Walter Winchell helped establish the image of the American news reporter as a smirking, fedora-wearing, fast-talking insider, a regular at nightclubs and theaters, a friend of cops and gangsters, showgirls and moguls. And, in Winchell’s case, a power-broker who could make and break careers with a mention in his column.
Perhaps it’s only appropriate that he should play the newspaper reporter Hildy Johnson in a radio production of the classic play and film “The Front Page.” (Click that title to download or stream an MP3 audio if your browser doesn’t show an audio-player icon.)
Film producer Cecil B. DeMille introduces Winchell with some remarkable comments, including, “He’s the most original, most highly paid, most copied and most widely known among reporters… He’s left-handed and does not carry a gun.” Perhaps readers thought he did carry a gun — to go with the police radio and siren said to have been installed in his car, both all the better to chase down stories on the streets of New York.
Students of popular culture might compare some of the radioplay dialogue with the original and the His Girl Friday remake. Was it Winchell or a scriptwriter who made his version’s Hildy’s critique of journalism refer to readers snarkily as “a million nitwits and their wives” instead of the gentler, “a million hired girls and motormen’s wives” that I remember from another production? (Hildy’s critique of journalism is about 12 minutes into the program. Winchell is also interviewed — as himself, not as Hildy — at the end of the show.)
Real news meets coincidence: That June 28, 1937, broadcast opens with an announcer mentioning that pilot Amelia Earhart, scheduled to be on the show, had “not yet completed” her round-the-world flight, but was expected to be on the program the next week. Her last verified radio transmission was July 6, after which she had officially disappeared.
The real Winchell got his start during the Roaring Twenties as a hustler of Broadway gossip for a vaudeville paper, then for the daily tabloid Evening Graphic, and ultimately the Daily Mirror and Hearst syndication to newspapers across the country, along with a radio program and a national audience. (At its peak, Winchell’s column appeared in more than 2,000 papers, according to The New York Times.)
His column would look familiar to any reader of 21st century blogs, maybe even Twitter. In print and on the radio specialized in short scraps of information and staccato punchlines, separating items with stars and ellipses in print and the click of Morse code dots and dashes on the air. His mixture of opinion with the news and frequent references to “this reporter” were also a departure from the earlier impersonal style of reporting.
Today’s readers can find samples from the 1930s in Google’s scanned-newspaper archives.
He was quick to take up the anti-Fascist cause in the 1930s, and slow to tone down his anti-Communist and pro-Joseph-McCarthy rhetoric in the 1950s. Moving his “columny” to television, he had less success with his gimmick of talking rapidly while tapping out a staccato accompaniment on an old telegrapher’s key, on camera. For an example, see this December 1953 broadcast preserved at the Internet Archive.
After his last radio newscast in 1957, Winchell had one more off-camera broadcast revival that put his voice back in living rooms across America, and he still can be heard on television reruns. He was the narrator for the 118 episodes of The Untouchables, a 1959-1963 TV dramatic series about gangsters and federal agents during the prohibition years, the years when Winchell first became a star. He died in 1972.
With Broadway as a beat and celebrity gossip as his stock in trade, Winchell quickly became a Broadway celebrity himself, satirized and scandalized in plays, books and movies. He wrote conversationally, used popular slang and made up new words when he ran out. His column infuriated his editor, Emile Gauvreau, who felt he went too far with both invasions of privacy and inventions of language. Despite their mutual animosity, Gauvreau followed Winchell to the Mirror, where Winchell continued to turn alimony into “yellimony,” married into “altar’d it,” champagne and wine into “giggle-water” and featured concatenations like “swelegant” and (90 years before texting) “Omygahd!”
Here’s a sample from “Walter Winchell on Broadway,” as preserved in the digital archives of the Rochester Evening Journal from Nov. 10, 1930:
Princess Murat, only seventeen, and Harry Glynn, sassiety’s favorite youknowhat, are uh-huhing it . . . The Caroll Wainrights, of the Gould tribe, have curdled . . . Germaine (“Ladies Al”) Giroux shelved Rudy’s Villa Vallee Satdee, threatening to demand a “public apology” for an undressing room scene there. Mrs. J. Harriman, whose decree is due soon, is courting already with a twenty-one-year-old attorney . . . The George Palmer Putnam-Amelia Earhart welding was listed for Satdee, but what happened? . . . Giff Pinchot, the Republican, is posted at the Yale Club for dues. . .
