Barbara Walters auditions for readers
America's first female newscaster shares her memories.
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Over the course of her career Walters has had unprecedented access to world leaders, politicians, celebrities, and criminals. She mastered the ability to win the trust of the unreachable, to show the ordinary in extraordinary lives. Thus a memoir of her life – dominated by her work – is rich with off-camera anecdotes: sharing practical jokes with Fidel Castro, hearing a recitation of botanical names by Barbara Streisand, eating yogurt from a vending machine with Martha Stewart outside her jail cell. The list goes on and on and on. While it is a fascinating front-row seat at history’s stage, the sheer volume of stories teeters toward resembling an endless video montage on Oscar night.Skip to next paragraph
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When Walters focuses the camera on her personal relationships – her parents’ financial demise, her three failed marriages, a rocky relationship with her adopted daughter Jacqueline – her sense of failure and guilt prevails.
Perhaps this why the most fascinating aspects of her memoir occur during those trailblazing years in the 1960s and 1970s when she fought to earn respect from male colleagues and eventually launched ABC’s “Barbara Walters Specials” (1976), the one-hour programs filled with her signature exclusive interviews, and later the newsmagazine program “20/20” (1978).
The way was not strewn with flowers. Her departure from NBC elicited embarrassing public accusations that she was a prima donna who made unreasonable demands. Not true, according to Walters, and in hindsight, hardly surprising given the times.
“Perhaps my experience was the price of being first.... Back in 1976 you could freely attack a woman for wanting to attempt to do a so-called man’s job, especially in the holier-than-thou-men-only news departments,” she writes. “Many people still believed that women were supposed to know their place – and stay in it. There were few women in front of the camera and fewer still in any kind of executive position.”
No wonder the “Baba Wawa” caricature developed by comedian Gilda Radner that summer stung. (Walters says her “lazy r’s” are the result of growing up in Boston and has since learned to laugh at herself.)
Walters knows how to pace her breezy 600-page tome. Her much-talked-about affair with a married Sen. Edward Brooke occurs midway and lasts for six pages. The heavier reminiscences of policymaking and world leaders comes right before the candy: Monica Lewinsky (an entire chapter), weird visits with murderers and other criminals, cat fights between hosts on her current show, “The View.”
Walters’s interview approach, with its focus on personality and tell-all feelings, undoubtedly laid the groundwork for today’s excessive focus on celebrity lives. “Today we let it all hang out, no matter who it is – and that’s how it should be. We do have the right to know,” she writes. And yet her decision to retire from “20/20” in 2004 crystallized when the powers that be chose her final interview to be with Mary Kay Letourneau, a convicted child molester, rather than the president of the United States.
In the end, it’s hard tell who is the bigger celebrity: Walters, or the people she interviews. More to the point, this is precisely why it’s important to have her remarkable life with all of its womanly touches, regrets, and I’m-not-finished-yet hopes on record. We needed to hear it in her own words.
Kendra Nordin is a Monitor staff editor.