Editors Note: We're blogging through We Didn't Start the Fire by Billy Joel.
Walter Winchell was born in April 7, 1897 to a poor New York Jewish family. He dropped out of school in 6th grade and began working with a vaudeville troupe. Winchell slowly moved on to a journalism career after his posts hung on backstage boards caught the attention of a small newspaper.
Winchell’s writing style was unique for the time and he quickly moved on to bigger papers and larger audiences until his gossip New York Daily Mirror syndicated column, On-Broadway, was printed in nearly 2,000 papers. In addition to writing the popular column, Winchell had a radio show from 1932 - 1950s. Between the two media forms, Winchell was able to spread his Broadway gossip, political opinions, and anything else he chose to share.
Gossip is the art of saying nothing in a way that leaves practically nothing unsaid.
The words written in Winchell’s column could make or break a Broadway show or performer. To protect himself from legal action for slanderous or libelous comments, Winchell created his own slang language to spread his gossip. Recognize any of these?
- Making Whoopee
He had several terms for “dating,” marrying, and divorcing couples. If a couple was about to have a baby, WInchell said the couple was infanticipating. In addition to his Broadway gossip slang, Winchell created phrases and words to share his political opinions, words like Ratzis - his term for Nazis. (Winchell was one of the first American commentator to attack Adolph Hitler.)
I usually get my stuff from people who promised somebody else that they would keep it a secret.
Winchell’s gossip radio show peaked at about 50,000 listeners. He bested other radio shows, including Jack Benny. Winchell’s gossip and opinions were delivered in a face-paced (>175 words per minute), staccato manner, often accompanied by the tap of a telegraph key.
In 1959, he narrated the television series, The Untouchables for 4 seasons.
Winchell’s popularity began to waver as followers realized he was trying to destroy personal and political careers (especially after World War II). His personal life was taking a beating, as well. He was married and divorced three times. Two of his children died—his adopted daughter died of pneumonia at age 9 and his son committed suicide—and he and a daughter were estranged.
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Walter Winchell spent his final two years as a recluse in a hotel. Larry King said this about Winchell:
He was so sad. You know what Winchell was doing at the end? Typing out mimeographed sheets with his column, handing them out on the corner. That’s how sad he got. When he died, only one person came to his funeral: his daughter.
Winchell died of prostate cancer in 1972. In spite of his sad final years, and many years that included nasty gossip, Winchell’s style and popularity in his earlier years earned him a place in the Radio Hall of Fame (he was inducted in 2004).
It’s interesting to me that I’d never heard of this man before really analyzing this song. He is the forefather of today’s gossip newspaper/magazine/internet “columns” and radio/television/broadway shows. He talked with the mob, the president (FDR), the performers, and the common people of his day. Do you think he’d be proud of today’s gossip “reporters”—Barbara Walters, Inside Edition, or OMG! Yahoo?
For more info about Walter Winchell, check out these resources: