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WINCHELL by Neal Gabler


Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity

by Neal Gabler

Pub Date: Oct. 17th, 1994
ISBN: 0-679-41751-6
Publisher: Knopf

A dauntingly complete portrait of the one of the most powerful and significant figures in American journalism. Walter Winchell was all but forgotten at his death, but he created the modern gossip column and spearheaded the rise of the culture and cult of celebrity. Gabler (An Empire of Their Own, 1988) explains that Winchell uniquely understood that gossip ``was a weapon of empowerment for the reader and listener.'' Born to a Jewish family at the turn of the century, Winchell was an unlikely candidate for national power. After a childhood of Dickensian poverty, he escaped to vaudeville and then moved into journalism. Possessor of a slang-riddled prose style all his own, he was catapulted to fame covering Broadway for the Daily Graphic, a tabloid even more sleazy than any imagined in the mind of Rupert Murdoch. From there he moved to the slightly more legit Mirror, where he gradually switched from covering the demimonde of show folk and the night-clubbing rich to pontificating on national and local politics as a staunch New Dealer. But when FDR died, Winchell began an inexorable shift to the right, eventually falling in with the most scurrilous of red-baiters. A vindictive, selfish man, he died almost forgotten by the world of the famous that he had once terrorized. Gabler tells his rise-and-fall story in almost exhausting detail, recounting Winchell's constant feuding with colleagues and subjects, his army of sycophants, and his troubled family life. The result is alternately riveting and enervating, but Gabler makes a convincing case for Winchell's central role in the transformation of mass media in the middle years of the century. Clearly, the ghost of Walter Winchell is abroad in the land at a time when the O.J. Simpson preliminary hearings merit network coverage and a Supreme Court confirmation hearing does not. Gabler's book is timely, incisive and, for the most part, a good read.