About Walter Weinschel
There’s a good chance you have never heard of Walter Winchell, a man on Life magazine’s list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.
But you’ve no doubt visited some of the places he helped make famous: the Roney Plaza beachfront, the stone-crab joint at the southern tip of Miami Beach, the Lincoln Road strip. If only you could hear his unforgettable greeting crackling over the radio airwaves, breaking new ground in journalism: “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America, and all the ships at sea!”
In his heyday, from 1930 to 1950, Winchell was America’s best-known newspaperman and radio broadcaster, a driven, egotistical, lonely soul who had risen from impoverished roots. His syndicated column for the New York Daily Mirror could make or break a reputation. He created his own “slanguage.” Today, he might reveal that Jamie Lynn Spears was “infanticipating a blessed event.”
Like 50 million Americans, two-thirds of the adult population at the time, Audrey Finkelstein tuned in to Winchell’s Sunday night radio show or read his syndicated gossip column. “He had a sassy way,” recalls Finkelstein, a 1938 graduate of the University of Miami and herself a longtime public-radio show host. “His tone was sensational. He was almost shouting at you.”
Shouting from and about Miami was Winchell’s winter gig, and his national clout brought acclaim and notoriety to the young city. “In time, Miami Beach became Winchell’s own kingdom,” wrote Neal Gabler in the seminal biography, Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity.
WW, as he referred to himself, evolved into a powerful political commentator who palled around with FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and had private meetings with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Winchell sounded an early alarm about Hitler’s genocidal hatred before swerving to the far right as an anti-communism champion of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. As his journalism career wound down, he was the narrator of ABC’s hit series The Untouchables.
“He was one of the most famous people in the world and now he’s forgotten,” says John McMullan, a retired executive editor of The Miami Herald. “When he took up a cause, he gave it everything he had, and he was pretty unscrupulous about it.”
It wasn’t by accident that Winchell wintered in Miami Beach for four decades. A young publicist, Steve Hannagan, lured Winchell; his wife, June; and their two young daughters, Gloria and Walda, to Miami Beach in 1930. Hannagan envisioned Miami Beach datelines on America’s most widely read column, tidbits about Beach pubs and personalities and Winchellese descriptions of the sand and sea. It worked.
The original Roney Plaza, a sprawling, luxurious hotel on private beachfront, opened in 1926 at Collins Avenue and 23rd Street. Hotel management jumped at the chance to give Winchell a penthouse suite each winter. Winchell promptly dubbed it the “Rooney Pleasure” and called Miami Beach “a branch of heaven.”
Like the famous and infamous, he ate at Joe’s Stone Crab. He put down bets at Hialeah Race Track. He hobnobbed with gangsters and celebrities. And he shared it all with his millions of readers and listeners – priceless publicity for the tourist-driven mecca
“Winchell’s columns did much to make Miami Beach and the Roney Plaza famous,” according to The Life and Times of Miami Beach by Ann Armbruster.
On Feb. 13, 1933, Winchell scooped the national press. He had just filed his column at the Western Union office in downtown Miami when he heard about the assassination attempt on President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt at a rally in nearby Bayfront Park. He rushed to the local jail, bribed an elevator operator and convinced the sheriff to let him sit in on the first interrogation of the suspected gunman, Giuseppe Zangara, who had missed Roosevelt but fatally injured Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. Winchell raced back to the Western Union office to wire news of Zangara’s demented ramblings.
Before the age of television, much less the Internet, Winchell was credited with saving the tourism season of 1935-36. A hurricane had struck in November and word spread that Miami was devastated. Winchell showed up in December and, after assuring the nation that all was well in sunny Miami Beach, the trains filled with tourists.
Winchell’s ability to reach the masses was revealed on Dec. 29, 1946, when a visitor from Michigan with a rare blood type was bleeding to death in a Miami hospital. The Miami Herald, which had built a small broadcast booth in the newsroom for Winchell’s weekly radio show, already had gone to press with its evening edition. But the city editor got word to Winchell, who started off his broadcast that night with: “A man is dying…” Winchell’s call for help created chaos as potential donors from near and far jammed the streets and phone lines. Another Miami visitor who heard the broadcast rushed to the hospital. His blood was a match and a life was saved. Winchell had to return to the air waves at 11 p.m. to calm the national frenzy.
