The Harder They Fall!
The Decline and Crash
Walter Winchell and Don Imus
Richard J. Garfunkel
Quo dues vult perdere prius demontrat is Latin for “Those whom God wishes to destroy, he first makes mad.”
In a sense both of these media giants were made mad with their lust for power, acceptance, love and respect. Their ego and self-adulation made them lose focus over both the real and corporate world that allowed them so much freedom and rewards. It could be said that they were the ultimate victims of a self-delusion that allowed them to believe that they were permanently invulnerable and that they had built an impenetrable firewall buttressed by their charitable works and constructed on the backs of a never ending supply of sponsors, sycophants, and fans who craved more and more.
The comparisons of the persona and the careers of Don Imus (1940-) and Walter Winchell (1897-1972) seem to have some interesting parallels. Though they both came from incredibly different backgrounds, and their careers never overlapped, their dominance of the media and their ability to blend the elements of entertainment and politics had some distinct similarities. Both of them had long careers that bridged the gap from one generation to another, and both of their careers were filled with controversy, disputes, feuds, personality conflicts, and ultimately quick and agonizing declines. At the time of their fatal mistake and collapse, both were thought to be at the peak of their power and influence. But, in reality, they had peaked earlier, and their quick slide into ignominy, was caused by what seemed at the time as minor incidents. But neither individual had a vast public reservoir of universal support. In the case of Don Imus, who had established a long career in morning radio that went back into the late 1960’s, he had alienated many, many people over the decades. Even though Imus, like Winchell, had developed a strong political and journalistic following, in the end it could not save him from public censure and unhappiness.
Imus, who had earlier developed a program that thrived on iconoclasm, was able in the last decade to, with the immense help of Newsweek and the NBC network, and others, bring in the most important political and journalistic stars of the current era. Eventually The NY Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the network anchors flocked to the Imus Ranch. (The one in New York, not New Mexico.) The political joke in all of this was that Imus and his cohorts were not liberal. If anything, Imus was a populist-leaning libertarian who gave “lip-service” to candidates from all over the political spectrum from Rick Santorum, to Harold Ford Jr., to John McCain, to Joe Lieberman to Charles Schumer. His closest assistants, Charles McCord and Bernard McGirk were definitively not liberals, by any stretch of the imagination, but on the air, they humored the ephemeral Imus, who knew instinctively ho to blow with the current political breezes. Besides all of that, he paid them handsomely. Interestingly, the majority of journalists who regularly appeared his show would have been thought as moderates or liberals, but he was also quite comfortable with Pat Buchanan, David Brooks, Mary Matalin, and a number of others. He did think Rush Limbaugh was an overweight, pill-popping, blowhard, but that was probably because his New York audience leaned that way also. But, like Walter Winchell, who was able to blend entertainment, gossip and politics together, and made vicious comments a habit, an on-the-air offensive and derogatory remark by McGirk and Imus about the Rutgers’s women’s basketball team snowballed into a fatal landslide of indignant public outrage. In the case of Don Imus it wasn’t his audience that wore blinders or his willing accomplices and his friends in the political world or the media that did him in. It was his sponsors, the mother’s milk of all commercial entertainment. They ran from him as if he were the reincarnation of “Typhoid Mary.” The news of his remarks smoldered like a delayed-fuse bomb. The remarks churned around the Internet and sites like Media Matters picked them up and started to re-hash his other racial and religious diatribes. Of course, if anyone were concerned about bigotry on this radio show Imus in the Morning, you should just “get over it.” That’s what Imus told Jeff Greenfield on CNN’s, Larry King Live in February of 2000. But of course calling African-American journalist Gwen Ifill “a cleaning lady, “ and tennis player Amelie Mauresmo “a big old lesbo,” or Len Berman of NBC sports as “Len the Jew,” didn’t mean much to Imus. He even told 60 Minutes that he hired Bernard McGirk to do “N-g–r” jokes in 1998. But to Imus that was a long, long, time ago. He also originally denied that he had said that or had hired McGirk for that reason!
