Neal Gabler

Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity

VTR Date: September 16, 1994

Guest: Gabler, Neal


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Neal Gabler
Title: “Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity”
VTR: 9/16/94

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And I think you know from my choice of subjects and guests for this weekly encounter what an enormous interest I have as an American historian in our popular media, particularly in the impact they have upon the way we are, the ways we think and behave. And that’s why it’s such a great pleasure to have writer, critic Neal Gabler here today to discuss the meaning for us of Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity, his new Alfred A. Knopf volume. Mr. Gabler writes that, “Few lives are more instructive of the forces that shape mass culture in American than Walter Winchell’s. Because he changed American journalism, examining his life enables us to understand better the evolution of the media in this century”. My guest also quotes Alexander Wolcott as predicting in 1933 that historians would someday label the era “the age of the two Walters: Lippmann and Winchell”. And since I always assign Lippmann to my students, but never Winchell, until this book, let me ask Neal Gabler to explain that prediction. Why did he say that?

Gabler: Well, one has to understand at the time that he wrote that, which was in 1933, American culture was becoming increasingly polarized between, on the one hand, the things that Walter Lippmann represented, which was an elitist, bookish culture; and on the other hand, the things that Walter Winchell represented, which was all of the accoutrements of mass culture: radio, television – well, not at that point, television – radio, movies, national magazines, later television. And these two things were poised against one another in an uneasy battle. So that as Wolcott examined and surveyed American culture in that period, he saw these two poles, and said Lippmann on the one side, the old culture; Winchell on the other side, the ascendant culture.

Heffner: With the judgment too?

Gabler: He made no judgment, aside from the fact that he thought these two figures were going to be enduring. The interesting thing is, of course, that that prediction has not been borne out. Lippmann endured. You have your students read him. He is a name that is current in intellectual discussion to this day. Winchell, however, was ephemeral. And in some ways, you know, Wolcott should have analyzed his own characterization, because of the things that Winchell represented, because he represented mass culture and celebrity culture and gossip and a number of things that are constantly moving forward. I mean, he, himself was on that wheel and got squashed by it.

Heffner: Yes, but ephemera have themselves, or has itself – whichever, singular or plural, you want to use – that has lasted. And therefore, in a sense, Winchell’s heritage. As I read your extraordinary book, my feeling is that when I assign Lippmann I’m assigning the wrong book. When I assign Public Opinion or the Public Philosophy, it’s the wrong book. It’s Winchell or a collection of Winchell that should be assigned.

Gabler: I would agree with you. I would agree that if you are looking at influence – not which name is better known – but if you are looking at the question of influence, and who shaped this culture, I would say, without question, Winchell has been the more powerful influence on American culture than Lippmann.

Heffner: And your judgment on that?

Gabler: Well, my judgment is that there is good and bad about that. I mean, I don’t think it’s wholly a bad thing. I mean, I think the instinct is to say, “Oh my god!” and to recoil at the idea that a scamp like Walter Winchell would somehow be one of the most influential figures in American journalism, and I would go beyond American journalism, in American culture generally. But Winchell had a quality about him that I think is very appealing. And I hesitate to use the word “noble,” but there is a certain nobility about it as well. I mean, Winchell did represent the popular mind and popular voice at a time when the popular mind needed a popular voice, needed someone to articulate it. And Winchell did that. Winchell served as what I would call the general for the ascendant mass culture. And the culture needed that. And he brought to American culture generally, as Roosevelt brought to American politics, one might say, a healthy sense of liveliness, of fun, and of democracy. I think all of that is to the good, and particularly when one poses it against the kinds of things that Walter Lippmann brought to American culture. I think one could also say that, you know, in some ways Winchell was the antithesis of Whitman…of Lippmann, and – not of Whitman — in fact, they were very similar, Winchell and Whitman – the antithesis of Lippmann, and also Lippmann’s worst nightmare. Because when you read what Lippmann writes in Public Opinion, for example, the kinds of things he’s afraid of, the democracy that he’s afraid of, that kind of true democracy that he’s afraid of, Winchell is the symbol of all of those things.

Heffner: But now, just a second.

Gabler: Now, I haven’t said the negative side yet, but… (Laughter)

Heffner: But no, no, no. let me ask you about whether, that being the case, whether that was indeed a positive phenomenon.

Gabler: Well, that’s the thing. I think that there were positive characteristics of that. In a way, it was a kind of enfranchisement for the mass of Americans who had essentially been culturally disenfranchised. I think you could only understand Winchell in the context of American cultural history. And if I just examine that briefly, I think the fulcrum that the demographic balance and also the cultural balance tipped from elites who had governed American culture for quite a long time, of whom Lippmann was a representative, to minorities, immigrants, urbanites, a whole new opening and enfranchisement, as I called it before, for the great mass of Americans, to seize the culture themselves.