Some locals still remember Winchell. As a boy, Miami Beach Tourism Director Michael Aller, a.k.a. “Mr. Miami Beach,” lived in the Roney Plaza with his parents. There he met Winchell in the early 1950s. Aller, now 68, recalls how Winchell let him ride along in Miami Beach police cars, as WW trolled for news. “What bizarre thing is going to happen tonight?” Aller remembered Winchell asking the cops. They remained friends until Winchell’s death.
“He was a very kind man and a very lonely man,” Aller recalls. “He was inward and gruff. He wanted it the way he wanted it. He loved Miami Beach and when he walked into a room, he commanded attention. You knew he was someone of great importance.”
As a young girl in New York, Elaine Berkowitz paid special attention to the snappy kicker of Winchell’s radio show – because her father, Herman Klurfeld, who died in Boca Raton in 2006 at age 90, had written it. Klurfeld’s 1976 memoir, Walter Winchell: His Life and Times, was turned into an HBO movie, Winchell, in 1998.
Klurfeld had been Winchell’s longtime ghost writer, penning several of his columns every week for nearly 30 years. How did he describe his position? “Assistant king of the world.”
“My dad worshipped Winchell and had the time of his life,” says Berkowitz, who lives in Coconut Grove. “He had all the advantages of having power and access – without the downside of celebrity. We were able to maintain a happy family life, which Winchell never had.”
With the changing times, Winchell’s column, once syndicated in 2,000 newspapers, lost its ability to shock. Winchell slowly grew obsolete, though he had made a lasting stamp on American media with his early populist appeal. Within a few years of the suicide of his only son and the death of his wife, Winchell died in Los Angeles in 1972.
“Poor guy, he wound up about as ill-regarded as he had been acclaimed,” muses McMullan. “Pathetic in a way, but, boy, he had a great run.”
Copyright 2008 Coral Living
Walter Winchell (April 7, 1897 – February 20, 1972) was an American newspaper and radio gossip commentator.
Born Walter Weinschel in New York City, he left school in the sixth grade and started performing in a vaudeville troupe known as Gus Edwards' "Newsboys Sextet."
His career in journalism was begun by posting notes about his acting troupe on backstage bulletin boards. Joining the Vaudeville News in 1920, Winchell left the paper for the Evening Graphic in 1924, and in turn was hired on June 10, 1929 by the New York Daily Mirror where he finally became the author of what would be the first syndicated gossip column, entitled On-Broadway.
Using connections in the entertainment, social, and governmental realms, he would expose exciting or embarrassing information about celebrities in those industries. This caused him to become very feared, as a journalist, because he would routinely impact the lives of famous or powerful people, exposing alleged information and rumors about them, using this as ammunition to attack his enemies, and to blackmail influential people. He used this power, trading positive mention in his column (and later, his radio show) for more rumors and secrets.
He made his radio debut over WABC in New York, a CBS affiliate, on 12 May 1930. (John Dunning, Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, p. 708)
By the 1930s, Winchell was "an intimate friend of Owney Madden, New York's No. 1 gang leader of the prohibition era," but "in 1932 Winchell's intimacy with criminals caused him to fear he would be 'rubbed out' for 'knowing too much.'" He fled to California, "[and] returned weeks later with a new enthusiasm for law, G-men, Uncle Sam, [and] Old Glory." His coverage of the Lindbergh kidnapping and subsequent trial received national attention. Within two years, he befriended J. Edgar Hoover, the No. 2 G-man of the repeal era. He was responsible for turning Louis "Lepke" Buchalter of Murder, Inc. over to Hoover.
His newspaper column was syndicated in over 2,000 newspapers worldwide, and he was read by 50 million people a day from the 1920s until the early 1960s. His Sunday night radio broadcast was heard by another 20 million people from 1930 to the late 1950s. (One example of his profile at his professional peak was being mentioned in Rodger and Hart’s 1937 song "The Lady Is a Tramp": "I follow Winchell, and read every line.")
