Before TMZ and Page Six, America Turned to Walter Winchell for Gossip
American Masters—Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip. PBS. Tuesday, October 20, 9 p.m.
Walter Winchell once compared himself to a man sitting at an upstairs window, watching life parade by, perhaps dropping a flower on those below, perhaps a flower pot. As far as it went, that was accurate. What he failed to mention was that he was usually being paid—with sex or information or influence, if not cash—to choose between the petals or the clay pots.
The broadcaster-columnist Winchell is little-remembered these days, but he was very much a man of our time. Gossip as news, news as entertainment, fake news, tabloid news—as PBS’ American Masters episode Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip recounts, Winchell was present at the creation of it all. He had a radar fix on the lurid and the tawdry and an awesome disregard for anything that smacked of professionalism or integrity—as if this or that newspaper gives a continental about ethics, as they are so amusingly called.”
Decades ahead of political correctness as we know it today, he whored on behalf of whatever was politically trendy: for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and against fascism in the 1930s; for Joe McCarthy and anti-communism in the 1950s. He was the first multi-media journalist, with an empire that ranged from a syndicated newspaper column to a national radio show to television, and when he opened his broadcasts with a booming “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. North America and all the ships at sea!” it was no bluster—at his peak, by some estimates, Winchell was reaching two out of every three Americans per week.
The Power of Gossip tells Winchell’s story in an appropriately punchy style, with considerable aid from Neal Gabler, author of the most comprehensive Winchell biography. It follows him from his days as a child vaudeville hoofer to the unveiling of his one-typed-page weekly gossip sheet on professional comings and goings in his troupe. What started as purely a hobby prompted by the gift of a typewriter from his wife—Winchell didn’t have a high school diploma, much less a degree or any background in journalism—quickly elevated him into the entertainment industry press and then the New York tabloids. His Broadway gossip column debuted in 1924 in the New York Evening Graphic, better known as the Porno-Graphic for its daily collection of near-nekkid showgirl photos.
Contrary to what The Power of Gossip suggests, Winchell did not invent the gossip trade. Paul the Apostle was already complaining about chatterers in his epistle to the Romans, in which he bitched about the “whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud,
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