Unfortunately discerning listeners knew better. Of course, the “wonderful” Mr. Imus has characterized his hundreds and probably thousands of slurs and insults as parody and political satire. Of recent date, he decided that his sketches of General Patton and Richard Nixon were too out of date, so he started in with ones about Cardinals Egan and O’Connor. He used to like Bill Clinton, but when Clinton became President and didn’t have time for the “new” Don, Imus went to Washington D.C. one evening, hosted a dinner for the Clintons and proceeded to excoriate the President and the First Lady. As of the other day, he has had his own version of Bill Clinton ready and able to spout some Arkansan “down home” remarks, and he casually refers to Senator Hillary Clinton as the worst person in the world or the devil incarnate. Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, a Black journalist who has two Pulitzer Prizes on his fireplace, used to be a guest on the Imus Show. Paige, after recognizing Imus for what he was, had Imus pledge, with his hand high in the air, that he would not make racial slurs again. Imus made the pledge in 2001. I think Paige was sick of hearing Imus referring to blacks as gorillas or “simian references to black athletes.” Not to anyone’s surprise or it seems to Paige himself, he hadn’t been invited back since that day.
Similarly in the late 1950’s the long, controversial, and successful run of Walter Winchell came to a shattering end. He was a phenomenon who had emerged from the roaring 1920’s, when the era of mass media really came alive. Winchell was a vaudeville hoofer in his teens and started his famous and unprecedented journalistic career by posting gossip notes about people within the troupe of performers. He gravitated from entertainment to news reporting when he started with the New York Evening Graphic. Of course his style was unique, and he was the first person to reveal the names and the private stories of the rich and famous. But of course his success was not wholly dependent on the lurid details that he revealed. His style was unique, his writing broke the mold that had characterized most columnists of the day, and he wrote in a staccato rhythm punctuated by slang and choppy phraseology. He was a creator of a new journalistic language that included words like; scram, pushover and belly laughs.
Imus on the other hand was born in California and served in the Marine Corp in the late 1950’s after he dropped out of high school. He bummed around as a miner, a gas station jockey and a railway worker. He even worked in a rock band. He started his radio career in 1966 in Palmdale California as a disc jockey, stayed for two years or so, got hired on at KJOY in Stockton and was fired for saying “hell” on the air. Times have really changed, haven’t they! From there he went to KXOA in Sacramento and WGAR-AM in Cleveland. In 1971 he began work wound up in New York on WNBC-660 AM.
In the 1930’s, as the radio media became so incredibly important, Winchell eventually expanded his career to the airways and opened his broadcasts by pressing intermittently on a telegraph key. It created urgency about his program and about what he wished to say. His audience was always on the edge their seat and his delivery was fast, urgent, and powerful. Few who heard him would forget his “Good Morning Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. This is Walter Winchell in New York. Let’s go to press.”
After the demise of the scatological oriented Graphic, Winchell started his 34-year run with the New York Daily Mirror. The Mirror, which folded on October 16, 1963 after a 114-day newspaper strike, was basically a tabloid devoted to three elements; sleaze, horse racing and Walter Winchell. It was founded by William Randolph Hearst as a rival to the New York Daily News, another very popular news tabloid, which was devoted to sensationalism, gossip and lurid sex. The Mirror was published a number of times each day. Basically its numerous editions were to update the racing results as the news came in from the Aqueduct, Belmont or Saratoga. Race Tracks. (Which ever happened to be open.) I remember riding in a cab with my grandfather, John Kivo, in New York City, along 3rd Avenue, in the early 1960’s. He, I soon learned, frequently wagered on the horses. Often he placed bets with a “bookie” and on that day he wanted to know the results of a specific race of which I knew nothing. He therefore asked the cab to pull over, and told me to get out and run over to a newsstand and pick up the Mirror. The paper was a thin “rag” with barely any news. Its front page was always festooned with banner headlines and usually a large lurid picture. Inside the front cover, there was a page or so of gossipy news, some cartoons, very little legitimate advertising, and four or five pages of horse racing news, tout sheets and results. Even their sports section was pretty sparse.