Now, culture had been sort of “sacrilized” before that, to use a word that historian Lawrence Levine uses. I mean, there had been a sacred sense of culture. And now, in the Twenties, came a feeling that, you know, culture doesn’t have to be sacred, it can belong to us. It doesn’t only belong to them. It doesn’t only belong to the elites of the world. Culture can belong to us. We’ve got the movies, we’ve got national magazines, we’ve got radio. We’ve got all of these things, and they’re ours.

I mentioned, in a slip, earlier, Walter Whitman. But in some ways this is the answer to Whitman’s calling domestic vistas for a democratic culture. Well, it took awhile to come, but by the twenties that balance was tipping toward a mass culture. And that is the period in which Walter Winchell comes to his ascendancy. By the end of the Twenties, when Americans are feeling that they might somehow be culturally enfranchised, here comes a figure that helps facilitate that enfranchisement.

Heffner: Why do you make gossip a symbol of enfranchisement? Why do you make gossip a symbol of democracy?

Gabler: Well, because I think we have to understand what gossip really is, and understand the way in which Winchell deployed it. There was no real gossip in mainstream press before Walter Winchell invented – and I use that word advisedly – invented the mainstream gossip column. Gossip had always been marginalized before Winchell. And by that I mean that there were things like Town Topics, which was a society scandal sheet, and there was a scandal sheet called Broadway Brevities, which wrote gossip about various, you know, Broadway personalities. But these had very small circulations and they certainly didn’t hit the mainstream readership, they weren’t part of the mainstream journalism or the mainstream media environment.

And then Winchell comes along, and single-handedly – and it was single-handed – he creates this column in which he talks about who is romancing whom and who’s about to divorce and who’s anticipating a birth and who’s consorting with gangsters, and who’s welching on bets, and who’s ill, and all of these things that had previously been shielded from public view.

Now, when we gossip over the backyard fence, we gossip about our neighbors, and that’s one thing. But the only way that this gossip, that is mainstream gossip in a newspaper, and ultimately syndicated gossip across the country, is relevant at all, is if you’re gossiping about people that everyone knows. And the people that everyone knows are, almost by definition, members of some kind of elite, whether it’s a financial elite, or a social elite, or a celebrity elite.

Now, when you take all of those factors, and you put yourself in the position of someone who is reading Winchell’s column in the late Twenties or Thirties or even later – but let’s get back to the kind of inception of that column – and you’re reading about some movie star who’s getting divorced, or some socialite who has lost a fortune in some way or another, you are penetrating the veil, the veil that has always existed. You’re punching a hole in it. Or you’re letting Winchell punch the hole in it, and you’re looking through that hole. And that empowers you. That gives you a sense of power over the people about whom you’re reading. By invading their privacy, you are, in a way, appropriating them.

Now, I believe that the people who read Winchell back in the Twenties and Thirties understood this. This was not something that, you know, they read this gossip simply for entertainment. There was a subtext tot his gossip. And I believe those people who read this understood the subtext. It was one of the reasons that Winchell became so popular so rapidly, is because he was providing this service for the great mass of Americans. At the same time that ht elites about whom he was writing were in an uproar. They felt that he had violated some kind of pact that they had always had with journalism and with the rest of the world.

Heffner: He was, indeed, violating that pact, wasn’t he?

Gabler: He did violate that pact, and that’s what made him so popular.

Heffner: And your conclusion as to the contribution that that made?

Gabler: Well, again, I’ve already talked about the positive side of that contribution, which was that it gave a sense of democracy and democratization to a culture that, I think, sorely needed it. On the other hand, it also injected the ephemeral and the trivial into the mainstream press.

Heffner: Didn’t it make it the mainstream of the mainstream press?

Gabler: Well, that, I think, was an evolutionary process. But I think the beginning of that evolution is Walter Winchell. I mean, he created a preoccupation with celebrity, with gossip, with trivia. And that grew and grew and grew until it really kind of subsumed the press. I mean, that process is still going on now, which is one of the reasons I sought to write the book in the first place, is because if one wants to see the origins of this media environment in which we live, where the OJ Simpson trial becomes the major event, not only of the year, but possibly of the decade, where we’re more interested in what happens to Michael Jackson’s marriage than we are in what happens to Haiti. If one wants to understand the origins of that, one has to go back to Walter Winchell. And what I intended to do in this book was not only to write a biography of Walter Winchell, a full-scale biography of him – he’s a fascinating figure, and that would, I think, justify the book – but what I intended to do was to use his life as a script through which we could examine how we got to where we are, with Hard Copy, Inside Edition, People Magazine, even a People section in The New York Times, Chronicle section, where we got to a point where we are absolutely – well, I can’t say we’re satiated, because we’re not satiated – it’s insatiable . The amount of celebrity that constantly comes at us every single day. I mean, how we got to that, how we arrived at that point. That’s what I intended to examine in the book.

