party were walking into the Stork Club, she saw Walter Winchell.

They acknowledged each other.

Josephine was hungry. She ordered her dinner.

Drinks came out for the table and then no food.

And they waited half an hour, and there's no food.

And they're trying to hail waiters, and the waiters are walking by them.

She goes immediately to the telephone and calls the NAACP.

This begins something that's not gonna end well.

Gabler: Winchell would later claim he saw none of this, but Josephine Baker claims that Winchell is responsible because he didn't come to her aid.

Goldberg: The NAACP pickets the club.

Baker files a lawsuit and goes on the air.

Barry Gray is a disc jockey and pioneer of talk radio.

Winchell had once been his mentor.

Rhodes: Josephine Baker is saying to Winchell, 'You have to put up or shut up.

And if you continue to defend these practices, then you're part of the problem.'

Nancy: Barry was always about hearing both sides of the story.

He said, 'I'll have Walter Winchell on, too.

I know Walter. I want to hear both sides.'

Gabler: Walter didn't see it that way.

His feeling was, 'You've already turned on me.'

There's no fairness in the world of Walter Winchell.

It's not about fairness.

It's about, you're on my side or you're against me.

Winchell: I thought my record was crystal clear when minorities are getting kicked around, and it irritates me, no little now, to have to recite that record and disgrace myself with any defense.

Gabler: And this begins a battle royal.

Goldberg: Winchell uses his connections to smear Baker.

He sends the FBI letters which claim she had fraternized with Russians during a tour of the Soviet Union 14 years before.

Josephine Baker is branded a communist.

Her U.S. tour is canceled.

Rhodes: We really see a pretty rapid and precipitous decline in her career, and she eventually ends up going back to France because of that.

Goldberg: The feud brings out long-held resentments in others.

Ed Sullivan, a variety-show host who champions diversity, has disdained Winchell's methods ever since the 1920s when they were rival columnists at the 'Evening Graphic.'

Czitrom: Ed Sullivan went on 'The Barry Gray Show,' and he tore into Winchell.

What Sullivan was saying was Winchell had too much power.

He shouldn't have this power to ruin people's reputations, especially based on things that were not true.

Goldberg: Winchell won't dare touch Ed Sullivan, but he can go after the man who interviewed him.

Nancy: Winchell just set about destroying Barry.

Winchell: Borey was M.C. at... Nancy: Barry Gray became 'Borey,' I guess for 'boring.'

Winchell: Borey, pink, gray, red, yellow, once claimed he didn't know... Nancy: Pink for pinko communist, Yellow -- he was a coward.

Winchell: ...was cited as a scummunist group of Rat-Fronters.

Nancy: Barry was a womanizer and gay in the same column.

He just spewed.

He just spewed epithets.

Late one night, Barry got jumped by goons, as he said, or thugs.

They knocked him flat on the ground, punched him in the face, threatened him.

Winchell: The gag of the weekend -- Borey Pink, Lemon, Gray, Yellow, and Lavender was beaten twice in recent months.

Maybe he was mistaken for a drum.

Czitrom: You have a number of liberal outlets that begin to go after Winchell because they perceive him now as being a right-wing demagogue.

Jim: Two 'New York Post' reporters hid in the bushes near our garden apartment in Bayside.

I still remember I was about 6 or 7 years old at the time, and we came out of the house, and they popped out from the bushes.

And they wanted my father to talk, and they said, 'What do you do?'

And he said, 'I'm a shoe salesman.'

And then it wound up with my dad was on the front page of the 'Post.'

The headline was 'Winchell's Number 1 Ghost.'

Czitrom: The 'New York Post' ran a 24-part series on Winchell, a sort of comprehensive look at his life, his career, his connections, his money.

One might describe it as vicious, except that mostly what it was was simply revealing facts.

It turned out that a lot of it was ugly.

Jim: He said he never read the series at first, but he got so aggravated by it that he had to stop working for three months, said he was sick.

He didn't take criticism well.

And then Winchell came back, and he said, 'Now we're gonna go get the people at the 'Post.'' Winchell: Big-town sideshow J. Wechsler, the editor of the 'New York Poo,' who is now ducking the dead cats, keeps whining that he's a Commy.

