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The Queen of Television News
Told that she didn't speak correctly or have the right look, Barbara Walters became a star interviewer anyway.

Reviewed by Kathleen Matthews
Sunday, May 11, 2008

AUDITION

A Memoir

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."

More hurtful was the critique from legendary "60 Minutes" producer Don Hewitt, who once told her, "You don't have the right looks. And besides, you don't pronounce your r's right." Walters's speech impediment was immortalized in 1976 on "Saturday Night Live" when Gilda Radner proclaimed, "Hewwo! This is Baba Wawa." What really stung was not Radner's caricature, but Time magazine noting that Walters was being paid $100 for each minute of her "weadily wecognizable delivewy" as the million-dollar co-anchor of ABC News. (She admits to trouble with her r's but not her l's and says she went to a speech specialist early in her career but couldn't shed the remnants of what she describes as a Boston accent.) As for Radner's impersonation, Walters admits it was dead-on and she was glad to have a chance to compliment the comedian later.

Her years on the "Today Show" with Hugh Downs and Joe Garagiola were among her best in television. But what followed was perhaps her worst. NBC management paired her with Frank McGee and dictated that she jump in only on the fourth question for big news interviews after he'd asked the first three. Soured, she left to become the first woman network news co-anchor for ABC, but this provided little relief as she faced the big chill from co-anchor Harry Reasoner. She eventually found her oasis in the "Barbara Walters Specials" and later "20/20" where her tenacity to score the big interview was rewarded. Always the overachiever, she created her own TV show, "The View," and, now in her 70s, she continues her Academy Award and "10 Most Fascinating People" specials.

The best part of Audition is that Walters takes us with her on all the big interviews. It's a bit like walking through her office or New York apartment and hearing the stories behind the photos (many included here) that showcase her with the biggest names from the past 50 years of politics and entertainment: Judy Garland, Princess Grace, the Shah of Iran, Golda Meir, Richard Nixon, Fidel Castro, Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, the Dalai Lama, Cher. She shares the struggle of getting a good interview with Warren Beatty and Mel Gibson. She admits her regret that she never interviewed Jackie Kennedy, Princess Di, Queen Elizabeth or the current and past popes.

Perhaps so many years of prying into the personal lives of others and probing for vulnerabilities compel Walters to pull away the scabs of the insults and injuries she's endured. Quite matter-of-factly, she re-lives the heartbreak of three unsuccessful marriages. More poignantly, she recalls the disappointments of several failed pregnancies and the ecstasy of adopting Jackie, whom she named after her disabled sister. "The Hardest Chapter to Write" describes her daughter's rebellious teen years, when Jackie was derailed by drug use and ran away from home. Walters shares these confidences with the blessing of her now happy adult daughter to "give hope to other parents who are struggling with their own adolescents' hard-to-understand emotions and rebellion." For someone who lived her life on television, sharing these most painful years, "which, in truth," she says, "I would rather not remember," is perhaps the best therapy.

This, we now understand, is what Walters means when she tells aspiring young people that if they want to pursue a career like hers, "Then you have to take the whole package." I must admit, I was one of those young women who cheekily wrote Walters a letter asking for advice after college. I also rejected her well-known admonition that women " can't have it all -- a great marriage, successful career, and well-adjusted children -- at least not at the same time." In Audition, Walters shows us the challenges she faced as a trailblazing, mostly single, working mom. But she also inspires and entertains us with a life of accomplishment.

Rose Kennedy once told her in an interview, "I know not age or weariness of defeat," which aptly captures Walters's own sentiments as she faces retirement. And that leads me to my last question: After writing this book, has Walters done her last audition? Somehow, I think not. ·

Kathleen Matthews worked for 30 years at Washington's ABC News affiliate as a producer, reporter and news anchor.

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