Heffner: And you’ve done it so well.

Gabler: Thank you very much.

Heffner: And one wonders whether Winchell, who included with his gossip, with his involvement with celebrities, insights into the news of the day, into the issues of the day, how he would react to the contemporary manifestations of the gossip and celebrity involvement.

Gabler: Well, being an egomaniac, I think he would have been somewhat distressed at the fact that he didn’t monopolize it. Because, you know, one compares, for example, the trial of the Lindbergh baby kidnapper Bruno Hauptman in 1935 with the OJ Simpson trial, and if one examines the coverage of these two trials, one sees that in the Hauptmann trial, where Winchell was a featured player, he attended every session of the trial, it was in Flemington, New Jersey, and it was difficult for him to pry himself away from Broadway, which was his natural habitat, but he said in that courtroom every single day of the trial and wrote about it endlessly, virtually every day during the trial, and discussed it on his broadcast. And almost every revelation that came out of that trial was funneled through Winchell’s column. The ladder that they found, the handwriting comparisons, the gold notes, all of those things that in those days were as prominent today as the bloody glove and the blood on the Bronco in the OJ Simpson case, all of those things were channeled through Winchell’s column. He had a virtual monopoly on the information in the case, because his sources were so extraordinary. And anyone who had an agenda would use Winchell to achieve that agenda.

Today there is such a proliferation of avenues for material to be dispensed about the OJ Simpson case, that there is certainly not one central funnel through which all of this material flows. And Winchell would have been, I think, in agony that somehow he couldn’t monopolize this event and appropriate this event to him.

Heffner: Did others at the time, to the degree that there were other columnists like him, did they get involved in public issues in the same way that Winchell did?

Gabler: Yes, they did. Yes, they did. In fact, Winchell led the way, initially he was not interested in public issues. But, if you buy my thesis that the line between gossip and public affairs is a very thin one, because of what gossip represents and the function it serves publicity, it was almost inevitable that Winchell was going to make that leap, and with Franklin Roosevelt he did make that leap.

Heffner: But it seemed to me, as I read the book, that your, and the segments on FDR and Winchell are intriguing, that that had to do with Winchell’s devotion to FDR and FDR’s playing Winchell very cleverly.

Gabler: Well, FDR, no one would ever say that FDR wasn’t a canny politician. And even Eleanor Roosevelt once said, that, you know, “I guess I served him like everyone else”, I believe the line was, or something like that. And Walter Winchell served the purposes of FDR as well. FDR wooed Winchell to the White House, talked to Winchell, understood the ways in which Winchell became almost immediately, within weeks, one of FDR’s most vociferous advocates, and remained that way to FDR’s death in April of 1945.

Heffner: But it was with that story, as I read it in your book, that I wondered whether, if it hadn’t been for FDR, whether Winchell would have moved into that direction of commenting to quite such a degree on public issues.

Gabler: Well, I think so. I mean, I think FDR, it might not have happened as quickly – and FDR certainly provided an opportunity – but I think that Winchell, one, was getting bored with gossip. Early on, and he talks about this, he’s very candid in his column. It’s a very interesting phenomenon. When you read these columns, how candid he is about his own craft. He writes again and again how tired he is of writing these columns, how much he would like to retire, how he only does it for the money, how he’s always looking for something else to do. And I think he got bored with gossip. And he said this explicitly later on, that, you know, “Gossip just bores me now when I can deal with the affairs of the world”. So I think that that would have happened.

I think, too, that there was always the political potential within Winchell. That he understood, at some point, the relationship between the cultural democracy he served and the political democracy he could serve. Though it took FDR to really exploit that. But I think someone would have come along at some point and understood, if it hadn’t been FDR it would have been someone else, and in fact, others did come along, who understood how Winchell could function in the political culture. Certainly the Anti-Defamation League understood that in using Winchell’s column to fight the Nazis both abroad and domestically. And others came to Winchell on a regular basis. Civil rights leaders would come to Winchell because they understood the way in which the column could serve their purposes.

Heffner: Now, did McCarthy understand the way in which, Joe McCarthy understand the way in which Winchell could serve his purposes…

Gabler: Absolutely.

Heffner: …or the other way around?

