THR Web Features   /   July 11, 2023

Who’s Afraid of Barbara Wawa?

It’s Wonderful to Be Somebody

James Conaway

( Left: George W. Romney and Barbara Walters with President Richard Nixon,1969, public domain, White House Photo Office Collection.,_George_W._Romney,_and_Barbara_Walters.jpg; Right: Barbara Walters interviewing Gerald and Betty Ford, 1976; Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, Image B2386-12A; public domain, work of US Federal Government.; Center: Barbara Walters’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; Shutterstock.)

“How would you like to profile Barbara Walters?”

The caller, an editor at the New York Times Magazine named Harvey Shapiro, is also a poet and a native as gravel-voiced, tough, and fair as any editor I will ever meet. That I have no idea who Barbara Walters is doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that this is the Times. I will profile anyone or anything to get in it since I have no job and no health insurance and my wife and two children have just got off a bus from La Guardia Airport after flying in from London.

By now I know that assignments from the Times Magazine are found money for struggling young writers. Seven hundred and fifty dollars plus expenses isn’t much even in 1971, but the chance of appearing in the most influential newspaper in America most certainly is. The kill fee’s only two hundred dollars and a lot of those are paid out to first-timers who never get a second chance. The Times Magazine may be famous for spiking stuff, but it treats everyone alike.

Penny, Brennan and little Jess and I are now living on Penny’s grandmother’s farm down in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, not too far from New York. But it’s about to sold to a developer. Meanwhile we’re living there as people actually said back then, “off the land,” not by choice but necessity. That means shooting pheasant out of season with an old double-barreled shotgun, eating soybeans Penny has taught herself to cook after a sack of them is dropped off on our doorstep by the man farming the land. Also a deer Penny’s uncle Sonny blesses us with, and hard cider I make in old pop bottles that tend to explode in the cellar. We get fresh milk in an enamel jug with an inch of cream on top.  So things could be a lot worse.

We celebrate the night I get the assignment by eating yet another pheasant and discovering who this Barbara Walters is. Living in Europe for four years meant being cut off from American culture, particularly from the morning talk shows and particularly what proves to be a brassy, promotional Today Show ranging from chat about the newest books to interviews with the president of the United States.

By the time we get the ancient television set to work the next morning, I know Barbara Walters has interviewed such exalted people as Richard Nixon, Prince Philip, and Henry Ford. Eight million Americans watch her every day, and her thumb on the pop cultural scale often means the difference between improbable success and ignominious failure.

What I see on the screen is a 40-year-old woman with a curiously rigid upper lip and an accent that seems to have foundered somewhere between Boston and the Bronx. Today is in its twentieth year and Barbara’s the only woman in television to occupy such an exalted spot. Even I get that this is a big deal.

I telephone the National Broadcasting Company long distance and leave what I think is a properly restrained message with an operator, when in fact it feels like a crank call. “My name’s James Conaway and this is my telephone number. I’ve been asked by the New York Times Magazine to profile Barbara Walters.”

I don’t know what to expect but am prepared for prolonged, possible eternal silence. The opposite occurs. Barbara Walters herself calls me back within minutes and without ado says, “Me in The New York Times Magazine? Wow! I’m smiling and kind of frightened. I don’t expect anybody to do a puff piece, but some nice things have happened to me. I’ll talk to you if you’re a friend.”

Clearly I’m not a friend. I am tongue-tied, flat-footed. A journalist can’t honestly respond to such a request, but I want this to proceed. Walters doesn’t push it. She pencils me into her calendar for the day after tomorrow and hangs up.

I catch the morning commuter train from Trenton to Manhattan in my tired old double-vented jacket bought in a London thrift shop and watch the ass-ends of old buildings. Eventually I see the dark wall of fabled New York out the scumbled panes of the train, then blackness, then the underside of what is the most unsettling and accessible city on Earth.

Barbara Walters’s seventh‐floor office overlooks a sea of lime-green umbrellas in the pit of Rockefeller Center. Her walls are hung with photographs of Walters interviewing Lyndon Johnson, Golda Meir, Ted Kennedy, the Shah of Iran. There are framed letters of appreciation from Hubert Humphrey and from the State Department’s Dean Rusk (“If NBC vice presidents ever begin to bother you, show them this letter and others like it and tell them to leave you alone.”) but I don’t have time to look at them all because she sits smiling at a large desk, her make‐up and strawberry blond hair un-mussed after hours of work.

“Nothing is more beguiling in this age of kooks and neurotics than the sunniness of a good mood,” she wrote in her autobiography, How to Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything” which I have now read. The first sentence is: “A few years ago I found myself at lunch with Aristotle Onassis.”

I take out my notebook in which I’ve made a list of questions, a trick I learned at the Times-Picayune. But before I can ask anything Walters says, “But I want to know about you.”

Then, before I can tell her anything, she’s suggesting we postpone the article so it won’t be published when many New Yorkers will be away on vacation and might not read it. Then she suggests we talk about all this over lunch in the Promenade Cafe downstairs.

As soon as we’ve ordered, she’s talking with seeming spontaneity about an unhappy childhood and weeping discreetly into her quiche Gruyere. I begin to take notes and she says, “You don’t have to do that.” She asks that I not ask “undiplomaticquestions, then asks one herself: “Have you written a book?”

Well, yes, I say, I’ve written a novel and recently a biography of an obscure southern bigot named Leander Perez. I don’t say the advance was only three thousand dollars and did not cover the cost of writing it and has sold poorly.

“Well, will I be interviewing you some day?” she asks.

I don’t know how to answer this, but it doesn’t matter because Walters is already talking about wanting her own network television show and finally getting it in part because “people write articles about me.”

She presses her fingertips together and recalls the wearing of bobby socks and Cuban heels when she entered a New York private school, which means very little to a guy raised in Memphis. Then she’s talking of marrying right after John F. Kennedy’s assassination because she wanted nothing more than to cling to her new husband “stormily” and lead a normal life in which she would not have to rise at 4:45 every morning and could “stay up all night reading a trashy novel.”

Time’s up and I haven’t even finished lunch. We schedule another interview and I go back to Bucks.

“What happened?” Penny asks, when I walk in the door.

“I’m not sure.”

In trying to describe the day it occurs to me that Walters set the tone of our meeting, offered a version of herself, and incidentally supplied answers to questions I might have eventually asked if I had gotten the chance. In short, she knew the subject far better than I. So why not go with that and write with new purpose, making the piece work with what I’ve from learned writing fiction? Lean on the dramatic aspects of her self-narrative, reveal character through dialogue, be literary, though that word is more despised by journalists than even “bias.” In other words, take the process seriously, write to last even if the subject is ephemeral.

I think Walters will cancel the follow-up interviews, making all this moot, but I watch more of the Today Show in case she doesn’t. On screen she isn’t exactly cool, but assiduously, almost painfully tailored, persistent but not aggressive, keeping the confabulatory ball bouncing relentlessly. Life Magazine’s television critic wrote about her being “afraid of silence and flailing about in conversations as though they were trapdoors and the bottom might fall out.”

I have a few names of people in New York who know Walters and start calling them. Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, means to compliment her friend when she says, “I think there's a real cache of bitchiness lurking, but I've never seen it.” Women consider Walters their representative, Brown adds, who asks questions women would have asked, whereas others resent the fact that she’s so well‐appointed so early in the morning.

The more people I call the further professional opinion seems to shift. Judith Crist, a film and theater critic, says, “I respect Barbara mightily as a journalist and as a person,” but she doesn’t say why. Then a well‐known television personality who insists on anonymity tells me, “Barbara has the most abrasive personality on television. You're going to write another puff piece. For some reason people are terribly afraid of Barbara.”

Should I be afraid of her? Suddenly I’m interested in this rapidly moving target. Walters went to private schools in New York the many Jewish girls attended, but she still “felt out of place,” she wrote. At Sarah Lawrence she majored in French, and a schoolmate there told me Barbara learned how to “elicit things from other people, instead of talking about herself.”

Following graduation she worked for a public relations firm where, according to How to Talk with Practically Anybody About Practically Anything, “I had to plant news items and be aggressive. I hated it, but I was very good at it.” She went to Today as a writer and researcher and covered Jacqueline Kennedy’s trip to India. Then she began to appear regularly on the show with Crist, who remembers these conversations. “We said very witty, bitchy things about people. Barbara was a typical New Yorker—very quick on the uptake, and I like that. She wasn’t just another cutesy-pooh girl reporter.”                

Today's producer decided to use her as the “regular woman” on the show when she reported from Washington following Kennedy’s assassination. “She reflected intelligence and maturity. She did have a lateral lisp. The W’s came out sounding like S’s or V’s. Boris Karloff had the same thing. We sent her to remedial speech school for that and the Boston accent. She cold‐bloodedly educated herself, and eventually took over the position of the Today girl through prescience, not glamour, and survived in an essentially predatory industry.”

To my surprise I’m invited back to NBC, this time early in the morning. I catch the early train again. Walters sits gripping a styrofoam cup of coffee while being made up and having her hair arranged, and I listen to her discuss last-minute problems with the location writer and the other principals. I watch from the production room as she takes her seat behind the table just before the “bird”—NBC’s bright peacock—fades from the screen and Walters begins interviewing New York’s governor, Averell Harriman. At one point the male producer shouts, “Leave the man alone, Barbara.”

Afterward, in her office, she seems exhausted. The Today Show is, she says almost apologetically, “the only game in town. It's hard to make a place in television for a woman. If I just came into the studio every morning, I would never be chosen as the interviewer instead of a man. I have to get my own interviews. I'm not whining or bitter, feel no competition with the men—that would ruin the show. But there are certain things I have to do to maintain my position.”

A close friend of her father’s, Roy Cohn, the attorney closely associated with Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early nineteen‐fifties and later a hero of Donald Trump, gave her a copy of Cohn’s book, A Fool for a Client, which sits on a shelf in her office. Before I leave, I sneak a look at the inscription: For Chickie—who I always knew would accomplish Joe McCarthy’s dream of restoring me to daytime television.

Back on the street, I call Cohn from a phone booth on Eighth Avenue. There’s no door and my pockets are stuffed with coins, my briefcase tight under one arm, my back turned to possibly predatory passersby. I take notes on the filthy shelf under the phone, smelling urine and waiting for sirens to pass. That was freelancing in the seventies in Manhattan before cell phones.

Barbara’s a standup girl all the way,” Cohn tells me in a voice like a trowel pulled across concrete. “Very independent, but very soft. She had a mind like a steel trap. She and my mother never got along.”

He thinks Walters and Richard Nixon are “two of a kind,” a compliment in Cohn’s mind. “Both have a crisp factuality, a no‐glamour approach.” He once spent an hour on the phone with Walters at Chez Vito’s, he says, trying to get her to marry him. “She said she couldn’t marry me because she was already engaged and had already given a present to the judge.”

I go back to Bucks with more long-distance interviewing that will be covered by the Times. I can feel a story coming together that is real but as yet unrealized, a mysterious thing accumulating its own mass. I remember what Walters last said: “Militant feminists have done a lot, but they’ve also given American women a kind of national inferiority complex. There’s something unattractive about the way they spar on television.”

This gives me an idea and I call Gloria Steinem, a long shot. But she takes my call and treats the subject seriously. “Barbara’s a transitional person,” she says. “In an earlier state of consciousness she was one of the few women on television not just serving coffee… She feels she has to ask those round‐eyed, male, NBC questions because the adult world has male values.” It is the most thoughtful, substantive quote I had. It also turns out to be the most generous.

Letty Pogrebin, a founding editor of the magazine Ms., says Walters is in “an uncomfortable position as a token. The Today Show represents the general media myopia concerning women. We’re still sidebar stuff to them. She doesn’t want to bite the hand that feeds her, and I don’t blame her.”

The only people with uncomplimentary things to say about Walters who are willing to be identified are women. Audrey Maas, wife of the successful writer of nonfiction crime books, Peter Maas, says Barbara is “the rebbetsin of television,” referring to a rabbi’s wife, and journalist Nora Ephron, to marry Carl Bernstein after Watergate makes him famous, admits she didn’t want to say anything that might keep her off. the Today Show.