Of course Hearst and the Mirror hired Winchell, and this “rag” became his “main” paper. Eventually he was syndicated in 2000 newspapers and was given a radio show as early as 1930 and a TV show in the early 1950’s. He was well connected with many people in high places and became the repository of a great deal of malicious gossip. There were many people who used Winchell and his column as a very willing collaborator in the destruction of people whom his sources didn’t like. In the 1930’s he became an early anti-Nazi advocate and became the darling of the liberals. Even FDR made sure that he was fed many exclusives.
At the same time, in the 1930’s at the peak of his power, which emanated from Broadway and was syndicated around the country, more competition started to evolve in Hollywood. Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper became almost as famous as Winchell. Hedda Hopper, the daughter of a butcher from Hollidaysburg, Pa., was one of nine children. She ran off to New York to escape her Quaker neighborhood just outside of Altoona, and met De Wolf Hopper, an aging, but imposing and broken down actor who had been married four times. By 1935, the thin and pretty now named Hedda, who had done some stage work and movies, was fifty years old, divorced and out of work. Her friend Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson, the publisher of the Washington Herald suggested she start a column, and call it Letter from Hollywood. This put her in direct competition with the established grande doyenne of the Hollywood gossip set, Louella Parsons. The more homely and rotund Parsons was born in 1896 and was from Dixon, Illinois. After working tirelessly in Chicago for the Record-Herald writing film reviews and features, the paper collapsed and was merged into the Hearst paper, The American. She was married, divorced and lost her job, but found employment with the New York Morning-Telegraph. Five years later she assumed her same type of work with Hearst’s New York American. Eventually she made friends with the actress Marion Davies who happened to be the mistress of William Randolph Hearst. She went to Los Angeles on an excursion in 1925, was feted by the Hollywood community who was awed by her column and her influence with Davies and therefore Hearst. She had a bout of tuberculosis in New York and returned for further recuperation to the warmer climate of southern California. It was in Los Angeles that the plain and roundish Ms. Parsons found her spiritual home. She was invited to stay there permanently by Hearst, and he made her the motion-picture editor of his Universal News Service.
These long time rivals loathed each other. But no matter how they acted they were very similar to each other. They were both politically rightwing, narrow-minded, small town oriented and prudish. They fit right in a community that was also conservative and on the surface sexually inhibited and proper. They used gossip as a threat to keep the Hollywood stars and personalities in line. Basically because these gossip columnists were used by the film industry in this method, as a “control” factor, and not as a malicious cudgel, they therefore never had the power of Winchell.
Imus meanwhile finally hit it big in New York with his first successful parody based on his character the Reverend Billy Sol Hargis, aplay on a preacher with almost the same name, and Texas oil-swindler, Billy Sol Estes. But success did spoil Don Imus and WNBC fired him for his cocaine and vodka abuse. Eventually after drying out, he was again hired by WNBC in 1979. The corporate “suits” must have been gluttons for punishment. The station also hired the infamous Howard Stern during the period of 1982-5. Though they started as colleagues they soon became heated rivals, and it has been said that Imus abandoned much of his old routines and copied Stern’s format. Stern blasted Imus regularly and accused him of creating a staff of adversarial personalities, expanding his audience through syndication and bringing TV cameras into the radio studio. For sure his show and his so-called humor radically changed after the appearance of Stern on WNBC-Radio.
Winchell, after years of dominating news and gossip in the press and on the radio, like his Hollywood counterparts, basked in the essence of his overwhelming power. He had few real friends, and his associates were basically limited to his fellow professionals with whom he rubbed up against at his favorite watering hole the Stork Club. When Leonard Lyons, one of his contemporaries, and the father of my great friend the late George Lyons, wrote a story about how Jack Haley’s voice had been dubbed by Buddy Clark in the 1932 movie, loosely based on Winchell, Wake Up and Live, Winchell went ballistic. He accused Lyons of betraying him. He said in a telegram to Lyons, “I’m tired of my intimates annoying me, and I am tired of having to worry about reminding them to do something or not do to something.” In other words Winchell thought that “good friend” Lyons was “scooping” him on his own movie!
