How Barbara Walters Went From ‘Today Girl’ to Pioneering Media Star

Long before she became the first woman to co-anchor a network newscast and the foremost prime-time interviewer of heads of state and Hollywood stars, Barbara Walters understood the power of television.

When she was a teenager in New York City, she saw that TV provided an escape for her cognitively disabled sister, who spent hours watching “I Love Lucy” and “Texaco Star Theater.” And it wasn’t lost on her how her father’s nightclub business fell off in part because of television’s ability to keep people in their living rooms at night, rather than out on the town.

Ms. Walters, who died on Friday at age 93, had spent more than five decades in front of the camera and become a titan of the medium: lauded for the subjects she scored, criticized for her coziness with them, even memed for how she presented herself.

But when she started out, the industry was against her. Men did the hiring. Men decided what went on the air. Men delivered the news.

She wrote in her 2008 memoir, “Audition,” that it was her legs, not her skills, that persuaded the head of a small Manhattan advertising agency to give her a job soon after she graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in the early 1950s. She quit when her boss “became overly amorous,” as she described it. She went on to find low-level jobs at NBC and CBS.

In 1961, she joined NBC’s “Today” show as a writer, researcher and occasional correspondent. When she went before the camera, it was in the guise of what was then called a “Today Girl.” She reported on Paris Fashion Week and dressed up in a Playboy Bunny costume — but soon began seeking out grittier topics and more independence.

Gloria Steinem took notice of Ms. Walters in a 1965 article for The New York Times (headline: “Nylons in the Newsroom”) on the rise of women in television news, singling her out among a group of pioneering correspondents and producers that also included Nancy Dickerson and Pauline Frederick.

“Miss Walters not only appears on camera but writes her own scripts, and researches, directs and edits her own filmed reports,” Ms. Steinem wrote.

Ms. Walters on “The Today Show” in 1969.Credit…NBC

In 1971, she took over the NBC talk show “For Women Only.” She changed the name to “Not for Women Only” and turned it into a syndicated success that prefigured later daytime discussion shows hosted by Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey. The next year she was among the cadre of TV correspondents, including Dan Rather of CBS and Ted Koppel of ABC, accompanying President Richard M. Nixon on his trip to China.

At the same time, she was working, unofficially, as the “Today” show’s first female co-host. The network did not allow her to direct questions at on-set guests until her male co-host had asked three of his own, a restriction she bypassed by seeking out interviews away from the show’s studio at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The constraints were lifted in 1974, when NBC formally gave her the title of co-host.

“People may have loved her or hated her, but they sure as hell watched her,” Stuart Schulberg, a “Today” producer, told The Times in 1977.

ABC lured her from NBC in 1976, making her the first female co-anchor of a network evening news program. She was paid a $1 million annual salary, more than any other newscaster at the time. But her stint on ABC Evening News was “a total flop,” she later said.

Her counterpart, Harry Reasoner, “was really awful to me on and off the air,” she told Vogue, though he later said he never disliked her personally. “The studio was cold and I was frozen out,” she once said, describing how she had to rely on her knowledge of the New York Yankees to convince the stagehands to talk to her. She described being so visibly miserable that the actor John Wayne, not known as a staunch feminist, sent her a telegram to cheer her up.

In 1979, Ms. Walters joined the prime-time ABC News magazine “20/20,” where she stayed for 25 years and developed a reputation for persuading public figures to speak to her before anyone else. In 1995, she was the first to interview the actor Christopher Reeve after he was paralyzed in a horseback-riding accident. In 1999, her interview with Monica Lewinsky, another first, drew about 50 million viewers.

Ms. Walters also helped create the influential ABC daytime talk show “The View” in 1997, overseeing what The Times called “TV’s most dysfunctional family” with a panel of women that has included Star Jones, Meredith Vieira, Lisa Ling, Whoopi Goldberg and Rosie O’Donnell. She was 67 when it began.

Her career became a guidepost to several generations of journalists, many of them women, including Jane Pauley, Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill. Norah O’Donnell, the “CBS Evening News” and “60 Minutes” journalist, said she used to playact as Ms. Walters.

Oprah Winfrey, left, appeared on Ms. Walters’s final appearance on “The View” in 2014. Sherri Shepherd, a co-host of the show, looks on.Credit…Ida Mae Astute/ABC

When Ms. Walters retired in 2014, dozens of female media luminaries — including Oprah Winfrey, Robin Roberts, Connie Chung, Maria Shriver and Diane Sawyer — turned up at her final taping of “The View.”

“I didn’t start out waving a banner and saying, ‘I’m going to change things for women,’” she said in a program for her 1989 induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. “But I think my work, my example, and some of the struggles I went through — and some of the terrible, terrible criticisms aimed at me — did change how women are perceived on television.”

