"You have neither ethics, scruples, decency or conscience!" an editor roared at Walter. "Let others have those things," the famed columnist replied. "I've got the readers."
Did he. In the 1940s his blistering column ran in more than 2,000 daily newspapers. Fifty-five million people listened to his radio show every Sunday night. Having escaped childhood poverty by way of the Vaudeville stage, he went on to star in two Hollywood films. Yes, decades before Howard Stern built an empire on dick jokes, Walter Winchell truly was the King of All Media. In his time at the top, he added to the American lexicon with a new urban slang, influenced houswewives and movie stars, chased gangsters, curried the favors of world leaders and never missed a chance to smite his many enemies - be they far-off despots or crosstown competitors. A libelous scribe with a penchant for revenge, Winchell was easily the most powerful journalist of his day, but he left the Fourth Estate a far more fetid place than when he first crashed its gates.
When Winchell first began filling his dispatches with the tawdry habits of Broadway stars, he quite literally invented the gossip column. Journalism purists wrung their hands over this latest atrocity, but the public ate it up. Almost overnight, Winchell became a household name, ruling the new Cafe Society from his swanky station at the Stork Club in New York. But Walter Winchell stayed at the table too long. In Neal Gabler's epic biography, he recounts the Godfather of Gossip's spectacular downward spiral. A workaholic who ignored his family, Winchell consider his ascendency to be a new law of nature. But the longer he hogged the spotlight, the more he revealed himself to be a petty soul and shameless demagogue. When, late in his career, he threw in with Joseph McCarthy's Communist witchhunt, even his fans deserted him. At his funeral in 1972, a single mourner attended, a daughter he'd treated with abject cruelty.
Today, Walter Winchell's legacy thrives among the pack of dirtbags chasing Britney Spears. Staffers of E!, bloggers like Perez Hilton and the stalkers of TMZ are among those still spending the bulk of his inheritance. But Walter Winchell the man is largely forgotten. In my informal survey of El OCho's denizens, only those with a little gray around the temples had any idea who he even was. This would not set well with the man who thrived on the staccato bark of his own voice. In the 30's, 40's and 50's, he wasn't just Above the Law; he was Above the News. In 2008 however, his is a cautionary tale. Other than the damage he did to the world of Journalism he proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that you can be a master communicator and still be a pompous ass. Sadly, others have practiced that tactic ever since. But unlike Winchell, I won't call them out by name. Yet.