The seething Lyons finally wrote him an answer. He later stated “…if I was a real pal of Winchell’s, I’d show it just like his other real pals do – by becoming a parasitic sycophant, taking dough from stars to get their names into Winchell’s column, and bleeding a living out of them.” Over the years Winchell and Lyons would spar over many issues. Eventually the political Winchell, who loved Franklin Roosevelt, became annoyed with Lyons who was close to FDR’s successor, Harry S Truman.
Of course, Winchell eventually became deeply into politics and was privy to a great deal of insider information from Washington. One of his sources was one Ernest Cuneo, (Later an OSS founder, a friend of Ian Fleming) the associate counsel of the Democratic National Committee. Cuneo was a big guy, weighing almost 300 pounds and was called, not so affectionately “fatso” by Winchell. Cuneo was from New Jersey, went to Penn State on a football scholarship and dropped out mysteriously. Later on he transferred to Columbia University, became influenced on campus by Drew Pearson and Adolf Berle and became an advocate of social justice and liberalism. At Columbia, he starred in football and became an All-American. Eventually after graduating from St. John’s law school he landed a job in New York City working for Mayor LaGuardia. When FDR was elected, he got a job in his administration working as a trouble-shooter for the famous Thomas “Tommy the Cork” Corcoran; a legendary Harvard educated Washington fixer. With all of the machinations that surrounded FDR’s potential acceptance of a 3rd term, it was Cuneo, who is made contact with Winchell, and it was through Winchell that talk of a 3rd term started to be floated. Eventually Winchell’s column and radio show became the clarion that blared out the “Draft Roosevelt” message in 1938. This effort became a very valuable tool for Roosevelt’s supporters who constantly denied, through many strategic leaks, that the President would seek a 3rd term.
Of course, Winchell aggressively pushed for re-armament and a two-ocean navy, and with the administration’s blessing took on Congressmen and Senators who were opposed. He confronted was Representative Jacob Thorkelson of Montana., whom he branded the “mouthpiece of the Nazi movement in Congress.” Thorkelson demanded equal time to rebut Winchell, eventually denounced him on the floor of Congress as a “Jewish vilifier” who slanders anyone “who cannot see eye to eye with his own organized minority.” Three weeks later he was defeated in the primary in his state.
Winchell’s story is long and complicated, but for sure he was the “King of the Media.”
The Mount Airy Times said of Winchell, “There is today a 100% American – a man who for the future sake of this country should exist not as an individual but in innumerable numbers. He is Walter Winchell, one of the most intelligent men ever to speak into a microphone or write for a newspaper.” Of course he had his detractors and one of the worse was Westbrook Pegler, a hater of the Roosevelt’s, whose own pen, according to Harold Ickes, was so venomous the he would no more think of reading him than he would of handling raw sewage.
On the other hand, Don Imus, and his crew led by McCord and McGirk, unlike Winchell, who was Jewish, and would never indulge in any racial or religious epithets, were repeatedly accused of racism, misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism. In December of 2004, Imus referred to his publishers Simon & Shuster as “thieving Jews,” and later in the show issued a mock apology, saying the phrase was “redundant.” He once referred to Media critic Howard Kurtz as “that boner-nosed…beanie-wearing Jew boy.” In fact he constantly referred to certain journalists who were Jewish about not believing in the “baby Jesus.”
Unlike the new, super, self-confidant Don Imus of the late 1990’s, Walter Winchell, who was not an intolerant individual, seemed always insecure. The thought of his own journalistic demise had floated through his mind since the end of World War II and ironically his long tortuous slide to self-destruction finely began at 11:15 pm on October 16, 1951 in the Stork Club, because of a racial issue!
Josephine Baker, who was part of a chorus line in New York, was invited in 1925 to join a troupe of black dancers in a tour of France. She became the sensation of Paris and within a year opened her own club in Paris. She remained in France, became a great star and claimed French citizenship. She became so famous with her stage act that she was also invited to make movies, which included the successful films Zouzou (1934) and Princess Tamtam (1935). She was so well known and popular that even the Nazis, who occupied France during World War II, left her alone. This allowed Baker the freedom to help her adopted new homeland and she secretly worked for the resistance (FFI- Free French of the Interior). After the war her grateful and adopted country awarded her the Croix de Guerre, among many other decorations for her heroism.
