MEMOIR | MEDIA
The Queen of Television News
By Barbara Walters
Knopf. 612 pp. $29.95
Breaking news: Barbara Walters wears fake eyelashes, is afraid to drive, gave up her black married lover to save her career (while his went down the tubes).
These and other true confessions provide the tabloid interest through 600 pages of the network diva's new memoir, Audition. But it's her heartfelt candor that lifts this book above mere titillation. Finally we learn why Walters is so relentless. It's a question I've often pondered watching her on television after beginning my own TV news career 30 years ago. In this engaging and chatty look back at a life largely lived in public view, Walters provides the answer.
As Walters explains it, relentlessness is what comes from a nomadic youth spent following her father's roller-coaster show business career from Boston to New York and Miami. Lou Walters's night club, the Latin Quarter, made him a Broadway legend, but he died in a Florida nursing home, leaving his wife and developmentally disabled adult daughter to be supported by Barbara, who was a single mom. Seeing her own career through the lens of show business, living "just one bad review from closing," Walters admits she always feared her hard-fought success would be taken away. Hence, for all her stellar achievements, we understand her compulsion to prove herself in a never-ending audition.
But blended with this personal drama is a delightful tale of the golden age of television, including the stomach-churning contract negotiations and network rivalries. Through 50-plus chapters, you feel as though you've enjoyed a year of weekly lunches with Walters at Café des Artistes, the famed New York hangout for ABC stars. She regales you with juicy behind-the-scenes details of the celebrities she's interviewed, mixed in with stories of her own trials and tribulations. In the end, you envy her a little less and admire her more.
There are moments when you're tempted to groan -- she has a sycophantic weakness for royalty and at times writes about herself as she would about the Hollywood celebs she relentlessly profiles -- but she quickly corrects course with unexpected candor that is completely disarming. When I opened the chapter "Special Men in My Life," I was tempted to say, "Spare me, please." But, honestly, who can resist hearing what it was like to have "a long and rocky affair" with the elegant, married African American senator Edward Brooke or date the future Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan ("a very nice dancer") and John Warner, the Southern senator once married to Elizabeth Taylor?
By the time you finish reading Audition, Walters has won you over, and you suspect she might be pleasantly surprised, like Sally Field winning her Oscar: "You like me. . . . You like me!"
What you don't expect, after watching Walters's sometimes cloying interview style and well-crafted TV personality for so many years, is her self-reflection and self-effacement. You also don't expect such breezy and clear writing. If Walters really wrote this memoir -- and I suspect she did -- I'm impressed.
Her career began in the 1950s, when she worked behind the scenes at the NBC TV affiliate in New York. She met other people who eventually became media legends: ABC News chief Roone Arledge, CBS's Andy Rooney and New York Times columnist Bill Safire. We watch Walters's ascent from glorified tea pourer to "Today Show" co-host. Recalling relentless public criticism from the critics and her male colleagues, she notes with a chuckle an early Newsweek review of her interviewing style as "dumdum bullets swaddled in angora."