Winchell, who was Jewish, was one of the first commentators in America to attack Adolf Hitler and American pro-fascist and pro-Nazi organizations such as the German-American Bund. He was a staunch supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal throughout the Depression era, and frequently served as the Roosevelt Administration's mouthpiece in favor of interventionism as the European war crisis loomed in the late 1930s. Early on he denounced American isolationists as favoring appeasement of Hitler, and was explicit in his attacks on such prominent isolationists as Charles Lindbergh, whom he dubbed "The Lone Ostrich," and Gerald L. K. Smith, who he denounced as "Gerald Lucifer KKKodfish Smith." Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Winchell was also an outspoken supporter of civil rights for African-Americans, and frequently attacked the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups as supporting un-American, pro-Nazi goals. After World War II, Winchell began to denounce Communism as the main threat facing America.
During World War II, he attacked the National Maritime Union, the labor organization for the civilian United States Merchant Marine, which he said was run by Communists. In 1948 and 1949 he and the influential leftist columnist Drew Pearson "inaccurately and maliciously assaulted Secretary of Defense James Forrestal in columns and radio broadcasts.". Winchell also labeled African-American-French entertainer Josephine Baker as a communist after she took him to task for not questioning the racial-discriminatory policies of the Stork Club in New York. His relentless campaign against Baker prevented her from getting her visa to enter the US renewed.
In 1948 Winchell had the top rated radio show when he surpassed Fred Allen and Jack Benny.
During the 1950s Winchell favored Senator Joseph McCarthy, but he became unpopular as the public turned against McCarthy. He also had a weekly radio broadcast which was simulcast on ABC television until he ended that employment because of a dispute with ABC executives in 1955.
A dispute with Jack Paar effectively ended Winchell's career, signaling a shift in power from print to television.
During this time, NBC had given him the opportunity to host a variety show, which lasted only thirteen weeks. His readership gradually dropped, and when his home paper, the New York Daily Mirror, where he'd worked for thirty-four years, closed in 1963, he faded from the public eye.
He did, however, receive $25,000 per episode to narrate The Untouchables on the ABC television network for five seasons beginning in 1959.
Many other columnists, such as Ed Sullivan in New York and Louella Parsons in Los Angeles, began to write gossip soon after Winchell's initial success. He wrote in a style filled with slang and incomplete sentences. Winchell's casual writing style famously earned him the ire of mobster Dutch Schultz, who confronted Winchell at New York's Cotton Club and publicly lambasted him for using the phrase "pushover" to describe Schultz's penchant for blonde women. Some notable Winchell quotes are: "Nothing recedes like success," and "I usually get my stuff from people who promised somebody else that they would keep it a secret."
Winchell opened his radio broadcasts by pressing randomly on a telegraph key, a sound which created a sense of urgency and importance and the catchphrase "Good evening Mr. and Mrs. America from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea. Let's go to press." He would then read each of his stories with a staccato delivery (up to a rate of 197 words per minute), though in an interview in 1967, claimed a speed of well over 200 wpm. noticeably faster than the typical pace of American speech. His diction can also be heard in his breathless narration of the Untouchables television series as well as in several Hollywood films.
Winchell feuded with New York radio host Barry Gray, whom he described as "Borey Pink" and a "disk jerk." When Winchell heard that Marlen Edwin Pew of the trade journal Editor & Publisher had criticized him as a bad influence on the American press, he thereafter referred to him as "Marlen Pee-you."
For most of his career his contract with his newspaper and radio employers required them to reimburse him for any damages he had to pay, should he be sued for slander or libel. Whenever friends reproached him for betraying confidences, he responded, "I know — I'm just a son of a bitch."
On August 11, 1919, Winchell married Rita Greene, one of his onstage partners. The couple separated a few years later, and he moved in with June Magee, who had already given birth to their first child, a daughter named Walda. Winchell and Greene eventually divorced in 1928. Winchell and Magee would never marry, although the couple maintained the front of being married for the rest of their lives.
Winchell and Magee successfully kept the secret of their nonmarriage, but were struck by tragedy with all three of their children. Their adopted daughter Gloria died of pneumonia at age nine, and Walda spent time in psychiatric hospitals. Walter, Jr., the only son of the journalist, committed suicide in his family's garage on Christmas night, 1968. Having spent the previous two years on welfare, Winchell, Jr. had last been employed as a dishwasher in Santa Ana, California, but listed himself as a freelancer who for a time wrote a column in the Los Angeles Free Press, an alternate newspaper published in the 1960s and 1970s.
