Barbara Walters, Anchorwoman: Is the Title a Reason for Defecting to Abc?

Five days a week at 5 a.m., a luminescent clock and a radio alarm buzz simultaneously next to Barbara Walters’ king-sized bed. She washes, slips into clothes laid out the night before and breakfasts quickly on orange juice, crackers and coffee. Then, tiptoeing into the bedroom of her 7-year-old daughter, Jacqueline, she kisses the child on the forehead. Outside her Manhattan apartment, a network limousine purrs at the curb, waiting to take her eight blocks to NBC. “My dream,” Barbara sighs, “is to stay up until all hours, reading trashy novels.”

As cohost of Today, where she started as a writer 15 years ago, Walters must be on the set—after being made up and combed out—by 7 a.m The cruel schedule means a 10 p.m. bedtime. “One day I’m going to be a wonderful person,” she says, only half jokingly. “I’m going to exercise, play tennis and sleep late.”

That day is possibly not far off. This month ABC confirmed its interest in changing her topsy-turvy life. While vacationing in California, Walters, 44, met with ABC executives who offered her the coanchorship with Harry Reasoner on the network evening news show. She would be the first anchorwoman ever on national television, and the prospect intrigues her. She does not, however, want to wind up as a mere announcer of the news. “I could never just be handed a piece of paper to read,” she warns. “I don’t think Walter Cronkite does that. He’s done special interviews and investigations.”

Walters’ NBC contract, under the terms of which she earns about $500,000 a year, is up for renewal in September. Part of her publicized restlessness may be a negotiating maneuver, but by no means all. She has shown that she wants to branch out with her syndicated Not for Women Only program and appearances on news specials. She has even substituted occasionally for Johnny Carson. The Today show has slipped in ratings in recent months, but still lures 5.6 million viewers every weekday morning. Walters is a prime reason. Networks measure their stars’ “Q” rating, or likability: people either love Barbara of hate her.

As co-host, she has scored some impressive journalistic coups: a three-part interview with Kissinger, a chat with Castro (who shouted “Barbara! Barbara!” when he spotted a crowd of reporters) and Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman’s only TV appearance during his White House tour. Among the most-wanted subjects on the persistent Barbara’s list are ex-President Nixon (“I’d like him right now”) and Jacqueline Onassis. “Now that Howard Hughes is dead,” she says coolly, “that’s one less person to worry about.”

On a recent Friday she arrived on the Today set in a handsome beige skirt and rust-colored sweater. Though she had stayed up late (midnight) attending a birthday party for Betty Ford, she showed no signs of fatigue. In a self-effacing gesture during a taped segment of Today, she rested her head on the desk and mocked, “How does Barbara do it?”

Not without penalty. The twice-married Walters—her 12-month marriage to businessman Bob Katz was annulled; her 13-year marriage to theatrical producer Lee Guber ended in divorce last month—seems unable to get off the treadmill. “Now is too late to give up working and be kept,” she says. “But I wish I had the time to be more spontaneous and go to movies or dinners with pals or go on a date.” Outside the office her life revolves around her adopted daughter. This winter the two of them have seen the children’s plays in New York plus Disney World and Sea World in Florida (“A whale kissed me,” says Barbara). Though Walters goes out with industrialist John Diebold, OAS chief Alejandro Orfila and White House economist Alan Greenspan, she says, “I really don’t have time for a relationship.” She adds, “But I guess if the right person came along I’d find time.”

Wounded by references to herself as “ferociously ambitious,” Walters replies, almost in a whisper, “this isn’t so.” Vaguely frightened by her own competitiveness, she recalls thinking after hard-driving ABC-TV reporter Lisa Howard committed suicide: “This will never happen to me. Her career was her whole life. For years that was a lesson.”

Walters is a private person, and her closest friends date back to childhood. Says former high school chum Marilyn Herskovitz, a Manhattan mother of two: “We speak almost every day. It amuses me to see her on Today. When we’d have sleep-overs, I’d have to pound her to get her up before noon.”

The younger of two daughters of Lou Walters, who started the famed Latin Quarter nightclub, Barbara shuttled between Boston, Miami and New York as a child. Her memories of those years center on life in penthouses and summers in Europe. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence, Barbara dabbled in public relations. Then, unexpectedly, her father went bankrupt and later suffered a heart attack. Barbara was on her own. “In those days, I couldn’t even afford a lipstick, and I not only had to worry about supporting myself, but my parents too.”

She signed on with Today as a researcher and writer who occasionally went out with a camera crew. “I would try to get stories that nobody else could,” she says. Her overachieving paid off, and two years later she was hired as a full-time, on-air correspondent. “Today I still need work to be secure,” Barbara says. “I know it can all end.” Her parents recently wondered out loud if moving to another network was wise. “You have a good job now. Are you doing okay?”

She’s doing better than that. She has a French governess and a Jamaican housekeeper as live-in help. Her New York apartment is a tasteful mixture of Victorian and modern furniture. She owns Haitian primitive paintings and a closetful of Halstons and Adolfos. Still, Barbara Walters ponders the question: how much, and what, is enough?

In her bright yellow bedroom, Walters, her hair in a ponytail, naps while awaiting Jacqueline’s return from school. Looking through a packet of the child’s letters to her, she picks up a crayon drawing bearing the message: “When can I sleep with you? I miss you. I love mommy.” ABC will probably offer her less than half her current salary. (One reason for the difference is that she could not do commercials in the anchor job.) Still, money will not be the decisive factor if she decides to switch networks. “I’ve never known a time in my life that has been this good,” she says. “I have a beautiful child, a marvelous, funny little girl.” Then she adds, “If I took the ABC job, I wouldn’t have to wake her at 5 a.m. to say goodnight.”

Related Articles