Although now largely forgotten, Walter Winchell was a household name in the 1930’s and 1940’s, known to virtually every adult citizen of the United States through either his daily newspaper column or his weekly radio broadcast. Film historian Neal Gabler’s biography chronicles the rise and fall of this ambitious, driven man: his poverty-stricken childhood in Harlem; his career as a second-rate vaudeville performer; his long reign as America’s most famous show-business reporter; and his long decline, years that saw him stripped of his power and influence.
Gabler argues convincingly that Winchell should be seen as nothing less than a creator of contemporary culture. In the early 1920’s, when even a birth announcement was considered an invasion of a public figure’s privacy, Winchell upset the still-conservative newspaper establishment by printing scandalous items about extramarital affairs and shady business dealings in the New York theater world. One of the original sensationalist journalists, Winchell covered such stories as the 1935 Lindbergh kidnapping trial in a way that deliberately blurred the line between news and entertainment.
At the height of his popularity and influence, Winchell was courted not only by entertainment personalities but also by political figures such as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Yet it was politics that in many ways led to his descent from popularity: As Winchell had once championed the liberal Roosevelt in the 1930’s, he unwisely embraced the arch conservative Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950’s, and so became implicated in one of the most notorious episodes in recent American history. Gabler’s portrait of Winchell’s final years is especially affecting, depicting as it does the decline of an American rags-to-riches legend.