She decided to come back to America, and she contemplated offers from various sources. She was offered engagements that paid from $10,000 to $20,000 per week. But the America she returned to in 1951 was still a captive of Jim Crow in both the south and many places in the north. Winchell, who had done many things for the Black-American community and was a symbol of racial toleration and liberalism, was very friendly with Sherman Billingsley, (1900-1966), the owner and operator of the Stork Club that was located at 3 East 53rd Street. Billingsley was an ex-bootlegger from Enid, Oklahoma, whose mistress, for many years was Ethel Merman. She was the one who introduced him to Walter Winchell. It was a watering hole for the rich and famous, which included, at times, Hemingway, Chaplin, J. Edgar Hoover, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Roosevelt’s, the Harriman’s, Judy Garland, the Kennedy’s, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and many others. There was even a television series that featured Billingsley and the club from 1950 through 1955. The Cub Room or sanctum, sanctorum was guarded by a captain named “Saint Peter,” and it was off limits to most.
When Baker arrived at the Stork Club with her husband, Jo Buoullon, another friend, Bessie Buchanan, and Mr. and Mrs. Roger Rico, they were seated, and according to Baker she ordered crab salad, steak and a bottle of French wine. Interestingly her friends received their meals and she did not. After an hour wait and other slights, Rico, who was friendly with Billingsley, demanded that her meal be brought. In the meantime, Winchell, who was always at his regular table (number 50) saw Baker and her friends come in and acknowledged her presence. He certainly knew she was there, and may not have known what had happened at her table, and eventually left before she and her party had finished. Eventually her friend urged her to inform the NAACP about her treatment. Baker called Walter White, the head of the NCAAP and complained. According to Winchell, he had left before this “so-called” incident happened, saw nothing and departed. Of course this version was changed in later years. Eventually Winchell got dragged into the ensuing and ongoing controversy that eventually involved Thurgood Marshall, the counsel for the NAACP and many others. Winchell had a long and well-documented history of helping out blacks who had gotten in trouble during World War II. He had fought for the decorating of the late Seaman Dorrie Miller, who was a hero at Pearl Harbor and later killed in action. He personally intervened with President Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt on the behalf of many blacks who were caught up in the Jim Crow criminal justice system that stretched from the south even to South Dakota. He helped the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson in Miami, and took black friends into Lindy’s restaurant in New York.
As the “Baker Incident” became more radioactive, Winchell got wrapped up with all of his excuses, the lies by Billingsley, the efforts by his political friends to insulate him from the incident, his friendship with Billingsley and the demands by Walter White to set the record straight. White wanted him to sign a simple statement that he would thenceforth not patronize the Stork Club or encourage others to do so. The issue became a personal one between Winchell and White and it escalated by the hour. Eventually it came down to those who thought that the issue was over civil rights and that the Stork Club’s policies were a perfect example of discriminatory practices. On the other side were all the others who thought Baker had created a “tempest in a teapot.” But Winchell was caught between his personal feelings, his long history of fighting for the underdog, and his belief in civil rights and his friendship with Billingsley and his headquarters at the Stork Club. Billingsley was still essentially an Oklahoma farm boy and therefore he refused to write a conciliatory letter to White and the NAACP and eventually wrote an inflammatory letter, which he later denied. The letter was a horror. It basically stated that he would never serve obnoxious people, and that his “trade” did not want to associate with that sort. On top of that he stated that Walter Winchell was not involved and shouldn’t be dragged into the conflict. Billingsley’s brother Logan denied that his brother was a racist. But he told the NY Post, “You know, he cares only for the finest people and it wouldn’t do him any good to let all the N-gg—s in there.”
Of course, the public was made aware of this incident and picketing ensued at the Stork Club. Winchell went on the offensive against Josephine Baker. He dug up everything, accused her of fascist leanings, and kept up the assault. With an issue that should have pitted Billingsley against Baker, Winchell made it his fight.