Katie Couric, a longtime competitor of Ms. Walters’s, put it more bluntly to Vanity Fair: “She rattled a lot of cages before women were even allowed into the zoo.”

Ms. Walters developed an interviewing approach that combined charm and ferocity, setting her apart from men like Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley, who ruled television news early in her career.

“Newsier than other entertainment reporters, and more showbiz than other news reporters,” she became “an inescapable, if easily parodied, national monument,” according to The New Yorker.

She played basketball with Shaquille O’Neal for 24 seconds. Hugh Jackman gave her a lap dance. During a 1977 interview with the Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro, Ms. Walters sat in his open Jeep holding his revolver as well as candy for him to pass out to children during the drive, and later dined on grilled cheese sandwiches that he prepared at 1 a.m. in his kitchen.

Ms. Walters interviewing the Cuban president Fidel Castro in 1977.Credit…ABC

Sometimes, Ms. Walters spent years courting potential guests with handwritten notes. She was fond of asking personal questions, often about a subject’s childhood, and somewhat reluctantly became known for bringing her subjects to tears. Her first autobiography, published in 1970, was called “How to Talk with Practically Anybody about Practically Anything.”

This could include the kind of incisive foreign policy questions that she posed to every sitting president and first lady from Richard and Pat Nixon on. Or, she might dig for gossip, wanting to know about Barbra Streisand’s face (“Why didn’t you have your nose fixed?”) and Ricky Martin’s sexuality (“You could say, as many artists have, yes I am gay, or you could say, no I’m not.”).

She later said she regretted using the 2000 interview to pressure Mr. Martin, who did not come out until 2010 and told People magazine in 2021 that the exchange with Ms. Walters left him with “a little P.T.S.D.”

In a field studded with big personalities, Ms. Walters was idiosyncratic. Jane Fonda and Stockard Channing played film characters modeled after her. On “Saturday Night Live,” Gilda Radner mocked Ms. Walters’ voice, which Vogue characterized as “a distinctive Boston bleat at once flat, hoarse and nasal.”

She once joked that her own name was too difficult for her to say, with its “r’s” and “l,” and that she should have been named Diane Sawyer instead.

She became the subject of aMadame Tussauds wax figure. Her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was placed on the sidewalk outside the theater used for the Academy Awards, between the stars for the television host Ryan Seacrest and the pop group Destiny’s Child — a “strange alignment” that Ms. Walters claimed “makes me hip and hot.”

But while celebrity came to define her, it did not seem to faze her.

Famous people moved frequently through her childhood, courtesy of her father, Lou Walters, an immigrant from England who she described as a “brilliant and mercurial impresario” who “made and lost several fortunes in show business.”

He catered to customers like the Hollywood billionaire Howard Hughes and the Kennedy family patriarch Joseph Kennedy, and worked with stars like Evelyn Nesbit, Frank Sinatra and Carol Channing. Ms. Walters wrote that when she saw them offstage and up close, she came to realize that “behind these fantasy figures were real people.”

But more than most other reporters, her relationships with well-known people extended into her personal life.

Ms. Walters’s paramours included multiple senators and the eventual Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. She went on a few dates and remained longtime friends with the Fox News chief executive Roger Ailes. She set off a backlash in 2014 when she defended the director Woody Allen, another friend, after his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow accused him of sexually assaulting her as a child.

Moving in the highest levels of power also opened Ms. Walters to questions about her snug relationships with sources. In 1987, she passed documents from Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian arms merchant she had interviewed for “20/20,” to the White House — a move met with outrage by much of the journalism community. In 1996, Ms. Walters interviewed the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber for “20/20,” but did not reveal that she had invested $100,000 in the production of his musical “Sunset Boulevard” on Broadway. ABC News admonished her about the oversight.

“It won’t happen again,” she said in a statement.

She was also criticized for what many saw as softball questions and overly rosy portrayals. In 2011, Ms. Walters described the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who had spent years violently crushing dissent, as having been “widely seen as a fresh pragmatic leader, a doctor whose life was in healing people,” before grilling him about his time spent as “a dictator and a tyrant.”

Later, Ms. Walters apologized for trying to help one of Mr. Assad’s aides, who had played a part in arranging the interview, seek an internship with CNN and entry into a Columbia University graduate program.

She told Vogue that while she could be opinionated on a wide range of issues, “you do not know what party I might vote for, or what candidate I like, whether I am pro-life or pro-choice, because essentially I work for the news department.”

Although she claimed to “hate grossness and toughness,” she told The Times in 1972 that she would “step on someone’s sensibilities if the interview demands it.”

While teaching an interviewing master class in 2015 at her alma mater, she instructed the group that female reporters “should do their job,” adding: “Don’t be pleasant. Don’t be fun. Be a journalist.”

Related Articles

Back to top button