Gabler: I think they understood, that this was a joint understanding, a mutual understanding. McCarthy courted Winchell very, very early, even before the famous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia where he waved his list of communists in the State Department. McCarthy began courting Winchell. He would go to the Stork Club, which was Winchell’s hangout, and they would talk and whatever. But Winchell held back, because Winchell was fearful that McCarthy might be another right-wing anti-Semite. And although most people don’t realize it, Winchell was Jewish. One would never know it from that name. But I think it was an anglozation of Weinchel, which was his original name. So Winchell was very dubious about McCarthy’s courtship. Eventually, McCarthy signed on Roy Cohn to become his counsel of the subcommittee. And Winchell had known Cohn, also through the Stork Club. Cohn was a New York figure. His father had been a judge. And in some ways, I think, the hiring of Cohn met Winchell’s objection or belief that McCarthy might be anti-Semite, because Cohn was Jewish.

Heffner: You know, I ask you a straight question. Did you, by any chance, mute, to any important degree, the relationship between, the supportive relationship between Winchell and McCarthy? Because my recollection – and I remember Winchell very well – yet my recollection was of intense dislike for Winchell because of his connections with Joe McCarthy. In the book there is less, either there is less attention paid to it, or there was less to that connection than I remember.

Gabler: Well, I like to think that I paid, you know, a fair amount of attention. There’s a whole chapter essentially devoted to the relationship between Winchell and McCarthy. And these are relatively long chapters. I don’t think I shortchanged it. I think it was a very important part of Winchell’s consciousness in the Fifties. The reason I give, in the book, in fact, is that, you know, Winchell had a series of enemies and he used McCarthy to attack those enemies in the same what that McCarthy used Winchell to promulgate his policies and make news for him. I don’t think I mitigate that. Winchell himself in later years tried to mitigate it, and try and say that he didn’t’ really have that close a relationship with McCarthy, but in fact he did. And it was the factor that contributed most to his demise, in my estimation.

Heffner: Perhaps it’s because by the time one comes to the McCarthy chapters, you have built – I don’t know whether the word is – such a sympathetic character. But one has lived with Winchell through so much, somehow or other that doesn’t for me, at any rate, as a reader, loom quite as large. And when I picked up the book…

Gabler: I’m pleased to hear that (Laughter)

Heffner: …I wondered why am I here with that SOB Winchell who supported McCarthyism?

Gabler: Well, in a way I’m pleased to hear that. For two reasons. One, as a biographer, one of the things I set out to do is not necessarily to condone Winchell’s behavior, because he and I are politically very, very different. But I do want to, to use a line from John Renoir’s film “Rules of the Game”, “Every man has his reasons”. And I want to explore those reasons. In Winchell’s own, by Winchell’s own likes, to understand why he did what he did. And secondly, if one follows from that, one of the things I try to explain is that Winchell’s alliance with McCarthy is not so simple a thing as the kind of sudden change from the left to the right that so many former Marxists and whatever underwent in the late Forties and early Fifties where there were dogmatists on one side and they suddenly became dogmatists on the other side. Winchell’s is a very complex process that has much more to do with cultural changes in America, very complex cultural change in America, than it has to do with, you know, just a sudden political change of heart. So that I’m pleased to hear you say that. If I’ve allowed the reader to follow those changes in Winchell’s own hand, as Winchell justified those changes – although I don’t ultimately feel that they were justified – but as Winchell justified them, then I think I’ve achieved something of what I wanted to achieve.

Heffner: Again, when it’s all to be summed up, are you pleased that there was a Walter Winchell?

Gabler: Yes I am. Yes I am. Although I think in the end he did good and harm in almost equal measure. He did cultural good. I think he did political harm. But ultimately I’m not sure they cancel one another out. They coexist.

Heffner: It’s so hard for me, I can’t, I admit, to see the cultural good, that window to the world, the power, the empowerment that you talk about.

Gabler: Because you have not lived in a culture, I think, nor have I, where there was nothing burbling up from the bottom, where almost everything was imposed from the top. We all grew up in a culture that in some ways was designed by Walter Winchell. A culture that we may lament. I mean, we may say, “Oh, Hollywood makes terrible movies”. You may say that. (Laughter) Or we may say, “My gosh, I can’t stand these tabloid newspapers.” Or whatever one wants to identify, rock music, or whatever. But all of those things create a cultural pluralism. And there wasn’t that same degree of pluralism. I believe, in American culture before Walter Winchell helped introduce those elements to American television.

Heffner: And as we bring the program to an end, I suppose the fair question is whether that culturalism, multiculturalism – call it what you will — …

Gabler: Yes. (Laughter)

Heffner: …has been for the good or for the bad. Neal Gabler, thank you so much for writing Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity.

Gabler: Thank you very much.

Heffner: Glad you could come. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”