Back in Boston for a Tribute, Barbara Walters Recalls the 'Ups' and 'Downs' with Her Dad

“My father was in the Ziegfeld tradition. He lived high and died low. Few people ever really knew him—a slim, slight man who wore glasses, sat in the background and produced those beautiful shows. He was an artist.”

The deputy mayor declared it Barbara Walters Day in Boston, but the moment really belonged to her father. The Boston Center for the Arts had named a rehearsal hall after Lou Walters, the late nightclub impresario, and mounted an exhibit of nostalgic photographs and extravagant costumes worn by his showgirls. Peter Duchin’s orchestra played. Milton Berle, a perennial headliner at Lou’s Latin Quarter chain, flew in from Beverly Hills to pay tribute. Erté, who had designed many of the costumes, came from Paris at the age of 86. For Walters’ fabulously successful daughter, it was a moment to pierce the facade of cool self-control. When she first saw a large blowup photograph of her father, her eyes clouded with tears and she turned away. “I just wish he could have seen this,” she said. “He would have adored it.” (The elder Walters died last year at 80.)

Barbara’s visit to Boston, at 47, was also a homecoming; she was born there and lived in nearby Brookline as a child. Her father, a London tailor’s son, had been a vaudeville booking agent, but in the final years of that dying lively art, times were financially uncertain and touched with tragedy for the Walters family. Barbara’s older brother, Burton, died when he was 3, and her older sister, Jacqueline, was born handicapped. For Barbara, her father was both delight and trial. “His instinct was always to gamble,” she remembers. “Not just literally—he would risk anything, sure it would come out okay, and my mother would do the worrying. I was an adult at 9, too grown up as a child. Mother depended on me.”

Before Barbara was 10, Walters converted an old Boston church into a nightclub and founded the first Latin Quarter. Then, within two years, the family was off to Miami to live in a mansion while Lou opened another Latin Quarter. Finally, his most famous edition of the club brought them to Manhattan. It was during those vagabond years that Barbara got to know the stars and patrons of her father’s clubs—people like Berle and Maurice Chevalier, Howard Hughes and Joseph Kennedy Sr. (“Once, when I interviewed Rose Kennedy at Hyannis Port,” she recalls, “I was taken upstairs because Mr. Kennedy had asked to see me—not as Barbara Walters but as Lou Walters’ daughter.”) She discovered early on that “celebrities, money and fame come and go. I learned about not being in awe of anybody from seeing those stars, but I always felt that I was on the outside looking in.”

Her father was generous in prosperous years, but never imparted a sense of security. “Dad did things with enormous style,” she remembers. “He would bring us seal coats from Canada. We’d go on the swan boats in Boston. We always lived in penthouses. He gave a touch of flamboyance to our lives. I was proud of my dad, but embarrassed too when I got older because he ran nightclubs and we’d spend our holidays there.” To be sure, her father provided Barbara a tour of the Continent and a Sarah Lawrence education, but, she adds, “I wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer, just like my little girl wants me not to be famous. I suppose if we’d had a more normal life I’d be happily married living in a Boston suburb,” she reflects. “But our family was unusually close, and that helps one survive too. Even so, I always knew I’d have to support myself. Dad made and lost lots of money. I wouldn’t have done all those grubby jobs [her first, thanks to Lou’s name, was at NBC as a publicist] or worked vacations otherwise. I always felt it would be over tomorrow. And it was.”

In 1958 Lou Walters sold his interest in the Latin Quarter and started another club, the Café de Paris. When it failed, reports Barbara, “he had a sad and difficult time. Then he worked for E. M. Loew [the Latin Quarter’s owner]. It took enormous courage for him to go back as an employee,” she marvels. After her father’s retirement in 1967, she assumed full financial responsibility for her parents. When her marriage to theatrical producer Lee Gruber broke up nine years later, she took custody of her adopted daughter, Jacqueline, now 10. “My dad was unhappy that I was supporting the family,” she recalls, “and although he was proud of me, he was always afraid I’d lose my job.” She remembers wryly the flap that followed her switch to ABC—”that godawful thing about my celebrated salary. Dad was disturbed because he thought his little girl got hurt.” As for the $1 million a year, Barbara has no regrets. “I feel a sense of security with it,” she explains. “I have my mother, my sister and a child to take care of, and I don’t believe in alimony.”

Would she now, at long last, consider writing a book about herself and her family? “No,” she says. “We had such very high ups and very low downs. It would be too unhappy and personal.” Then she relaxes with an eloquent shrug. “But I wouldn’t be me if I hadn’t had my parents. It was my life, and it produced my drive, my insecurity—and the good things.”

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