Winchell announced his retirement on February 5, 1969, citing the tragedy of his son's suicide as a major reason, while also noting the delicate health of Magee. Exactly one year later, she died at a Phoenix hospital while undergoing treatment for a heart condition.
Winchell spent his final two years as a recluse at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Larry King, who replaced Winchell at the Miami Herald, observed,
"He was so sad. You know what Winchell was doing at the end? Typing out mimeographed sheets with his column, handing them out on the corner. That's how sad he got. When he died, only one person came to his funeral: his daughter."
(Several of Winchell's former co-workers expressed a willingness to go, but were turned back by his daughter Walda.)
Winchell died of prostate cancer at the age of 74. He is buried in Greenwood Memory Lawn Cemetery in Phoenix.
Even during Winchell's lifetime, journalists were critical of his effect on the media. In 1940, Time Magazine said St. Clair McKelway, who had written a series of articles about him in The New Yorker, wrote,
the effect of Winchellism on the standards of the press.... When Winchell began gossiping in 1924 for the late scatological tabloid Evening Graphic, no U.S. paper hawked rumors about the marital relations of public figures until they turned up in divorce courts. For 16 years, gossip columns spread until even the staid New York Times whispered that it heard from friends of a son of the President that he was going to be divorced. In its first year, The Graphic would have considered this news not fit to print... Gossip-writing is at present like a spirochete in the body of journalism.... Newspapers... have never been held in less esteem by their readers or exercised less influence on the political and ethical thought of the times.
Winchell responded to McKelway saying, "Oh stop! You talk like a high-school student of journalism."
Despite the controversy surrounding Winchell, his popularity allowed him to leverage support for causes that he valued. In 1946, following the death from cancer of his close friend and fellow writer Damon Runyon, Winchell appealed to his radio audience for contributions to fight the disease. The response led Winchell to establish the Damon Runyon Cancer Memorial Fund, since renamed the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. He led the charity — with the support of celebrities like Marlene Dietrich, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Marilyn Monroe, and Joe DiMaggio — until his own death from cancer in 1972.
In 1950, Ernest Lehman, a former publicity writer for Irving Hoffman of The Hollywood Reporter, wrote a story for Cosmopolitan titled "Tell Me About It Tomorrow". The piece is about a ruthless journalist, J.J. Hunsacker, and is generally thought to be a thinly veiled commentary on the power wielded by Winchell at the height of his influence. It was made into the film Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and the screenplay was written by Lehman and Clifford Odets.
Robert Heinlein introduced the term "winchell" into the American vocabulary, as a term for a politically intrusive gossip columnist.
Winchell was parodied in the film Blessed Event (1932), where a Winchell-like character was played by actor Lee Tracy. He wrote the original story for the film Broadway Through a Keyhole (1933).
Winchellism and Winchellese
The term "Winchellism" is named after him. Though its use is extremely rare and may be considered archaic, the term has two different usages.
One definition is a pejorative judgment that an author's works are specifically designed to imply or invoke scandal and may be libelous.
The other definition is “any word or phrase compounded brought to the fore by the columnist Walter Winchell” or his imitators. Looking at his writing's effect on the language, an etymologist of his day said “there are plenty of … expressions which he has fathered and which are now current among his readers and imitators and constitute a flash language which has been called Winchellese. Through a newspaper column which has nation-wide circulation, Winchell has achieved the position of dictator of contemporary slang.” Winchell invented his own phrases that were viewed as slightly racy at the time. Some of the expressions for falling in love used by Winchell were: “pashing it”, “sizzle for”, “that way, go for each other”, “garbo-ing it”, “uh-huh”; and in the same category, “new Garbo, trouser-crease-eraser”, and “pash”. Some Winchellisms for marriage are: “middle-aisle it”, “altar it”, “handcuffed”, “Mendelssohn March”, “Lohengrin it”, and “merged”.
Walter Winchell's Timeline
April 7, 1897
New York, NY
August 11, 1919
May 11, 1923
New York, New York
September 1, 1928
February 20, 1972
Los Angeles, CA
February 21, 1972
Greenwood Cemetery; Phoenix, AZ