Gabler: It becomes a rather sad, I think, and sordid response and helps to lead to Winchell's downfall.

Welch: Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.

It's a choice irony that TV, the medium that made Joseph McCarthy, is also the medium that is the means of his undoing, because during the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, we get 188 hours of Joe McCarthy on live TV.

And most America is fairly repulsed by it.

Welch: You've done enough.

Have you no sense of decency, sir?

At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

Gabler: When McCarthy's stock nosedives in 1954, Winchell's goes with it.

Winchell: The White House reporters last Friday reported... Goldberg: After three seasons of sliding ratings, 'The Walter Winchell Show' was canceled.

Winchell: Another Winchell tip of last broadcast on October the 18th.

Gabler: Walter Winchell was too mean for television.

When he was young, he was kind of puckish and funny.

Winchell: Judge Noonan... Gabler: But when television came along, there was a meanness to him that worked very much against him.

So it was television revealing what Winchell had become, and what he'd become was not appealing.

♪♪♪ [ Applause ] Goldberg: Winchell tries his hand at a variety show, but it's a flop, canceled after just 13 episodes.

♪♪♪ He has another few shots, but nothing attracts a following.

♪♪♪ As his own celebrity fades, Winchell has little to fall back on.

His wife, June, retires to Phoenix alone.

He quietly undermines Walda's acting career, telling producers, 'She doesn't belong in the theater.'

In the end, she turns to drugs.

Gabler: Walt Jr. is at sea throughout his entire life.

He tries to win his father's affection, can't do it.

He tries to compete with his father, in a way, by becoming a journalist.

He can't do it.

He's clearly a young man with serious mental issues.

Goldberg: At age 33, Walt Jr. takes his own life.

As Winchell's own world tightens, the more he clings to his radio broadcast, and when that's canceled in 1959, all he has left is the column.

But a printer strike four years later spells the paper's doom.

Reporter: Walter, did this come as a real shock to you?

Winchell: Yes.

Reporter: You had no warning of it?

Winchell: We'd been hearing rumors for seven or eight months, ever since the strike started, as a matter of fact.

Gabler: The column is basically Walter Winchell's ventilator.

And when he loses that, he can't breathe.

Winchell: I died on October 16th, 1963.

♪♪♪ Gabler: Without the column, Walter Winchell is nothing.

Goldberg: In 1967, desperate for work, he takes out a full-page ad in 'Variety.'

Gabler: He begs for anyone to hire him.

'I'll even sweep the floors,' he says.

Goldberg: Five years later, he succumbs to cancer.

Gabler: Here's one of the most interesting things about arguably the most famous man in America in the 1930s after Franklin Roosevelt.

Nobody knows who he is.

But we inhabit the world that Winchell created the blurring of the boundary between news and entertainment.

Oliver: soldiers work. Ingraham: Experts say... Gabler: You can see Walter Winchell as part of the evolution of what was beyond the pale.

After he left, that evolution kept going.

You see political performers guest hosting 'Saturday Night Live.'

Both: It's Saturday Night!

Gabler: Or you'll see a television star become the president of the United States.

Trump: You're fired.

Gabler: The kind of dividing line between entertainment and politics was shattered by Winchell in the '30s.

Limbaugh: Femi-Nazis... Gabler: And we're still living that in any journalism that we absorb today.

Winchell: I remain your New York correspondent, Walter Winchell, who can sit at his window and review the passing parade below.

He sees everyone he likes and doesn't.

He can either drop a flower or a flower pot.

Good night.

Narrator: Next time on 'American Masters'... Thomas: Experience the wonder in the music.

Narrator: the legendary American maestro Michael Tilson Thomas in an intimate portrait of his amazing life, from how he first wowed the music world to how he keeps classical music fresh and exciting.

Thomas: Trying to get a lot of people to agree where 'now' is.

Narrator: Where 'now' is is wherever Michael Tilson Thomas conducts or teaches.

Thomas: Bang! That's how together I want it.

Narrator: Look for Michael Tilson Thomas... Thomas: It's the music. I'm ready to go all over again.

Narrator: time on 'American Masters.'

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Narrator: 'Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip' is available on Amazon Prime Video.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪


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