Many of Winchell’s old enemies like Ed Sullivan (1901-1974, who took over his column at the Graphic and was the host of the Toast of the Town on CBS-TV from 1948-1971),
Sullivan lived in the Delmonico Hotel with his wife Sylvia Weinstein from 1930 to her death in 1973. My grandfather lived on the same floor, and casually knew both Sullivan and Phil Silvers, who also lived in that famous Park Avenue domicile. My grandfather loved to tell me that “Old Stone Face,” as Sullivan was known, used to say hello by saying, “Pops where can one get a good Jewish meal around here?”
Barry Gray (1916-1996, born Bernard Yaroslaw, was called the Father of Talk Radio. He hosted shows on WOR and WMCA from 1945-1989 and was called “Borey Pink” by the red-baiting Winchell) and James Wechsler (1915-1983) of the NY Post started to align themselves with other Winchell haters, and they all moved in for the kill. The more he attacked Baker and defended himself, the more his old allies on the “left” abandoned him. Eventually he was isolated from all of his old friends from the halcyon days of the New Deal and the war. It was a different era and Winchell started to attach himself to the new wave that Joe McCarthy was riding. But McCarthy’s old and new friends despised Winchell. He had no new allies from his old audience and his listeners. And readers started to drift away. His popularity on radio and television had crested and started to slip. In fact, when his few friends and many foes alike criticized or attacked Winchell, he used his control of the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund as a lever against their taunts and barbs.
As per example, when Jack Paar (1918-2004), had become the host of the wildly popular Tonight Show (1957-1962)he had Elsa Maxwell (1883-1963, the most famous party giver in New York’s social history- “The Hostess with the Mostest”) as his guest. She accused Winchell of hypocrisy for waving the flag while never having voted. Parr, an earlier victim of one of Winchell’s inaccuracies joined in the criticism. Winchell, from Hollywood called Maxwell a, “fat, sloppy, smelly c—t” and threatened to sue each of Paar’s sponsors for having damaged the Runyon Fund. Winchell, with the help of Leonard Lyons, Dan Parker, Leo “Lindy” Linderman had created the Fund in the name of the writer Damon Runyon, (1884-1946, a Broadway writer and columnist who created the characters who were immortalized in “Guys and Dolls”). Runyon was his friend and he had succumbed to the disease in 1946. The Fund, which Winchell controlled as the treasurer, and constantly promoted, raised over $100 million for cancer research. The sparring between Winchell and his old buddies continued when Runyon board member Leonard Lyons, wrote in early 1951 to the fund’s president Dan Parker with a new list of questions about the fund and its allocation of monies. He had learned through media announcements about new appointments to the fund’s committee and claimed that the organization shouldn’t be used as a one-man (Winchell’s) operation. Eventually, Morris Ernst the fund’s attorney complained that the fund’s legal affairs were a mess, and he generally agreed with Lyon’s complaints. Winchell’s representative, and lawyer Ernest Cuneo addressed the fund’s board meeting in September of that year. Cuneo stated that the Board must choose between Winchell and Lyons, and if Lyons did not quit Winchell would. Winchell held the proxies, and Lyons was forced to resign. After the coup d’etat was accomplished, Sherman Billingsley was asked to take Lyons’s position on the board, and Marlene Dietrich, Milton Berle, and Sugar Ray Robinson were added to the board with their proxies to be held by Winchell. Lyons, who worked for the NewYork Post, never backed his papers editorial and reporting attacks on Winchell, but that didn’t end their battle. Winchell could never forgive anyone, and continued to publicly attack him. Eventually Lyons would not stay in the same room with him, and with the shabby treatment he received by Billingsley, he stopped going to the Stork Club.
