Barbara Walters hopes we like her. At least, that is the lasting impression from her recent memoir, Audition. It’s hard not to be fascinated by the arc of her career in television news, which includes roles as first woman to cohost a morning news program and first to coanchor a nightly newscast.
Like so many of her revealing interviews, Walters begins her own story with her childhood. What influences does she claim set the stage for one of the most powerful women in television? Show business and a developmentally challenged older sister.
Her father, Lou Walters, was the imagination and drive behind the Latin Quarter nightclub, the most famous nightclub in America in the 1930s and 1940s. As Walters opened clubs in Boston, New York, and Miami, he shuttled his family up and down the East Coast. He made and lost fortunes several times over, instilling in his youngest daughter, Barbara, a keen sense of the erratic flows in the channels of money and power and a fighter’s will to stay on top.
His older daughter, Jackie, was fair-haired, pretty, and unable to care for herself. Instead of being sent away to an institution or a special school, she was kept tight within the family circle, triggering both resentment and guilt in her younger sister, who was trying to lead a normal schoolgirl life amid the glitz and unpredictability of their father’s profession.
“Much of the need I had to prove myself, to achieve, to provide, to protect, can be traced to my feelings about Jackie,” writes Walters. “Some may call it ambition.... Some may call it insecurity.... But as I look back, it feels to me that my life has been one long audition – an attempt to make a difference and to be accepted.”
In addition to her drive, Walters’s success also had a lot to do with timing. By 1953, half of all American homes owned at least one TV set, but it was still a minor medium for news and entertainment. The only respected journalists worked in print, and nightclubs and theaters were in their heyday. That same year, Walters was cutting her media chops by producing a children’s show called “Ask the Camera” for WNBT, NBC’s affiliate in New York – and sleeping with her married boss.
This motif recurs again and again as Walters shares her narrative: Her talents expand into new venues, and she is continually attracted to and unable to stay committed to influential men.
If this were the story of a man’s rise in power that disclosed the nature and number of his bedmates along the way, it would draw yawns. But present the same story from a female perspective and it becomes a bestseller.
Perhaps it has something to do with Walters’s instincts for knowing what viewers at home want to see: unexpected relationships, lasting friendships, and the vulnerability of the powerful.
The maturing of her talents, becoming the first female cohost of NBC’s morning program “Today” in the 1970s, coincided with the progress of and backlash against women in the workplace.
Her presence was a source of agitation to her male cohosts, Frank McGee on “Today,” and later Harry Reasoner on “ABC Evening News.” As a result, Walters found much comfort in being sent out of the studio and into the field to record interviews. One of those trips happened to be President Nixon’s 1972 trip to China. While Nixon was announcing “This was the week that changed the world,” the world of news reporting changed as well.
“The China trip probably marked the seminal moment in which television assumed superiority as America’s primary source of news,” Walters writes. She was only one of three women journalists invited on the trip, and the only female broadcaster.
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.
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.