But then she describes Walters as “chameleon-like. At first she was anti-student and antifeminist. She was even against women wearing slacks…Today is one of the most mind‐controlling programs, and the banal patter on the show is appalling. She exercises a mock critical role. Everything is mediocritized.”

I take one more look at Walters’s book before I start to write. She once wrote that Nixon has “sex appeal—he's slim and suntanned and... well, he’s just sexy, that’s all. And I call that charming.” But my earlier questions about Nixon’s policies made her uneasy.

“I have a certain position,” she said. “If you misquote me, it could make things difficult… I think we should get right out of Vietnam. I don’t think the president has done much domestically… I don’t think we realize how deeply conservative the president is,” and she would be proved right.

Waters also defined power as “the ability to control, to direct or coerce.… Television personalities have a certain amount of power. If I thought about the power, I couldn’t sit up there on the Today Show every morning. It scares me, but I’m not going to kvetch.”

Discernible among the dropped names of How to Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything and her exchanges with me is the fact that she understands the needs and anxieties of others and is grateful her world functions in a fairly rational, unthreatening manner. If image and self are irreconcilable, success remains constant.

“It’s no fun being nobody,” she also wrote, lines that touch me personally, “not having enough money to enjoy life, being trapped. It’s wonderful to be somebody.”

My piece is accepted by the Times Magazine and my check’s in the mail. Then Walters somehow gets a copy before it’s published, an unheard-of development. She doesn’t like the piece and appeals to the editors to spike it but they refuse, this being the New York Times. After publication there’s a brief period of silence before everything hits the proverbial New York media fan.

First, I receive a typed letter emblazoned with the name Nora Ephron in bright red letters half an inch tall. “When I agreed to talk to you…I made the express condition that you not quote me without reading me the quotes.… As it turned out, you had chosen to quote none of the complimentary things I said about Walters but instead all the qualifying remarks. You violated journalistic ethics.”

I think it dishonest of her to lecture me on taste and ethics when I’ve done nothing but use her own words that were almost all uncomplimentary. New to the city’s scrum of journalists and their famous subjects, I don’t yet realize that agreeing to read a subject’s quotes back means allowing them to also edit them.

I have to respond, I’m told, and I write my own letter to the Times: “It is my contention that influential people deserve occasionally to be looked at in an unsentimental way.… A writer should undertake this task with as little regard as possible for his own flattered sensibilities and self-interest.”

I even receive a letter from a rabbi’s wife excoriating me for impugning rebbetsins by comparing them to Barbara Walters. But nothing compares to the letter Audrey Maas writes to the Times’s Sunday editor, Daniel Schwarz, claiming that my quote from her “is a complete fabrication. I have never met the man. Nor have I ever communicated with him in any way, on any subject and/or person.”

Harvey Shapiro’s been amused by the contretemps so far, but he’s amused no longer. “Jim,” he says over the phone, “you’ve got to deal with this,” the implication being that if I don’t, the New York Times Magazine and I are finished.

Fortunately, I have those phone bills with all the other receipts freelancers keep to hold off the tax man. I find the Maas phone charges from Manhattan and the complete quote in my notes: “Barbara is full of incantations, vicious facts and total humorlessness. She really does her homework, but she doesn’t have the panache.… I mean, how can someone go to China and come back and bore you? When you get a point of view, call me back and I’ll give you more.” I sent all this to Schwarz.                         

“You ought to be more careful,” I’m told by an editor at Bantam Books who wants me to write for her. I’m not exactly a nobody now but I’ve made enemies among people who are definitely somebodies and might otherwise have helped me.

I assume the New York Times Magazine, despite proof of my innocence, won’t be giving me another assignment. Then a strange thing happens: An aging Las Vegas entertainer hugs President Richard Nixon on a stage in Florida, and the next day Harvey Shapiro is calling to ask, “Jim, how would you like to profile Sammy Davis, Jr.?”