Like Winchell, Don Imus is and was also involved heavily in charity. He’s truly a sentimentalist at heart and started an over the air campaign to raise money to fight Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and operates the Imus Ranch for children with cancer. He helped raise many millions for the Center for the Intrepid, a Texas rehabilitative facility and took on the Veteran’s Administration over its Walter Reed abuses. But when the Wall Street Journal’s reporter, Robert Frank, wrote an article that raised questions about the New York State Attorney-General’s tax inquiry into the Imus Ranch, he went almost insane. He harassed Frank with unremitting venom. This was typical of Imus. Anyone who wrote an article about him that he thought was unflattering or anyone that missed going on his show or displeased him he attacked with savagery. By attacking Imus they were attacking kids with cancers, the wounded veterans, and parents who lost their child to SIDS. Even Ms. Mary “Cokie” Roberts, an ABC-TV journalist, and the daughter of the late Hale Boggs, former Democratic Majority Leader, (her mother Lindy Boggs, also served in the House of Representatives) who was killed in a plane crash, who had been a frequent guest on his show, decided not to come back on his program, was excoriated for a whole week. She eventually decided to come back for a “token” appearance. It was better for her to switch than fight. So in a way, Imus, like Winchell seemed quite sincere about charity, but for sure they both used it as “defense” against attacks on their characters.
The “Baker Incident,” at the Stork Club, did not suddenly end Walter Winchell’s spectacular career. But at age 54, after 25 incredible years, his high water mark was met, crested and never exceeded. It wasn’t that his collapse happened immediately because of this one foolish, stupid, and egregious act. His career, which was permeated and pockmarked with fights, feuds, and pettiness, reflected his arrogance and the hypnotic and addictiveness of power. After the war and the death of his idol Franklin Roosevelt, his power started to gradually wane. His shifting allegiance away from the progressive philosophy of the New Deal and the anti-fascists led him to darker alliances with the anti-communists and their movement. His involvement with McCarthy, Roy Cohn and many others of that ilk poisoned him with his old contacts and sources. It seem he needed a new “cause” and the one that searched out and exposed the so-called “pinkos” and “fellow-travelers” in our society fit him well.
Over the rest of his life he struggled to hold on to that massive audience that he once held in the palms of his hands. His personal life, which included wife (common-law), his estranged children, and their failed lives, his girl friends, and former associates, was a disaster. By the time of his death in 1972, from the effects of prostate cancer, his influence and name had completely disappeared from the view of his former public. By 1972, it had been years since he could call anyone a friend. His family had disappeared because of death, suicide, and estrangement. It was a long and slow social and spiritual decline. It was in a sense the “long goodbye.” In the hard-hitting 1957 movie, The Sweet Smell of Success, written by Clifford Odets, starring Burt Lancaster, a character loosely based on Winchell, and Tony Curtis as his “stooge,” the film conveys the viciousness of the business that Winchell basically invented. There is no doubt that the life of Walter Winchell reflects the famous statement by Lord John Emerich Acton, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (1887). Power corrupted Winchell completely and he believed that he was some kind of avenging god. But in truth, he was as mortal as anyone else and if anything he had become a demagogue. At the end he was alone, an empty and lonely vessel. Though his obituary was on the front page of The NY Times, it seemed no one really cared. He had faded so fast from the public eye in the last decade of his life, and even though he outlived many of his enemies, he had become irrelevant. In a sense that was his greatest fear. At his funeral only two people attended. What a fitting end to a man who had alienated almost all of whom he knew. What a climax to a man who had deluded himself over his self-importance. Eventually the era that had spawned copycats like Sullivan, Dorothy Kilgallan, Earl Wilson, Jack O’Brian, Leonard Lyons, and scores of others would come to an end as the newspaper industry shrunk to a fraction of its former self. No one ever reached the stratospheric heights that Winchell has ascended to and therefore the same fall!