Novels like Gauvreau’s “Scandalmonger” and the movie “Blessed Event” based their titles and lead characters on the columnist and his tricks at getting naughty news items into the paper. When it was unacceptable to write about private things like pregnancies and divorces, Winchell had women expecting “blessed events,” and had couples going to Nevada to have their marriages “Renovated,” back when divorces were easier to obtain in Reno.
Years after “Blessed Event,” a Winchell-like manipulative gossip columnist was featured again in 1957’s “The Sweet Smell of Success” with Burt Lancaster, which was turned into a Broadway musical in 2002 — quite the return trip for the Winchell legend.
For today’s students of the media, Winchell illustrates the blurring of boundaries as old and new media compete, and both evolve. Winchell began writing about the world of entertainment as news; the tabloids he worked for and his writing style added to the idea of news as entertainment. The ethics of the reporter as publicist, promoter and manipulator are easy to blur, too.
For a sample of his radio style, a radio listener preserved a 1945 Winchell broadcast that is now online at the Internet Archive.
Although Winchell began in print, he developed a style that was almost a visual representation of the new medium of radio — the dots and dashes punctuating his column, the “slanguage,” the brevity all translated easily into his own radio program.
Before he was in newspapers, Winchell had been on the stage in vaudeville, and the radio show and syndicated column helped him make the jump from Broadway to Hollywood, appearing in several movies — usually playing Walter Winchell, or someone much like him. (See Walter Winchell’s page in the Internet Movie Database.)
The 1932 film “Blessed Event” included references to the columnist feuding with a band-leader, played by Dick Powell. In two 1937 movies, Wake Up and Live and Love and Hisses, Winchell brought the same kind of feud to the screen himself, opposite band-leader Ben Bernie.
Lux Theater brought Wake Up and Live to radio seven years later, but without Winchell or his name.
Instead, the columnist character was renamed Marty Hackett and played by James Gleason in an extended Winchell impersonation. Gleason was no stranger to the world of newspapermen in popular culture, playing Henry Connell, the gruff editor who fires Barbara Stanwyck and sets the plot rolling in Frank Capra’s “Meet John Doe.” The headline star of the Lux episode, however, was a former cub sports reporter named Frank Sinatra — in what Cecil B. DeMille called the hit singer’s first radio drama role. Sinatra plays a microphone-shy singer, the Jack Haley part in the movie. Others in the radio cast are Bob Crosby, Marilyn Maxwell and James Dunn.
In addition to “Blessed Event” (1932), featuring a Winchell-style newspaper gossip, similar films the same year included Okay, America! and Is My Face Red?. As Winchell and gossip spread to radio, so did films, including Take the Stand (1934), Here Comes Carter (1936) and Behind the Headlines (1937), with Lee Tracy again. (Tagline: “He made the yellow journals green with envy…”) For a discussion of these and other radio-broadcaster films, see “From A Voice in the Night to A Face in the Crowd: The Rise and Fall of the Radio Film” by Richard R. Ness (Western Illinois University), a paper delivered at the AEJMC Conference in San Francisco, August 2006, and archived at the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture project (www.ijpc.org) at the University of Southern California.
You can see Winchell himself played by Stanley Tucci in the 1998 made-for-HBO movie “Winchell,” with an interesting take on his radio delivery, character and life. (Play the trailer at IMDB) It was based on the 1976 biography Winchell, His Life and His Times, an inside look by Herman Klurfeld, who ghost-wrote much of the content of Winchell’s columns for almost 30 years. For a more recent source, see the 1995 Winchell biography by Neal Gabler, Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity.
Edward Weiner’s earlier Winchell biography, Let’s Go to Press is apparently out of copyright and available at the Internet Archive. But there are many other biographies, including Walter Winchell : a novel, a 1990 book by Michael Herr that, as the New York Times review points out, is actually a cross between a novel and a screenplay — perhaps an appropriate way to tell the story of a man who crossed so many media boundaries himself.