The incident involving the Imus in the Morning program and the eventual termination of Don Imus’s career started, in his mind, innocently. There was no big controversy. There was no huge issue. It wasn’t the war, or the Bush administration, or Hillary, or Walter Reed Hospital, or Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Syria, or Attorney-General Gonzales’ upcoming testimony, or a myriad of other serious things out there to criticize. The local story was that morning was the Rutgers’s women’s basketball team’s Cinderella story had ended with a defeat in the NCAA Women’s basketball finals. During their normal sport’s segment, a tape of the final game, pitting the Lady Scarlet Knights versus the Tennessee Volunteers was played. Imus and his crew was used to hearing thousands of sport’s reports throughout the years. Every morning one of their “team” reviewed the past evening’s action. Imus had the obnoxious Sid Rosenberg on for a period of time. But Sid, who had a reputation of being a gambler, a drug abuser, and one who “ran around,” had become even too radioactive for Imus. He was one who had characterized the tennis-playing Williams sisters as women who were animals and would be a better fit for the National Geographic than Playboy! Eventually Rosenberg, who was a reprobate at best, made fun of singer Kylie Minogue’s breast cancer diagnosis, “She won’t look so pretty when she’s bald with one t–.” That was even too much for Imus and he was fired in September of 2005. After nine months, WAXY 790, in Miami, eventually hired him. Rosenberg had also been co-hosting a WFAN sports segment from 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM and because of his substance abuse problems, tardiness and a missed assignment he went from the WFAN to rehab to exile out of New York radio. His replacement, a WFAN update guy, named Chris Carlin, was the new Imus sports reporter. Carlin, who was quite heavy, became the butt of the Imus brand of vicious humor every morning. Carlin, a straight shooter, who did not join in with the Imus repartee was seen by him as a bit dull and boring. In truth Carlin was an up and coming professional sports announcer, who like others on the station, broadcasted football and basketball for local schools like Rutgers or St. Johns. Because Carlin never fit in regarding the Imus comedy routine and picking on him every day became boring and tasteless, Sid Rosenberg was returned gradually to the fold. Rosenberg was a perfect foil for Imus and his brand of irrelevant humor, which was laced with scatological innuendos, sexual double-ententes, and iconoclastic irreverence, fitted comfortably into the Imus mold.
Of course this set the stage for what was to be their cataclysmic moment. The only real sports story that morning was the defeat of the Rutgers’s team by the powerful Tennessee perennial champs, and since the program was simulcast on MSNBC, they played a segment of the game. Imus looked at the monitor and stated, “That’s some rough girls from Rutgers” and “man they got tattoos…” McGirk, his sidekick, chimed in, “Some hardcore ho’s.” Imus then added, “That’s some nappy headed ho’s there, I’m going to tell you that.” He went on to add, “The girls from Tennessee, they all look cute, kinda like a Spike Lee thing – the jigaboos versus the wannabees.”
When these statements were uttered, there were no biblical thunderclaps. There was no dramatic pause or feelings that they had stepped into a field of landmines that would eventually destroy them and their programming future. No it was business as usual. It was back to the irreverent “fun and games” that always was the base of the Imus format. Imus, as with the late and obviously unlamented Walter Winchell, was built of sterner stuff and remarks critical of friend and foe had been rolling off his tongue for decades. Did he reflect one iota on what he and his foil had just said? No way! They could care less. They had broadcasted decades of weekly programming with material that “played the edge” on race, religion, gender, and disability. Therefore, the stage was set, the drama had been put in place and the slow ticking time-bomb of public opinion was set and there was no way to reverse the consequence. Imus has built a career on tearing down the so-called powerful. He had made his name in the last decade by inviting the famous and powerful of journalism to his salon. He had become a forum for the politicians and their political views. Therefore they became his “fig-leaf.” They became his “willing executioners” in the words of Daniel Goldhagen. Their appearances had sanctioned his bombast, his “hissy” fits, his faux outages, and his iconoclastic crusades. To oppose Imus one had to take on his media platform, his charity work, the cure for SIDS, his children’s crusade against autism and cancer. He was really a misunderstood knight in shining armor that was opposing the forces of evil. In his own words, “he was a good man.”
But finally in the immortal words of Martin Niemeller (1892-1984), the German Protestant clergyman of the Hitler era, “In Germany they came first for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionists. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.” Finally some one spoke up and it was heard.
The Harder They Fall– by Budd Shulberg (the Title)
Winchell; Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity– by Neal Gabler- reference and background!
The Interent- Wikipedia- available to all!